Friday, August 7, 2015

Inner and outer meaning in Zen Gardens, part IV—Christian analogies

Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

The connection between the expression of the inner and the outer in Zen gardens and Christian practice is perhaps far from obvious, until one understands perspectives on body and emotion in the two practices.

As was suggested in earlier posts, in Zen practice the Dharma Hall and the garden are construed to represent body and feeling, two elements missing from mind — which is what dominates us. Zen practice itself is an effort to cause the ordinary intellect — mind — to become what is missing, so as to make room for body and feeling. There is, in other words, an effort to transcend the intellectual interpretation of the world so that body and emotion can assist in the three-centered understanding of being.

Christian practice of communion is a reminder of the same problem; and Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart would have well understood the juxtaposition and the aim created by Zen gardens and Dharma halls. Christian monasteries, after all, created comparable Spartan interior environments with equally exuberant, if quite different, grounds and gardens. But the point of the practice was not the analogy, but rather the higher influence of the Holy Spirit, which enters through Christ's body and blood. 

In the case of Christian practice, the wafer represents the body — a necessary and vital physical connection with God — and the blood represents the emotions, Christ's passion, that is, a feeling connection to one's being. So one might say that Holy Communion recognizes—as does Zen—that what is lacking in human beings is a physical and a feeling understanding of the world. These are considered to be divine qualities in Christianity; and although Zen and Buddhism eschew divine references, the understanding for the need of balanced experience, which they refer to as enlightenment, are not in essence different from the Christian understanding. 

In Christianity, the fact that one reaches towards assistance from Christ in the receiving of the body and blood is an acknowledgment of our helplessness. The idea is that a new impression can enter us to help; and Zen gardens are constructed to present a similar possibility (the emptying of the mind is, in its own way, an acknowledgment of helplessness) in order to balance Being.

There are, of course, significant differences, in that Christianity presumes a material mediation through the administration of the sacrament. This presents a concrete vehicle for transformation and an opening to new impressions; whereas Buddhism does not, at least on the surface, contain a precisely analogous ritual. Yet both of them present us with the esoteric idea that an awakening of the body and an awakening of the feeling become possible through an emptying of the mind; the Zen garden is an exemplary external representation of this concept, written in a subtle underlying symbolism that is easy to miss in our rush to enjoy the beauty. 

There is an irony in this, of course; in our rush to discover a new way of feeling, we fall into a reactionary and habitual type of feeling when we see the garden. 

The same pitfall awaits the Christian who attaches themselves to the form of the religion — the ritual elegance and artistic expression accompanying the practice. The lesson is the same for both practices: form begins as a path towards balanced being, and ends as a distraction from it. Only the physical anchor of the monastery and the Dharma Hall can pull us back from this habitual reaction into a contemplative mode, where we recognize the need for emptiness. 

This prepares us to receive the very mystical and remarkable message conveyed by an openness to feeling, uncontaminated by the habits and opinions of our ordinary selves.


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