Minimalism : Zen Garden Nov03

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Minimalism : Zen Garden

Japan Adventures (13) : The Zen in Zen Gardens?

Ryoanji-ZenGarden4.gifOne of the reasons that urged me to return to Japan after many years was because I distinctly remember being impressed by its wonderful Buddhist temples and their attached gardens. There is a quiet charm in the gardens there, even in non-Zen temples, that is hard to define fully. There is a great sense of ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place’ – even though this is so in an abstract ‘Ikebana’ way, that spills over beyond ‘flower arrangement’. By the way, though Ikebana is for creative expression, it abides by certain rules. Well, if not, it wouldn’t be Ikebana; it could be anything else then. Art is defined while not defined, or it would cease to thrive. I was wondering why only gardens in Japan have the ‘Zen-nish’ quality. How is it that even the moss grows in an aesthetically pleasing manner? Was it the natural ‘karma’ of Japan that the gardens there turn out this way? Just when I thought this must be so, I caught some gardeners painstakingly tending to what I had assumed to be randomly growing moss! It looks like a huge ongoing eye-squinting job! It became hard to tell which parts of the gardens were totally natural and which part deliberately tailored to look so. Paradoxically, it is the Japanese eye for detail (of forms and neatness) that popularised the art of minimalism. It is somewhat ironic, that even in Zen temples that advocate the ideal of non-attachment to forms, there seems to be subtle attachment to forms. Even if it’s material minimalism, the ensuring that it is adhered to can become an attachment. As such, it struck me that the ‘Zen-niest’of gardens might not be Zen gardens per se, but the untamed forest ‘gardens’ in which early Buddhist monks wander within to live and practise the Dharma. That these ‘gardens’ are not even seen as gardens, they have got to be the most natural living environment, with no need to actively tend to, though there is respect for it. In this sense forest-dwelling monks might live a more minimal life!

That said, I still greatly appreciate Japanese temple gardens – with their rocks and sand, trees and moss, streams and pathways… The detailed tending of the gardens can also be seen as a skilful means to attract visitors, so as to interest them in the Dharma. The gardening is also a form of routine discipline. In a Tendai temple (Enrakuji’s Jodo-in), it was described that one of the daily ‘hells’ the trainee monks there go through is to tend the garden’s fallen leaves! It’s a test of ‘just doing it’, of mindfulness, patience and diligence. This reminds me of a famous Zen story…

Once, a monk was tending a famous Zen temple’s garden to prepare for the visit of some special guests. He trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss and raked the fallen leaves… An old Zen master living next door looked on while he worked. When the gardening was done, the young monk remarked, ‘Isn’t this perfect?’ ‘Almost!’ the master replied, as he went to the tree in the centre of the garden and shook it, littering leaves all over. ‘There!’ This deceivingly simple story raises many good questions for reflection…

1. What is more natural – nature itself or natural human diligence (which tends to nature)?
2. Is it natural to try to tame nature?
3. Is nature itself already complete and perfect?
4. Is perfection also the acceptance of imperfection?
5. Which is more contrived – accepting imperfection or restoring it?
6. Which is more contrived – letting nature take its own course or insisting it to?
7. Which is more contrived – trying to create perfection or to maintain imperfection?
8. Why do we make the effort to change things if the changed might change?
9. Should we change something ‘natural’ just to impress someone ‘unnaturally’?
10. Is the perfected state being ready for sudden imperfection to strike?
11. Was the young monk tending the garden or his mind?
12. Was the old monk messing up the garden or tending the young monk’s mind?
13. Which is more important – accepting change or creating change?
14. When should we let nature take its own course and when should we not?

More reactions to the story: http://www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/zenstory/nature.html
More on Ikebana: http://www.ikebanahq.org
More on Zen gardens: http://learn.bowdoin.edu/japanesegardens

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