Just like martial arts, tea ceremony, or calligraphy, gardens—Zen gardens, to be precise—can provide a curious enquirer with a perfect starting point and a complete lens through which to investigate the most fascinating intersection between Japanese culture and Buddhism.
|Incense Buddha, MRobb|
And, for a gardener eager to broaden his or her horizons and to try something new and different, Zen gardens can provide a fresh practical challenge—and what a challenge it is, indeed!
The first thing one will notice, after simply typing “Zen gardens” into the Amazon book search, is the overwhelming amount of available information.
The most cursory examination will reveal that, far from being a unified and well-defined phenomenon, the concept of a “Zen garden” presents a thick palimpsest of natural, historical, and cultural influences, and covers, in fact, a wide variety of specific designs.
|Bamboo Stump, MRobb|
A few more clicks and we learn that some of the main sources of the Zen garden are: the unique features of Japanese geography, the indigenous Japanese religion of Shinto, classical Chinese influences, including the art of geomancy (Feng Shui), and, eponymously, Zen Buddhism.
|Garden Buddha, MRobb, 2016|
Browsing for a few more minutes, we easily identify a cluster of keywords describing the intended spiritual and emotional effects Zen gardens are meant to have on both those who create and tend them and those who enjoy them as visitors and viewers: tranquility, simplicity, harmony (all these used in one title!), balance, rest, openness, serenity, peacefulness, gentleness, meditation, contemplation, spontaneity, authenticity, earthiness…
Oy, this avalanche of high expectations is making me anxious!
Not to fear—the venerable strategic principle known as “divide and conquer,” coupled with some mindful breathing, should enable us to cope with even such a monumental task as making sense of Zen gardens!
First of all, a gardener can aspire to one of the three distinct goals: to create an authentic Zen garden (on a scale from micro to whatever is made possible by the confluence of one’s ambitions and resources); to incorporate some of the elements or, at one further remove, underlying principles from Zen gardens and the larger field of Japanese aesthetics into whatever garden one happens to be working on already; and to approach the task of gardening itself, even if its object is currently limited to a single potted plant on one’s windowsill, in the spirit of Zen.
|Morikami Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach, Florida (Photo MRobb)|
Obviously, the borders between these three goals are highly permeable, and any two or all three can be pursued together—but, for discussion purposes, I will stick to this division, working backwards—thus, my next post will address the third goal and attempt to offer some answers to the question, “What can it mean, to approach gardening in the spirit of Zen?”