Sunday, December 4, 2016

Weekend Walkabout: Zen Gardens, Part II

Alert Gardener Andrew is posting on gardens and Zen, and Zen Gardens, today!
Accompanying his post are photos I recently took at the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Florida.

Zen Gardens Part II:
I have seen this expression used in reference to different groups, but it is certainly true of Zen adepts: you ask two of them about something (unless it’s a fairly narrow and settled doctrinal matter—although, even then…) and you’ll get three opinions. This would certainly apply to the question of what it means to approach gardening in the spirit of Zen.

Some would undoubtedly talk about not getting too attached to the final results, staying in the flow, accepting change, and expecting the unexpected. Good points (albeit beaten half to death), but I’ve learned from experience that one must be careful with the concept of non-attachment—without long and deep meditation practice, it is too easily confused with not caring; and accepting change gets swapped for an extreme version of “stiff upper lip” stoicism.

When you see several years of your labor destroyed by a hurricane, you feel upset—you don’t stop there, you start rebuilding—but trying to shrug off your very natural grief because “everything is empty” or any other such undigested Zen bit, is not recommended.

Others would talk about discipline and commitment, about approaching the gardening time with the same seriousness and concentration as you would approach any other practice. Also good, but watch out for that seriousness and focus turning into self-righteous rigid prissiness!

Still others will talk about peace, which, in the case of gardening, seems a bit redundant. I haven’t met many gardeners who would be uprooting weeds like waging a war or look at some healthy, thriving plants, and break out into an MMA* or WWF* victory dance, complete with shouts of “take that!” I mean, one could imagine a scenario for each of these occurrences (that’s what imagination is for), but really….

So, anyway, we could be playing this game much longer, but let me just fast-forward to the conclusion, which is my very personal two cents on what it means to approach gardening in the spirit of Zen.

Cent number one: plants are sentient beings. Oh, come on, put down the phone, there is no need for “nice young people in their clean white coats.” It is a different kind of sentience, and I don’t have much truck with some of the New Age types who will literally talk to the flowers and hug the trees and effuse about communing with nature (actually, many of those who are most prone to such proclamations are urban to the core, with no real experience of gardening or agriculture). But sentient, the plants are. So, for me, gardening “while in Zen” would definitely include listening to your plants, trying to understand what they want, being aware of their moods, being open to the feeling of mutual energy exchange—not necessarily highfalutin' “communing” or exaltation,  but routine day-to-day communication and the sensation of mutual dependence and gratitude.

May all sentient beings be free from suffering. May all sentient beings achieve happiness.

Cent number two: Zen is very tightly intertwined with a specific type of aesthetics, characterized by spareness, austerity, incompleteness, contrast (almost contradictoriness), the feeling of space, a certain melancholy, and raw, wild refinement.

The actual Japanese gravel Zen gardens are consciously designed to embody those features, but many of these elements are scattered around in all kinds of gardens, including a single indoor plant. Much is in the eye of the beholder. From the Zen perspective, this aesthetic is not random or valuable for its own sake. It is there to dislodge the observer from the auto-pilot of daily routine, to bring him or her to the unique moment that is now, while evoking the acute feeling of the transitory in that moment—and its boundlessness. I most recently encountered this sensibility, in abundance, in a book on…New Orleans gardens! 

Of course, like all aesthetic judgments, this one may be disputed, but the point is—take a look. Go ahead, pause and take a look. It may so happen that from this particular angle in your chair, the shape, the color, the velvety texture of that African violet combines and contrasts just so with the sleek, cool, metal whiteness of the table lamp—and there you are, having a Zen moment.

Gesundheit, and happy gardening!

*Mixed martial arts and World Wrestling Federation, for all of you with no taste for theatricalized aggression!

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