Of Metaphor, Imagination, and Shrines

Over the last week I have continued to think about the ways that Zen philosophy, particularly as expressed through the “dry landscape” or karesansui garden, can enrich my own spiritual practice. I am struck and delighted by the heavy involvement of metaphor and symbol, which serve a meditative purpose in Zen gardens. Not all Zen gardens are “dry” rock gardens — some include pools of water or tiny waterfalls — but especially in the dry garden, the use of symbolic representation reigns supreme. The structure of Japanese gardens is not intended to replicate nature with pure realism, but to create a self-contained, imaginary world where the components of the garden represent things beyond themselves. A rock or compilation of rocks can stand for a mountain, an island on the sea, or an outcropping on that sea; alternatively it could symbolize a stone in a river. A bushy or round plant can represent a mountain or a green hill, and even one tall, slender, or leafy plant can symbolize an entire forest. An assortment of plants close together can form the backdrop of a metaphorical landscape, creating the impression of distant hills and forests.Rock garden

In a karesansui, the water of the “sea,” “lake,” or “river” is represented by gravel, and can either seem like a still pool, or be stylistically raked or arranged to evoke thoughts of water’s movement. Gravel can easily represent a vast, active ocean; for this effect the garden’s size need not be large at all, since the world of the garden is not realistic reproduction but imagination. The scale of the garden’s interrelated contents is more instrumental in creating the desired impression than the size of the garden itself. In my own dry garden, the light gravel represents the sea, the flat stones are low islands on the sea, and the black hematite formations are taller “rocky outcroppings” standing above the water. The plants form a backdrop landscape. They could communicate mountains and forests; or perhaps their juxtaposition with the rocks could simply suggest a desert landscape, with no water imagined at all. These gardens have such a heavy use of imaginative representation in order to give the mind a dedicated, free space in which to think about the world-scape that the garden stands for. This is a meditative act that feeds the mind.

All of this leads me to think about a few ways that American Christian worship could, in my view, renew itself. In Japan the landscape is dotted with small shrines, to which individuals may go for a few minutes on their own time to light incense, say a prayer, meditate, or simply feel in communion with that which is beyond oneself. The Catholic and Orthodox areas of Europe are also rich with shrines, as is Latin America; many of these involve saints as avenues to the worship of God. Protestantism, however, which represents just under one-half of United States religious practice, is lacking this, since Protestant theology resists such small shrines either outdoors or in the private home. Therefore, what Christian shrines America does have tend to be Catholic (and Orthodox to a lesser extent, since there are far more American Catholics than American Orthodox). These are very attractive in a spiritual sense, and this is true whether such shrines are public or private. It is a personal, active, “anytime” experience to visit a shrine.

These are a few thoughts from one who takes delight from a rock garden, from lighting candles, and from being in a place and hearing nothing but the wind and the birds outside.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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*For an excellent and readable resource on Zen gardens, see Zen Gardens by Erik Borja.

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