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

__________________

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

Two Streams of Water

A few days ago, I set up the Japanese rock garden (or Zen garden), also known as dry garden (karesansui) that I mentioned in my last post. Here you will see two small pictures; each represents a different iteration of the rock garden. I ultimately settled on what is represented in the second picture, after having for a while what is represented in the first picture. Both are valid examples of how a rock garden can be arranged. The light gravel, raked to represent the rippling effect of water, represents the ocean; the large rocks stand for large islands rising from the sea; the background represents the land. The red rocks in the first picture indicate land, while the cacti and aloe represent various flora.

This morning I sat down on the couch with my coffee in front of it, watching the gold of the morning sun’s rays flood the window, listening to the scores of birds that arrive around our house every spring morning. These birds, in these quantities, are here for spring and summer only, so their presence is temporary. And the side of the house that harbors this window gets that strong sunlight only in the early morning, so the presence of those exuberant rays is even more temporary — at least until the next morning, provided it is a sunny one. The temporary nature of both the flocking birds and the full sunlight means that if they are not enjoyed now, in the very moment, you miss them. There is no taking them for granted.

Knowing this, I decided I would do nothing but sit in my spot, drink my coffee, and look at my karesansui and the trees outside my window. It was surprisingly difficult just to sit there and do that and nothing else — even with my knowledge that that full sunlight was very fleeting, and the flocking birds at their morning feeding almost equally so.

It occurred to me as I looked at my garden that that is one of the core lessons of Zen philosophy, core lessons of which I had hoped to remind myself by building the garden in the first place. Mindfulness, awareness, appreciation. Mindfulness is the act of being “mindful” of whatever it is you are doing, of truly living in the moment by paying attention to that moment rather than rushing past it. Driving somewhere, for example; enjoy the drive itself rather than merely trying to rush to your destination as expediently as possible. That drive is part of your life that you will never get back: enjoy it as much as you can. Or even if it is something we don’t think of ourselves as relishing — such as doing dishes, which is a famous example for this philosophy — we can savor our lives that much more if we simply focus our minds on the very thing we are doing. This in itself is a meditative act that creates both peace and enhanced enjoyment of life with hardly any effort at all. How often do we whittle our lives away by not living in each moment, by rushing ahead, by constantly thinking of something else? By constantly feeling — even in the times when it is not necessary — that we need to be doing something, to be distracted, to be “busy.”

Though I am a Christian, I keep a marble-dust representation of the Buddha near my rock garden  — not because I revere the Buddha in any extraordinary way, but to remind me of some of the more salient and helpful aspects of that philosophy, which are really not incompatible with Christianity. Mindfulness. Acceptance. Compassion. Living in the very present. Appreciating small, everyday things as the fundamental things of life. Creating and maintaining a peaceful, uncluttered space for the mind. Training one’s mind to be calm at its core even in the face of adversity. Living honorably and with integrity, creating no intentional harm against others, keeping Love and Compassion as one’s highest aims. All of these things Christianity and Buddhism can share in common, but only some of these do Christians actively emphasize on a regular basis. I contend that Christians could benefit in their own practice by more actively stressing some of those tenets of Buddhist philosophy discussed above. Zen practice, in particular, is especially adaptable for Christians.

Two representative aphorisms from the Dhammapada, the foundational Buddhist text, illustrate such confluence very well:

“In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the Law, ancient and inexhaustible.”

“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them? Are you a shepherd who counts another man’s sheep, never sharing the way? Read as few words as you like and speak fewer. But act upon the Law. Give up the old ways — passion, enmity, folly. Know the truth and find peace. Share the way.”

And what reader of the Bible would not recognize the similarity of this aphorism to the style and content of Proverbs?

“Speak or act with an impure mind, and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.”

The lifting of a few quotes from an entire work cannot possibly encapsulate the whole, and that’s not my intention. This is as true of the Bible as it is of the Dhammapada. But it can illustrate that two distinct streams of water, remaining distinct, can still flow down the mountain in tandem with one another.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Tangibility of the Intangible

This week I plan on crafting a miniature, indoor Japanese rock garden (karesansui) in a low wooden or bamboo box, to be placed on our bow window. A Japanese rock garden is sometimes also called a Zen dry garden due to its deep connection with Zen Buddhism. A rock garden, or karesansui, is a “dry landscape” garden; it employs no actual water, but the rocks, moss, and small shrubs that can constitute the garden are often arranged in a way that evokes thoughts of streams, mountains, hills, and even forests. Despite the fact that the arrangement of stones and small plants can create the illusion of water, a primary characteristic of these gardens is their sense of stillness.

My husband is an aficionado of Japanese culture; I am glad for this, because if he were not, I would never have been introduced to the robust appreciation of clean-lined tranquility that is Japanese aesthetics. Walk into any classically Japanese structure, such as a traditionally-appointed Japanese restaurant, and your mind will feel almost instantly at ease. The aesthetic usually involves light neutral color tones, tastefully limited and unobtrusive decor, and stunningly clean lines for everything. The absence of clutter, of haphazardness, of “too much” is felt immediately in the calming effect such an aesthetic has on the mind. With one’s space so calm, smooth and free-flowing, so uncluttered, how can one feel tense? It is as if when the body enters such an open space physically, the mind also enters an open space — one that does not impose upon it but rather invites it to relax in freedom.

This clean and simple aesthetic is also very conducive to thinking and to meditating, for obvious reasons. The same holds true for the rock garden. Its smoothness and stillness, punctuated by just the right amount of components, put our minds at ease and elevate them somehow. Something in the nature of these tangible things, of that tangible space, allows us to make contact with something intangible in which our minds delight. This is true not just of structures and spaces, of course. Jewelry has been around for thousands of years, as we know quite well not only from things like ancient Egyptian murals, but also from ancient jewelry itself, lifted from the ground by archaeologists or treasure hunters.

Many of us feel emotional connections to some of our jewelry; many of us wear certain articles because the design or the material makes us think of something, or is a symbol of something important to us. This is especially true of religious or spiritually-oriented jewelry. How many of us wear Stars of David, mezuzah pendants, crosses, crucifixes, Buddha pendants, yin/yang circles, Qur’an pendants, or even mineral rocks from the earth, because their tangibility links us to the intangible things they represent?

The same is true for other physical art — the David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, St. Peter’s basilica (all right, I’m betraying a Michelangelo bias here), Buddhist temples, Monet’s paintings, the intricate aniconic designs of Muslim art, the bimah of Jewish synagogues. The rich statuary of most Catholic churches reflects the Catholic theology that it is not to the statue that a worshiper prays, and it is not the statue that has any power: the statue is a tangible symbol of the spiritual figure it represents.

The ancient world too, as I mentioned in another post, was rich with statues and figurines of the gods and various other religious artifacts. In ancient Mesopotamia, the statues of the gods were their physical vectors on Earth; when a statue was created and commissioned, its inauguration consisted of the ceremonies mish pi and pit pi — “washing of the mouth” and “opening of the mouth.” When these ceremonies were complete, the deity’s physical representation became formal and suitable for that deity.

All of these things, I think, are examples of the inextricable link between the tangible and the intangible. The tangibility of the Zen rock garden or the Japanese room, or some element within nature, directs our minds to something intangible and produces a feeling or a state of being. The tangibility of personal jewelry — which we often touch or hold in a moment of worry or gratitude or even just contemplation — connects us to the intangibility of what it represents. The tangibility of physical art — whether painted, drawn, sculpted, constructed, or written — touches us on a deep level, and can even transport us to some other world or some larger awareness. The tangibility of a religious statue serves as a vector for the reality beyond. For those of us who believe in an intangible soul that survives the body, the body is the tangible home of that soul in this world.

The tangible and the intangible of this cosmos, while so often thought of as separate and fundamentally different, in fact seem linked in deep and inextricable ways. I will think of this as I look at my Zen rock garden this week, and allow its tangible nature to point my mind to the intangible peace it represents.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010