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.

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