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A Precious hour in a Japanese Zen Garden

                                                              By Diana McLeod                                                      2011

      A Japanese garden is a thing of beauty. The Japanese have a special reverence for nature, and they express it eloquently using timeless garden landscapes. Every aspect of nature is artfully explored, from trees to flowering plants; from ponds to tiny waterfalls. Most temples have elaborate gardens built onto their grounds, and the gardens themselves are used as outdoor chapels for meditation and contemplation.

      The Zen garden is extra special, because many Zen Masters use gardens as a metaphor for the soul’s journey towards enlightenment. The garden becomes a teaching, communicating the Master’s messages to us. Even though he may have lived several hundred years ago, he can still talk to us through the careful placement of the ponds, and the paths through the bamboo groves, while he invites us to discover for ourselves the significance of the upraised boulders and artful groupings of stones. Sometimes, the Master speaks using the language of fields of raked gravel. The seemingly harsh patterns of ridged stone are a metaphor for the Great Void, the emptiness that occurs when all worldly preoccupations suddenly become unimportant. This is the time when the soul lets go, abandoning the ego. Just when the person jumps off that mental cliff, that is when enlightenment takes root, like the plum tree, just beyond the gravel’'s edge. After the harsh gravel lawns, the beauty of living nature becomes even more intense.

      Our first two Zen gardens in Kyoto were my favorites of all. At Konshi-In temple, Dave and I entered an intimate world, called “Crane and Turtle Garden,” created by Koburi Enshu in 1632. The temple has faithfully preserved this national treasure, although nature herself has creatively altered the landscape somewhat in the past few centuries. Tenju-An temple began with an austere white gravel expanse that gave way to natural looking ponds and flowing water. This garden was blessedly empty of other visitors (it was early on a Sunday morning, so Dave and I had the place to ourselves.) We sat in quiet contemplation for a few minutes. The two of us were suddenly afire with artistic inspiration. For Dave, it was his beloved camera that took over. He took several hundred photos, trying to capture the essence of the place. Please check out his photo gallery (the one entitled "Your Moment of Zen - click on his current gallery to find it) and you will see for yourself what he saw.

      For me, I had only a tiny notebook and a pen, which was a lucky thing, because poetry just came to me. I wrote eleven poems in one hour, using the Japanese haiku style. I didn'’t restrict myself to exact syllable rules, instead, I just let it flow. In fact, I really haven’'t edited them. These are first drafts, written in pen. The first, sixth and last ones just happened to come out in precise haiku form, all by themselves, without trying to count syllables. (the last one, I confess, was written at another Zen garden with a larger bamboo grove). Eleven poems in one hour! I haven’'t written poetry in years! Please enjoy the Zen garden experience with me:

Secret forest path
Hidden by the bamboo trees,
Where will you take me?

Pink blossoms kiss the moss-covered forest floor
Spring “snowfall.”

Turtle basking, smiling, on a rock
He is my Zen Master today.

Stepping stones across the pool
A metaphor for going nowhere.

Above the Zen garden
The passing of a jet
Breaks my sound barrier.

Japanese maples unfurl,
First leaves of early spring,
Tiny hints of autumn colors
Promised in each bud.

I could spend all day
Beside this old waterfall
The bamboo grove is hushed.

Stone gate, stone bridge and pines,
Harmony of still waters, clouds and willows
Man’'s idea, then nature, overtaking all.

In the immaculate Zen garden,
One rebellious dandelion.

Why did that wily old Zen Master
choose to plant his rock
In this particular corner of the forest?

Carp rising to the surface
Like errant thoughts
Quiet the mind
Beside the still waters.

Within the bamboo grove,
Sliced sunlight rests on fallen trees,
Joss sticks cast by giants.

Thanks so much for reading! Diana

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