Peek behind the gentrified urban home or into a back corner of the suburban lot and you’re likely to see the telltale rock triad, the twisting gravel path, the lone dwarf evergreen, and the stone water bowl of the Zen garden.
Just a peek won’t give you the intended experience, though. Japanese gardens are meant to be strolled through.
The sound of the gravel under your feet is soothing. Shinto priests in pre-Buddhist Japan sensed this over fifteen hundred years ago, and so their sacred spaces were spread with small stones.
The odd windings of the Zen garden path are meant to slow you down, while taking you meditatively through real life in abbreviated form. Medieval Zen priests planned out these gardens as spiritually-directed space. The way to enlightenment is necessarily contorted, they said. The Zen path is designed to take you through life’s inevitable twists and turns without getting tangled or tied in knots.
You might come upon an asymmetrical rock grouping or a single rock with its swirling strata roughly exposed. These are the irregularities of human relations, the ups and downs, the rough and the smooth. Suddenly confronting them, you mustn’t stumble.
The Zen garden is meant to be a pathway to inner peace, a pathway that doesn’t waft you from this world but weaves you through the world’s essence. The spare, bare minimum in miniature puts you in mind of the whole. The slightly mounded soil recalls mountains; gravel raked in a swirl is a silent waterfall; the single flower met around a bend is every delighted Ah! Strolling through this space designed on a millennium of Zen spiritual principles, you begin to feel uncluttered.
In the words of the sixteenth century teahouse designer, Sen-no-Rikkyu:
When you hear the splash
of the water drops that fall
into the stone bowl,
you will feel that all the dust
of your mind is washed away.
“The dust of your mind” is putting it mildly, in my case. I’ve got an attic-full of fusty clutter up there. Piles of Pandora’s boxes all personalized with my private nightmares. Legitimate cares (like my husband’s health) crammed in with trivial ones (like a neighbor’s loud radio). Files and files of opinions that I cling to passionately; lists and lists of personal agendas. Wedged against the wall is some old baggage of bitter resentments.
And I can’t let the boxes and baggage simply be. I keep shifting them around: restlessly reaching for one thing, shoving away another, always stirring up the dust. I can’t think a straight thought without getting detoured by a distraction. I can barely budge in this metaphorical attic without bumping my head on some imagined need.
Join the crowd, says Zen Buddhism, via modern scholar D. T. Suzuki: “The mind is ordinarily chock full with all kinds of intellectual nonsense and passional rubbish.” The Buddha knew, 2,500 years ago, that hanging onto this transient stuff is what keeps us from happiness, from peace. We’re yanked every which way by clinging to what must pass.
Feeling possessive about what we falsely think is “mine,” feeling possessive about what we falsely think is “me,” feeling possessive period: this is the core human problem. The bliss we’re meant for is the extinction of all these false desires. “The extinction of greed, the extinction of anger, the extinction of delusion,” says an early Buddhist scripture: “this indeed is called Nirvana and this truly is Peace.”
Remembering that Nirvana literally means “blowing out” (as of a flame), I’m eager to clear out my mind’s attic clutter in one blast. I’m ready to hire the Three Little Pigs’ wolf to huff and puff and blow the house down, just to be done with it. But of course that wouldn’t work. The house is my whole being. Huffing and puffing would only make my head spin; blown down, I’d just be a wreck.
The emptiness that’s a Buddhist synonym for Nirvana doesn’t come from blowing the stuff of ego out with a hurricane blast—or even from hauling it away. “The realization of Emptiness” writes Suzuki, “is no more, no less than seeing into the nonexistence of a thingish ego-substance. It consists not in getting rid of the self but in realizing the fact that there is no such existence from the first.”
The stuff of myself collected over a lifetime isn’t really me. So don’t even grant it the reality of fussing to get rid of it. Let it be. But look at it as essentially insubstantial: mere dotted lines taking the shape of attic boxes.
Metaphors like this are easy to make. But actually seeing into the nonexistence of a thingish ego-substance is no simple task. The classic text for how it’s done is the Bhagavad-Gita (that gem formed from early Buddhism and the Hindu Upanishads). From the Gita we get the discipline of yoga—even more popular these days than Zen gardens. The Gita’s yoga is a spiritual exercise, and it’s hard work. “Yoking” is yoga’s root Sanskrit meaning, which the Gita stretches to mean disciplined skill at “integrating the self.”
Yoga-meditation’s ultimate goal is Nirvana: the self’s liberation from all the illusory stuff obscuring its real ground of being—in Krishna, who is Brahman’s incarnation as the personal God. Our true self is one with God, but our false self-creations keep us from seeing our true identity. (Thomas Merton said the same thing to Christians in the twentieth century.) Meditation doesn’t shove the inner self-made clutter aside so much as help us see through it. Those piles of attic possessions fade into transparent forms.
Tomorrow: my adventures in meditation and a surprising result.
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.