The furrows of the Zen garden

The idea of a Zen rock garden in Carson City isn't as far-fetched as it seems on first brush. After all, we've got a Buddhist group in town and a private home in the area with a meditation room open for the using.

Having been mildly interested in Buddhism ever since living in Japan, the idea of a Zen rock garden has long interested me. The most famous of Japanese rock gardens, Ryogenji in Kyoto, is perhaps the ideal but beyond the limited capabilities of most of us.

However, the simplicity of such monochrome rock gardens, as contrast to our colorful oases of flowers and ponds, offers another way of thinking of one's relationship to nature (and perhaps to more lofty things).

Standing at Ryogenji among the throngs several years ago while on a ski tour of Japan and watched the Zen monk slowly raking the small stones into long furrows, circling the larger rocks in a vague but impressive pattern, the garden offered a kind of peace and abstract beauty.

A few years ago I picked up a tabletop version of a Japanese Zen rock garden, perhaps 10 inches by five inches. I placed it on top of the wine rack and began a regular routine of raking the sand into patterns with a tiny rake. Two pebbles offered accent points. In Zen theory the white sand represents either a river or an ocean, the pebbles mountains or islands. Rivers are important in Buddhism or Dharma, as practicing Buddhists describe their philosophy. (Incidentally, one can practice Buddhism without having to give up a more traditional, monotheistic faith.)

The tiny garden attracted guests who asked about it. Often a guest would want to create a pattern in the sand. I quickly found that almost every guest had a unique way of creating a pattern or design. Sometimes they would pause for minutes after completing their pattern, smile and walk away silently.

In my patio there is a small, wood-enclosed space among the paving blocks of about three by five feet. Recently I bought a bag of sand and poured it into the space. I placed in the sand two jagged obsidian black rocks. Then I took a small hand rake and drew parallel furrows in the sand. The pattern seemed to flow naturally, from one end to the other. Mornings since then I have gone out and drawn a new pattern, sometimes nothing more than a single set of parallel furrows. Other times, intersecting furrows. Once a single set of lines that ended abruptly at the first rock.

I have found it to be a wonderful way to start the day. Sometimes in remembrance of a Japanese woman who taught me the Zen phrase, "Name amida butsu."

I fear that sooner or later I'm going to have to pull out the flowers I've put in the larger surrounding box, buy a couple bags of sand and make a larger Zen garden. Why larger? I'm not sure, but I think it would feel right.

Meanwhile, I find the constantly changing patterns in the sand intriguing. Sometimes I make the furrows with my fingers. Or a single finger. Sometimes I cover the entire sand surface with furrows.

I know. I'm reverting to my childhood, playing in sand. But I find myself having long thoughts on things, on religion, on music, on paintings while contemplating the garden with a libation. And about Nature, capitalized. Isn't that what gardens are supposed to make one do?

What do you need for a Zen garden?

Find a place to put the garden where it won't be in the way. It can be almost any size or shape. Depending on the space, use either white sand or small pebbles to fill the space. In large Japanese Zen gardens, small rocks are used. The bigger the garden, the bigger the stones. Use something to enclose the space, something natural like old lumber or flat stones. Again depending on size, find something to create the pattern in the sand or stones. A hand rake works fine for small gardens, an iron garden rake for larger ones. Bare fingers work. If the garden is going to be large, boulders need to be imbedded in the sand or stones.

A Zen thought

Perhaps a bit of Zen thought before you start. Through Zen philosophy, one can experience the large in the small. And "in a grain of sand, glimpse the meaning of the world." The most famous of Zen koans, or questions, is, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Both are enigmas worth considering.


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