Putting the finishing touches on the Zen garden | NevadaAppeal.com

Putting the finishing touches on the Zen garden

Sam Bauman
Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Sam Bauman shows the handmade zen rake he made for his new front landscaping. Bauman says the rake, with five tines, represents the five basic Buddha truths.
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Readers may remember a story I wrote a few weeks ago about tearing out a sod lawn and creating a Japanese Zen Rock garden at my home in North Carson City. That story carried through as far as laying small, white stones or gravel over a blanket of perforated plastic.

But that was only the first part of creating the garden. Still to be done was the finding of the right large stones to be embedded in the small stones, then creating the pattern in the gravel with a special rake.

There is a traditional rake used by the Japanese monks who most often create the designs in the gravel by pulling it in the desired pattern (no footprints that way). This rake usually has five “fingers,” which leave the pattern in the rocks. The fingers are usually about an inch in diameter, squared off at the tips.

The reason for the five fingers is that they symbolize the Five Great Truths of Buddhism. (Please don’t jump to correct me, fellow Buddhists; I know there are the Four Fold Way and the Eight Truths. Bear with me.)

To me, the Five Great truths are:

• Take nothing not freely given.

• Kill no living thing.

• Do not cloud the mind with drugs or alcohol.

• Always speak the truth.

• Do not engage in unworthy sexual actions.

All right, those are my translations. I had an apartment in the bayside resort town of Kamakura while I was in the Air Force. A few doors down from my place (over a fishmonger’s) was a Zen monastery. Often I would hear the monks chanting in the early morning or at night. I though it was like Christian prayer; little did I understand that it was just a way of affirming their philosophy. But it did get me to studying my Japanese.

Back to the rake.

I figured it would be of natural wood, no metal fastenings. So I cut a piece of 2-by-4 pine and drilled five holes in it for the one-inch down dowels. (I should have drilled them with some kind of hand-powered tool, but I lacked the materials and skills.)

The dowels fit nicely into the holes and I glued them in place. Several hours later I glued a long, square handle to the 2-by-4, added dowels for strength and I was ready to create my first pattern.

There are various philosophies about the patterns raked into the gravel. Here are three:

• The gravel represents ocean and the rocks represent the islands of Japan.

• The rocks represent a mother tiger with her cubs, swimming to a dragon.

• The rocks form part of the kanji character for heart or mind.

I thought of it as a river flowing about three islands. I found three large rocks to symbolize the islands at the Greenhouse Garden Center: a jagged piece of basalt, a oval piece of granite and a flat slab tinged with red. I placed them in a vaguely triangular shape and raked the gravel smooth.

Next day I came out to rake and found that my garden had already attracted guests, in this case four-footed guests, dogs. Also, small leaves had fallen on the gravel. I smoothed out the dog prints and vacuumed some of the leaves but decided they belonged in this Zen setting.

I had seen many Zen rock gardens during my several years in Japan, and I remembered the beauty of the karesansui garden in Ryoan-ji Temple in northwest Kyoto. Ryoan-ji is a temple of to the Myoshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of the Zen, famous for its Zen garden.

There are no trees, just 15 irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes, some surrounded by moss, arranged in a bed of white gravel/sand that is raked every day.

The garden displays the rocks on the surface of white pebbles so that visitors can see only 14 of them at once, from wherever the garden is viewed. According to legend, only when someone attains spiritual enlightenment as a result of deep Zen meditation can one see the last invisible stone with his mind’s eye.

Well, my Zen garden is just out there, white gravel with the three islands. My raked furrows sort of represent a flowing river, except that one rock is surrounded by furrows in a circle, much like the waves that radiate when a pebble is dropped in a pond.

Of course, that’s this week’s design. I have to rake it out this weekend to get rid of the newest paw gouges and come up with a new pattern. But I’m not worried; I’ll sip a martini while I remember life in Japan. I’m sure something will come if I don’t think about it. That would be the Zen way.

• Contact reporter Sam Bauman at sbauman@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1236.