The Fundamental Lesson of Any Zen Garden: Awareness of the Here and Now
Zen gardens allow us to see the degree of consciousness with which we experience reality.
Anyone who’s been to a Zen garden has immediately felt an authentic sense of peace and tranquility. There will be those who, knowing beforehand the nature of such a place, arrive ready to enter into a specific emotional and mental state. Others, without any reference or predisposition, simply allow themselves to be flooded by the calm and harmony that Zen gardens usually inspire. In the midst of these two experiences are the nuances of each: contemplation, joy, the admiration of beauty, the wonder at enigma, reflection, a simple enjoyment in the face of life, and one which fills that very moment, but which also travels through time.
In some other sense, it might be that the person who walks through a Zen garden and eventually has to leave, imagines the possibility that all of this is not the exception, but the norm. It’s not just a valid intention, but one that’s necessary. Why can’t all of this peace, all of this tranquility, be the norm of our existence? Isn’t it possible that what we feel in a Zen garden could be transferred to other areas of our lives?
The simple answer is yes, it’s possible. One of the great characteristics of Zen is that in its own development, it bears a tendency towards a kind of nothingness that, for the Western mind, can be difficult to apprehend. In Western culture, the very idea usually has a negative connotation. Not so in Zen. Here, emptiness has another meaning entirely. It’s not the nihilistic emptiness of Western philosophy, but it’s a vacuum “filled” with a single truth: eternal and affirmative. What truth is that? Simply Zen.
This may seem contradictory. But once we begin to explore the “idea” of Zen, the meaning emerges. Let’s give a very concrete example which is none other than the theme of this text. Think of the Zen garden and perhaps even of any garden. Think of your experience as you walk through the garden. To the question, “What is Zen?,” we might answer that Zen is what each person is experiencing right now. Zen is that which occupies the here and now.
In the case of the garden, the example might be seen as an experience which confronts us fully with the way in which each of us lives the here and now. Thus, it’s a kind of walking meditation, and one put into a physically active form. Although it may sound strange, (or not), even walking under blossoming cherry trees, swimming serenely with the goldfish, or walking amidst the definitive stillness of sand and stones, there are those who feel neither calm nor quiet. Some will think of pending work. Others will imagine the expectations of the person with whom they’re sharing the walk, or of the child running between the bushes, or the ideal angle of the photo they’ll share on a social network.
We can see quite easily here that we’re very busy with the here and now, but we experience very little of it. We fill it with worries, with thoughts, assumptions, memories, and projections… but with very little of the simple experience of the present.
The Zen garden is not an exception, but the norm. That is, in fact, its paradox. What happens along its paths and planes is that same thing which happens in any other space of our lives. At work, in our homes, on the street, or anywhere else; wherever we go, we carry with us that same degree of awareness with which we experience reality.
Zen (and its gardens) consist essentially in the realization of that situation in which we live, without any kind of judgment, but with only conscious observation. It’s about realizing our own lives and everything that we allow ourselves to pursue, and then again, that none of this is an awareness of the here and now.
Like water flowing in the garden, the walker navigates the same current and its name is time. Like cherry trees that bloom and wither, the walker is likewise full of life. Like goldfish, sand and stones, everything is in motion. And everything happens, here, and everything happens, now. It’s the one thing Zen invites us to observe.
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