Mindfulness in the Zen Garden

Even before I enter this temple, some indefinable quality about it attracts my attention. Just through the main entrance, to my right, a stone pathway leads to a little side gate half open, revealing, tantalising. Beside the path, a few rocks, moss, azaleas – the usual elements of the Japanese garden. And yet there is something else. I peer through the half open gate. There is no-one in sight. Normally, I would regard this as an invitation to explore further. Well, sneak in, really. It’s a kind of personal protest at the overly-regimented regime of garden visiting I dislike so much. Or perhaps it’s just a sign of immaturity, of someone who has never quite grown out of the childhood habit of sneaking into other people’s gardens for a look. Whatever, an open garden gate holds a particular fascination for me.


But this time something stops me. I stand at the threshold equivocating. There is something about this garden that invites (demands is too strong a word) respect. Where does this invitation come from? I am not able to say. But neither am I able to pass through the gate. I return to the main path and approach the ticket office. There is no-one there. But as I am removing my shoes to enter, a screen door slides open and a young woman with a sunny, open face emerges to take my money. Through a doorway behind her, I glimpse figures seated cross-legged in meditation. The calm quiet of the meditation practice seems to permeate the very wood of the buildings, and the gardens beyond. I follow a veranda around to the back of the dojo to the viewing garden.

On entering, I find a collection of close-set wooden buildings. Amongst the buildings, a series of interconnected verandas with very low roofs, I find I am looking down onto a series of tiny courtyard gardens – each one a masterpiece, even without plants.


The whole effect is very intimate. The plants rise up from below, some to eye level and higher, their sculptured shapes have a solidity… each one separate from, yet related to the others. The space between them has a presence; more tangible than air. I feel like I am looking at an underwater scene. The whole effect is powerfully three-dimensional, almost hyper-real.

I round the corner of the dojo and the main garden opens out before me; small by Western standards, but expansive after the intimacy of the courtyards.


There are several other visitors here, but little talk. Each sits or stands quietly looking out at the garden. And when they do speak, it is in hushed tones. Not a public-library style silence. Again that word invitation. As I contemplate the garden I find myself slowly sinking down into another state of consciousness. Initially it’s the hustle and bustle of busy Kyoto traffic, taxis, temples, lenses, focal lengths… But bit by bit this mental chatter slows. Awkwardly, self-consciously, I bend down and fold my legs to sit on the polished timbers of the veranda. It has been a while since I sat on the floor.



Subtly, but inexorably I am drawn into the overall beauty of the garden. The interplay of shapes and textures, shadow and light. At first my eyes rove over the whole composition – feasting.



Delicate maples, gnarled pines with knobbly, horizontal branches, green velvety moss, the soft/solid azalea balls, rough, lichen-encrusted, pitted rocks, the foreground expanse of raked gravel: a scale model of nature’s beauty. Nature idealised. And yet the garden itself is no abstract ideal. On the contrary, it has a powerful presence, almost too real. As though you can feel its many textures without touch. And there is something else – what? A subtle feeling or atmosphere that pervades the garden. Despite the contrasts of strong shapes and textures, the various parts of the garden work together, somehow resolving these tensions creating a sense of unity, a balance, and this endows the garden with an atmosphere, a feeling of calm, a kind of settling into oneself.

Gradually my eye’s wandering slows, becoming fascinated by a single rock. Its shape and the way it leans just slightly towards a neighbouring rock. The differing colours of the lichen blotches, the fine smooth texture of the surface and the pattern of light and inky black shadows caused by the long fissures down its face. Shadows themselves seem to take on a presence, as though one can see into them, into the rock – something.

Kyoto temple garden

Behind me in a little room off the meditation hall, a chant starts up. First one voice and then several others repeat a rapid series of syllables in a low pitch. A gong sounds, the chanting stops and the sound of the resonating gong is left hanging in the air, slowly, slowly, growing softer until there is nothing – just the silence, and the faint splashing sound of a small waterfall at the far end of the garden. The sound of the water stands out crystal clear in the silence, like a spot-lit figure in the dark.

After a while, the single voice resumes the chant. The other voices join in until the gong sounds and slowly fades. This ritual repeats and, like the sound of the gong, time seems to stretch out to nothing. Gone. I completely lose my sense of time. At some point, chanting ceases, people shuffle quietly behind me and they too are gone. At some point, sense of time slowly returns. And then the garden. Then my knees, which I notice are very uncomfortable from the prolonged sitting. I have no idea how long I have been sitting there. I feel very calm and contented except for the gnawing in my stomach telling me it is long past lunchtime.

There is no doubt; this garden has touched me deeply. I have only ever been able to achieve this profound sense of calm through meditation practice in the past. But that practice is challenging. Achieving and maintaining the necessary focus requires a sustained effort of will, that I find is often beyond me. To discover that a garden can induce a meditative state without effort is both surprising and inspiring. I can only think of one or two pieces of music that have had a similarly profound although perhaps more emotive impact on me. I don’t normally think of gardens as emotionally moving in this sense. They are a long way removed from the things that usually arouse me emotionally, my relationships with people or great art. Gardens tend to have the opposite effect of calming, soothing and settling the passions, the hurts, frustrations and worries that so often arise from human relationships. And yet like great art, this garden has touched me.




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