永平寺 and Zen

Pictured below is a scene from the Eiheji Temple (永平寺) complex, constructed in the 13th century by Dōgen.  The temple belongs to the Sōtō Zen tradition and just being in this area has a sort of transformative effect on one’s consciousness. It is said in Zen that works created by individuals in enlightened states can transmit similar states to the minds of beholders of the art, and I find this to be very much true in the case of Zen art and poetry. Zen temples are kept extraordinarily clean and utmost care is taken to keep everything in this state of purity, from the floors to the walls, to the smallest tiles in the bathrooms, and even to sticks and leaves lying around the perimeter. The boundary between one’s mind and the external world is seamless in this world, and thus care for the external world becomes a living metaphor for the maintenance of one’s own mind.

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Although great care is taken to maintain cleanliness and purity of the environment, an equal amount of care is taken to simply allowing nature to exist and act out its own character. This is an important element of all Japanese arts, just letting things be. This is expressed partly through what is known as wabi sabi.

It is said that wabi sabi cannot be described by pointing at it with other words, but is instead described through stories. One such parable was told to me by a professor at my University. A young practitioner of Zen was once told by his teacher to create a beautiful garden. He worked and worked for many days, planting and trimming all sorts of beautiful trees and arranging stones in all sorts of perfect patterns, until he finally declared the garden finished. But yet, it wasn’t. Something wasn’t right.

He rearranged all the rocks, planted new trees, and tried everything within his rational mind to set the garden right, but he couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Exasperated, he went to his master.

“I worked and worked, and yet something still isn’t right!” he exclaimed. His master gave a small smile, and walked softly to one of the maple trees in the center of the garden and gave its trunk a good shake, causing a few loose leaves to scatter about the ground. Then, the garden was perfect.

Possessing a mind, man has the ability to enact his own order into the world, and yet there is a harmony to be maintained between control and trust in the potential for natural beauty that exists in everything. Although the two can be seen as inseparable, the external world can also be viewed as a macroscopic metaphor for the microcosm of our own individual minds, and there are thus great lessons that can be learned from nature.

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