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Archive for March, 2012

Toysmith makes this “deluxe” version of an office-friendly Zen garden (though in true  kōan-like fashion, the box proclaims “This is not a toy”). It comes with a 9 x 9 inch tray that you can fill with sand and decorate with rocks and two ceramic cranes. A wooden rake, bamboo rake, and brush allow you to rake the sand into patterns that you can then contemplate with the enclosed book of meditations. The box is decorated with the kanji (Sino-Japanese character) for “meditation,” meisō 瞑想, and the book of meditations reproduces the kanji for several Buddhist terms (Buddha 佛, Chan/Zen 禪, charity 布施, contemplation 觀想, enlightenment 覺悟, four great elements 四大, karma 業, nirvana 涅槃, and wisdom 智慧) with only two errors, but apparently without any reason for including these particular terms. The use of kanji is decorative, and probably meant to enhance this product’s exotic aura.

More interesting is how the idea of the “Zen garden” developed. The “Book of Meditations” claims:

Zen-inspired gardens took root in Japan, where Zen Buddhism has heavily influenced Japanese culture for centuries. In Japan, the physical makeup of the country — mountains and sea – is reflected in garden design. Through the use of rocks and plants, the gardens are symbolic, scaled-down representations of Nature. In a garden, a meditative mental plane is reached by viewing this physical plane. A Zen garden is for contemplations, for finding truth and personal enlightenment. It transcends space and time.

The purpose of cultivating a Zen rock garden is to learn to open your mind and see more than what is before you. This kit includes a base, sand, rocks, and a wooden rake. These elements when combined allow the Zen gardener to experience what Zen masters have practiced for centuries. You can experience Zen gardening on a personal level wherever you choose.

It is certainly true that for centuries, Zen monasteries have had gardens, but Shoji Yamada shows in the second half of Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West that the idea of a “Zen garden” as a place intentionally designed in accordance with Zen principles for the purpose of meditation only appears after World War II. This doesn’t make the Zen garden “fake,” but it does remove the patina of historical authority it might otherwise have.

The idea of having a Zen garden in your backyard or on your desk also ties into the emphasis on the “personal” that comes up in the “Book of Meditations.” This vision of Zen is detached from institutional, social, historical, political, and economic contexts, and can thus be anything anyone wants it to be. Of course, this vision of Zen is part of its own historical context, and owes a debt to modern Protestant definitions of religion as a matter of personal, interior faith rather than socio-historical practice.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have my own Deluxe Zen Garden (a tounge-in-cheek gift from a kind colleague) on my office desk, but it mostly languishes there behind huge stacks of papers. Maybe I would benefit from following the “Book of Meditations” more closely and busting out the rakes every once in a while.

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