Japanese Tea Ceremony’s Enduring Zen Flavor

In discussing Japanese tea ceremony’a Zen flavor, it is appropriate to first consider its special setting that creates a space apart. Tea room and garden maintenance are ongoing. For each tea gathering, the host selects and arranges the scroll, flowers, and utensils keeping the season, particular occasion, and guests in mind. Thus, meditation in action begins well before guests arrive.

The tea room and garden bring a mountain cottage retreat atmosphere into a town or city setting. For all the care that goes into a tea hut’s construction, they are lightly built and are all the more intimate for that acceptance of impermanence. Soft natural lighting create a tranquil mood. There is little to distract beyond naturally arranged flowers and a scroll.

Tea gardens are designed to evoke the essence of purified nature, and often resemble a mossy path in an idealized wood. This path-garden is called roji (literally dewy ground or path in Japanese). A Buddhist interpretation relates to ‘awara‘ or disclosure, not just disclosing the garden to the eye, but disclosure of everything within and without to the heart/mind/body. Before guests approach the tea hut along the path, the host will clean it and water the stepping stones as a sign of welcome. To do that properly, it is necessary to first cleanse oneself of what disturbs and sullies the mind and heart.

Tea garden design begins with opening to what is here. It is a process of emptying the mind and listening to the site and the context in order to allow the design and its aesthetic qualities to grow from the place rather than being applied to it. The garden and the person who tends it are always getting to know each other through a process of action and response that goes both ways. As the relationship deepens, maintenance is not so much imposed from outside but takes place from within that relationship by attuning to what needs doing.

Students of the way of tea learn by observing and copying their teacher, and by being patiently (although sometimes strictly) coached in what is essentially a form of direct transmission. When I first started taking tea lessons, I learned how to walk on tatami mats. I had to master the many sub-procedures of a relatively simple way of preparing tea. A great many sub-procedures must all flow together in a natural and unobtrusive way before a student can claim competence. There are many different ways of preparing tea or temae to learn, and all the utensils require special handling. Tea stories make clear that patient practice and goodwill are more important than achieving perfection.

Thus, tea ceremony provides many opportunities to experience beginner’s mind while learning how to retain a sharp embodied focus on what is going on here and now. The way of tea might appear gentle as compared with working on unsolvable riddles under the stern guidance of a Zen master. But because there is so much to learn with body, mind and spirit, serious students of Japanese tea ceremony may find themselves facing the strong doubt, strong faith and strong determination that are said to be requisites for dedicated Zen practice.

In time, applying firm resolution in a context of openness and mutual support can lead to consummate freedom and ease. That a selfless commitment to discipline is required to achieve that flow is one of the many paradoxes of this art (and of life). Learning the formal procedures with total-hearted commitment provides access to deeper levels of perception and being that in turn influence how one performs the art so one returns to where one started very much alive, in touch, and in the moment simply enjoying sharing a bowl of tea with a few others.

Just seeing a demonstration does not reveal the relational quality of this art. Students are taught to always keep the guests tranquility top of mind when preparing a bowl of tea. The flowing generosity and gratitude becomes one and communal awareness arises as guests actively support the host’s intent for sharing the beauty of the particular occasion and of each unique moment.

Woodland Magic

It is natural to notice when a muskrat is chasing quacking ducks on the pond in Menotomy Rocks Park, but the woods has a quieter energy. There is a lot going on, but it is easier to miss.

The trees with their roots wrapped around granite outcrops or buried beneath fallen leaves and mounding needles are the backbone here. And light slanting through them can suddenly create all-embracing wonder.

The woods in winter remind us that resting has its season too.

Melting Art on Cars

In late November 2019, I noticed wonderful large ice crystal formations all over a car. This November, most interesting symmetrical patterns formed on car hoods after a light snow began to melt. The patterns varied quite a bit, probably reflecting the different engine and hood support designs within.

I had to wonder what other wonderful designs I might discover by getting out early after the first freeze of the year.

Imaginary Creatures in the Woods

As we walked along the trail, a friend told me that her grandchild loved pine needles. He also liked looking for hollow logs that would make good houses. My friend seemed to share her grandson’s delight in the magical quality that can be sensed just below the surface in many forest settings.

Perhaps because children can be particularly sensitive to the intelligence of other species, or because of their vivid imaginations, looking for or constructing “fairy houses” seems a perfectly natural thing to do. I thought of the troll that my Aunt brought back from Norway at my request. I promised my friend that I would take photos of him in the park.

Indeed, this eager little fellow seemed to be quite at home in these woods far from his native land.

A Boulder Around the Seasons

A boulder perched at the edge of Hills Pond when I started the photo series. It became an island as the waters rose. Then ice linked it to land again. In spring, geese and ducks perched on its strong back. There were signs of trouble as algal bloom sullied the water and all the birds left.

Waiting unperturbed, the boulder bore silent witness to ducks returning as brilliant colors in shades of yellow, orange and red mixed with the greens. Though all of this, the boulder sat with perfect equanimity. It had me wondering whether I could be more like that. Probably not, but that I could appreciate (and hopefully remember) its still presence seemed to count for something.

A Bumper Crop of Edible Mushrooms

When I was out taking mushroom photos, I came across two people with a basket full of hen of the woods as well as a bag of honey mushrooms they had gathered from the base of oaks. They told me that the number of edible mushrooms you can collect in Europe is limited so as to leave some for others. Here there are no such limits and they had gathered so many mushrooms they would need to give some away. As they explained, the best way to learn which are safe to eat is to go out with an expert local guide, although books and online resources (like this one) can be helpful.

Like many, I find fungi’s beautiful diversity and complexity fascinating. In addition to their use as food and medicine, mushrooms can have profound cultural significance. Those with psychotropic properties are used in healing rituals. A lovely jade pendant (below) bears witness to the significance the Chinese place mushrooms that play an important role in traditional medicine. The Maya carved wonderful anthropomorphic mushroom stones.

Fungi support the health of forests in a variety of ways. They can survive fire and have been used to control insect pests and to clean up plastic and organic waste. No doubt our appreciation for what fungi do for us will increase as we learn more about their many roles in various ecosystems.

Mushrooms After Rain

Nature is constantly shifting and not just with the normal seasonal changes these days. I would certainly welcome the respite of fewer distractions on my morning walks in Menotomy Rocks Park (Arlington, Massachusetts, USA), but nature has its own ideas.

After abundant rain all summer, amazing fungi were popping up everywhere and calling out for me to take their portraits.

Nurturing Wisdom

Seven days after his birth, when the Buddha’s mother knew she was dying, she entrusted her precious son to her sister, Mahaprajapati. You might think that raising the Buddha from an infant would be enough to make Mahaprajapati a figure of interest. But, in fact, very little information about her was available until Shambhala published The Woman Who Raised the Buddha; The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati by Wendy Garling (photo by Jeff Klein above, her bio is below).

In this short video from a June 27, 2021 celebration of her latest book, Wendy describes some highlights of Mahaprajapati’s influence. An audio recording of her entire talk describes both the process and the contents of the amazing material that Wendy brings alive for us. Thanks are due videographer, Jeff Klein, for both recordings.

Drawing on literature of multiple Buddhist traditions as well as recorded oral stories, Wendy introduces us to a woman who was of considerable importance in the early days of Buddhism. Even though she was the respected Buddha’s “mother,” and Queen of the Sakyas, it took Mahaprajapati’s own nurturing wisdom to overcame barriers so that the Buddha’s teachings reached both women and men (as he intended) right from the beginning.

Mahaprajapati’s effectiveness, despite the cultural values of her day, should be of particular interest to us now, at a time when we must work together to make progress in solving so many critical issues. Perhaps the publication of this book at a time when we are so in need of the transformative power of nurturing wisdom is not a coincidence.

At the party, Buddhist scholar, Charles Hallissey noted that not only does this book make a major contribution with its subject matter, but Wendy also shows us how to approach sacred literature in general. We all must necessarily start from where we are. Wendy models the process of using imagination to explore what might have been true in another culture and time where unanswered questions remain. At the same time, it is appropriate to be very clear about the assumptions one is making. By bringing imagination as well as all of one’s heart and experience to such literature, it can come alive in a meaningful way while making it possible for new insights to evolve over time.

WENDY GARLING is a writer, mother, gardener, independent scholar, and authorized dharma teacher with a BA from Wellesley College and MA in Sanskrit language and literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (2016, Shambhala Publications), and more recently, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha; The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati (2021 Shambhala Publications). For many years Wendy has taught women’s spirituality focusing on Buddhist traditions, while also pursuing original research into women’s stories from ancient Sanskrit and Pali literature.

A Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, Wendy has studied with teachers of different schools and lineages, foremost her refuge lama His Holiness the 16th Karmapa (who gave her the name Karma Dhonden Lhamo), her kind root lama, the late Sera Je Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama whom she first met in India in 1979. Pilgrimage has played an important role in Wendy’s life: in 2007 she journeyed to the sites of women saints in Tibet, and in 2012 and 2018 to sacred sites of the Buddha in India. Her dream is to bring back the stories of Buddhism’s first women, reawaken their voices, and ensure that they are not just remembered, but valorized as integral to the roots of Buddhism. Wendy lives in Concord, Massachusetts and can be reached at wendy.garling@yahoo.com.


Eye Training for Backyard Gardeners

Training to become a garden designer in Japan may involve apprenticeship to a master designer and years of traveling to view beautiful natural and manmade landscapes. Few of us desire (or can afford) to spend years doing that, but there are many ways we can train ourselves. For those in the Western world who wish to create their own Japanese gardens, it is possible to design a self-study program using ideas from the Japanese training process. Here are some ideas which helped me train my own eyes in Japanese aesthetics.

  • Visit places of natural beauty: An early goal might be to simply observe nature in a totally open way. With practice, it becomes possible to understand what it is about a specific scene that produces a particular response. I visit places of natural beauty regularly and particularly value a park within walking distance which teaches me about local conditions. If I have a strong emotional response, I take a picture to assist me in determining why.
  • Look Inward: Aspects of places which had special meaning to me as a child can be incorporated in a garden design. In my case, I have a special love for mossy woodsy places based on camping trips. The Inward Garden. by Julie Moir Messervy, provides excellent guidance in this process.

  • Experience Japanese gardens: Viewing Japanese gardens teaches how limited elements can be used to suggest various places, moods and subtle natural relationships like the curve of a river bank. If possible develop a relationship with a Japanese garden within traveling distance and visit it at different times of day, in different weather conditions, and in all seasons. Of course, an actual trip to Japan would be wonderful.

  • Learn to sketch: I have found it very useful to make sketches of natural settings and of Japanese gardens. Sketching nature requires me to focus on the essential elements in a scene, and it also helps me focus on the most important details.

  • Study design principles: Many books as well as this Journal* describe principles which apply to Japanese gardens. The academic study of design principles won’t replace the experience of working under a master designer, but it is valuable nonetheless. As to learning from books, I have found it easier to relate to the more intimate and modest courtyard gardens and residential garden designs for practical ideas, but I also value the many spectacular images of larger Japanese gardens for all the various ways they teach me about beauty.

  • Learn by doing: The garden in your own yard can serve as a laboratory and teacher, and it can be a reflection of your own personal development. In the early stages, rocks and plants moved around a lot until ‘they found their homes.’ Once I had a clear idea of the topography of my garden and the effects I cared about achieving, I found that scale and composition were paramount.

  • Keep a garden album: An album with photographs, drawings and notes provides me with a record of how the garden has changed over time, and how it looks in different seasons. It is satisfying to see what has changed, and improved as a result of my efforts.

*This article was originally published in the November/December, 1998 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening, which has since been renamed Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Intelligent Adaptation

Spending more time observing nature has provided me with opportunities to observe examples of intelligent adaptation up close. When a yellow patch moved up the side of a small basin, I thought this must be a slime mold. These wonderful beings that are neither animals nor plants, make intelligent decisions. After a series of rainy days, this fuligo septica had found a suitable dry place to make a fruiting body and release spores.

Nonhuman intelligence is all over the place. I thought of the octopus in the award winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, and parrots with brains more similar to our own. These birds make tools, dance and tap out rhythms with small sticks up in trees, seemingly for the pure joy of it. Even mice turn out to be efficient learners with aha moments. And we humans continue to learn how to make natural disasters less disastrous.

Nature is still here teaching lessons. It feels like we might be gaining a new appreciation for how much we can and should care about that. There is a new interest in trees, fungi and how we, too, are dependent upon an interconnected web of life. Even as we grieve actual and imminent losses, many are reconsidering priorities, and leaving stressful jobs with long hours. Time to appreciate and ponder may be one of the most precious resources we have.