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.

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.

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.


Pandemic Stories: Art in Nature, An Invitation

When I first came across the installation in Menotomy Rocks Park, early morning light streamed through the trees onto the translucent flags. A sign explained that Nilou Moochhala, the 2021 Artist in Residence in Arlington, Massachusetts had created this work, “Reflecting on Our Pandemic Experience.” As she describes, individual flags were designed in response to interviews she conducted with a diverse cross section of this town of 50,000.

Every other flag had a word embedded in its design. I found Freedom, Madness, Tolerance, Humanity, Denial, Inclusive, Collaborative, Wary, Grateful, Unreal, Healing, Cautious, Overwhelming, Devastating, Love, Comforting and Confusing among others. Patterns and colors out to the edges suggested that the stories that inspired the multi-media flag drawings are still going on.

The words, patterns and colors all seemed part of a lively conversation going on within and among the flags, and I was being invited to join in – literally, as I learned. There was an opportunity to add my own responses to the pandemic via an online questionnaire. All responses plus this art work would remain in an archive at the local library.

We are connected like the flags by this pandemic, I thought. None of us can escape being affected in one way or another. Nilou’s art asks us to bear witness to the diversity of experiences. While there are great challenges, grief and suffering, the flags remind us that supportive connection and even growth are also still possible in these dark times. This art asks us not to turn away but toward. It asks us to hold and honor all of it with kindness and care.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Neighborly Haiku

My town’s art association was holding a haiku contest. The haiku should refer to something the writer experienced in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts.

My feelings for this area where I live had deepened during the pandemic. I was more appreciative of kind neighbors and the caring friendliness of those working in local businesses. I spent more time in nearby parks enjoyed by children, families and dogs both on and off-leash.

As I walked along Massachusetts Avenue near its intersection with Park Avenue looking for haiku from the contest, I came across several in the process of being painted. I said to one of the painters, “Maybe this has started something. Maybe there will be more poetry displayed in Arlington Heights.” The woman doing the painting agreed that should happen.

I noticed that some of the signs shop owners had put up in their windows felt a bit like poems. Looking back along the street, I knew it had happened again. I felt a new appreciation for this particular corner of the world.

Trouble at Menotomy Rocks Park

According to Don Mattheisen’s Menotomy Rocks Park; A Centennial History, this woodland park in the midst of a dense grid of small yards in Arlington, Massachusetts, USA was once called “Devils Den.” Transforming its tangled woods with looming granite outcrops and a swamp into a usable park required considerable will, expense and effort. When muck and leaves began to fill the pond, the town once again secured funds to dredge it out and installed aeration devices.

It was particularly colorful when I began my frequent walks there last October. The ducks seemed to follow me. Perhaps they were only looking for handouts. I preferred to think they knew I cared about them. A few stayed through the winter as the paths became slick with compacted snow.

After the pond ice thawed, turtles seeking warmth gathered on a rock jutting out from a wetland area. Two swans probed for tender shoots for a few days. A pair of Canada geese acted as if the pond was their own private resort. A muskrat swam over to hide in plain view under foliage at the water’s edge. A bull frog’s loud voice startled a dog walking with its owner around the pond.

In late May, robins and red wing blackbirds were as plentiful as ever, but only a single duck slept atop a boulder. I wondered if the other ducks had left to raise their ducklings away from dogs and snapping turtles. I saw other animals in the park but not in the pond water. Then I saw a notice in a plastic sleeve – Sixteen fish had died and water testing had been requested.

As if to ensure I had gotten the message about the larger threat we all face, as I left the park, I saw a squirrel lying by the side of the road next to a rock. it was still breathing. I spoke in gentle tones wishing it (and all of us) well.

Only a single duck slept high on a boulder in late May

Many ducks of various species frequented the pond last October

A pair of Canada geese came in early March and stayed for several weeks

Turtles sunning themselves on a rock jutting into the pond on one of the first warm days

Swans probing for tender young shoots in the wetland at the side of the pond

Looking a bit like a small beaver, this muskrat has a narrow tail

The muskrat with its head poking up looks like a rock or log by the edge of the pond
A bull frog making a rare appearance out in the open on a rock where it can be seen.
A raccoon to left of the tree trunk stared at me while I took its portrait
This park is lucky – people care and have the resources to work at preserving its health. May testing found the water was safe, however later testing in September found toxic algal bloom:

Moments in words and images

Sometimes I encounter moments that feel like poems. There is a clarity to them that has me stopping to notice. They can be small and quiet, easily missed. Nonetheless, every once in a while, such a moment can leave me breathless.

The first two spoke volumes without words but others inspired me to write haiku.

Heads up, dog coming

Grazing geese splashdown

Safe on Hills Pond

Taped to the arm of

A Menotomy Rock’s bench,

Mother’s Day balloon


Warm fall evening


Water tower lantern lit


People drawn like flies

You can see more images of this water tower event, and read about it here.

Fallen Branches in Snow

The pond was covered with snow during my last few walks. It was popular now that the ice was thick enough to be safe. But the path around the pond had been compacted to ice which made for slippery walking. It was the fallen branches that caused me to pause. There was something about the contrast with the textured white snow that made these complex objects stand out so I could notice them and see that their beauty deserved my attention.

A Virtual Concert with Quilt Eating Holes

No live Christmas concert this year – It was simply not safe.

Park Avenue Congregational Church’s (PACC’s) Christmas concert had been going on for 29 years now as a gift to the community. Even though donations were voluntary, we always got contributions. They were used to maintain our treasured Skinner pipe organ and for our music program.   Doing something now seemed all the more important. Christmas music could bring light to this particularly dark season during a global pandemic.

So we two coproducers put our heads together.  A virtual concert might work. We had a great archive of music from past Christmas concerts.  We considered that physical CDs and DVDs have a certain appeal.  They can be given as gifts.  That makes them feel more grounded than clicking around in cyberspace, even though great music is certainly available that way.

We decided on “A Christmas Quilt” for our theme –  Something warm and cozy you can wrap up in while social distancing at home, maybe with a favorite drink by a fire. The quilt idea worked for the diversity we wanted to include and DVD slideshow images could be used for quilt squares. 

But would people send in enough photos?  We needn’t have worried. Photos poured in;  children making snow angels, pies being baked, Christmas trees and sheep (we needed sheep). There were photos of the church decorated for Christmas, of choir singing, of our music directors playing instruments and more.  Photos of snowy landscape paintings created by the father of a church member also seemed perfect.  We added in some charming public domain art, photos of period Christmas cards and images of composers and their scores.

The practical logistics seemed to be coming together as well. Or so we thought.

The folks who do such a great job of printing posters and programs for our live concert series had ordered blanks to print stick-on disk labels.  The blanks they ordered had a large hole that would land plunk in the middle of the square quilt “logo” that was centered on the disk labels. 

With orders still coming in and time slipping away, the coproducers declared the larger hole DVD labels would be fine. But the talented and generous Concert Committee member who had carefully aligned our quilt image on the disk labels, responded (and I quote),  “We can use the wide, gaping, cavernous, quilt-eating, big-hole labels if you want ;-). I’ll Just close my eyes ;-).

A new supply of blanks with smaller holes arrived in time. We also had some of the large-hole labels printed just in case  – the DVDs were proving quite popular.  In the last few days before Christmas, we were still burning DVDs like crazy, and then Christmas eve was upon us. 

I was very touched by the two who volunteered to hand deliver CDs and DVDs around town on a cold Christmas eve in the middle of a pandemic when they could have been at home with family.  But I will also never forget that wonderful comment about the cavernous quilt-eating holes.