Soseki’s Gardens

Wisdom Publications has been publishing books on Buddhism for more than a quarter century. Many of the books in my library were put out by Wisdom. They recently contacted me, and I’m sure other bloggers too, about one of their new books, Dialogues in Dream The Life and Zen Teachings of Muso Soseki by Muso Soseki and Thomas Yuho Kirchner.

Before I get to the book, a little background on Soseki:

Although his name is barely known in the West, Muso Soseki (1275-1351) was a very important figure in Japanese Buddhism; . I blogged about Soseki in 2011. He was a monk in Rinzai Zen’s Five Mountain system of temples, and perhaps he was the most famous monk in Japan during his time. Emperor Go-Daigo conferred upon him the honorific title of “national Zen teacher” (Muso Kokushi). He was also a calligrapher and a poet, and best known today for his gardens.

Gardens are an integral part of Japanese culture. Garden design is strongly related to the philosophies of Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism. The gardens of Buddhist temples are intended to create a spiritual ambiance and to provide a peaceful setting for meditation. Soseki maintained that creating gardens in itself was a way to practice Buddhism.

Hasui-Torii-web-2To the right you see a print by Hasui Torii (1833-1957) called “Moonlit Night at Miyajima” that is used for the cover of Dialogues in Dream (you can click on it to see full size). I have not read this book but I did look at a preview here, that included this passage from a piece called “The Buddha Law and Worldly Affairs”:

[Some people] use landscape gardens to ward off sleepiness and boredom as an aid in their practice of the Way. This is something truly noble and is not at all the same as the delight ordinary people take in gardens. However, since such people still make a distinction between gardens and the practice of the Way, they cannot be called true Way-followers.

Then there are those who regard mountains, rivers, grass, trees, tiles, and stones to be their own Original Nature. Their love for gardens may resemble worldly affection, but they employ that affection in their aspiration for the Way, using as part of their practice the changing scenery of the grasses and trees throughout the four seasons. One who can do this is truly an exemplar of how a follower of the Way should consider a garden.

Therefore it cannot be said that a love of gardens is necessarily a bad thing, or necessarily a good thing. In gardens themselves there is no gain or loss—such judgments occur only in the human mind.”

If we understand non-duality, and if we are truly engaged with Buddhist practice (meditation), then we know there is no real separation between practice and non-practice. Everything, even mundane everyday activities, is practice. This is what Soto Zen master Dogen meant in his “Instructions to the Tenzo (cook)” when he wrote, “When you prepare food, do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind.” The instructions are not just for the cook but for everyone. To an ordinary “human” mind, creating a garden is just creating a garden, but to a “practice mind” or “Buddha mind” it is, as Soseki is quoted elsewhere in the book as saying, “attempting through them [gardens] to refine [the] mind.”

There is much more in Dialogue in a Dream than this.  In Soseki’s writings he discussed many different aspects of Buddha-dharma.  From what I’ve read so far it appears that scholar Thomas Yuho Kirchner provides a compressive biography of Soseki and analysis of his dharma teachings, as well as complete translation of this work, Muchu Mondo, by Soseki, first published in 1344.

In another piece from Dialogue, Soseki succinctly explains why simply reading Buddhist texts and commentaries and listening to teacher’s dharma talks are not enough:

The reason that followers of the Way are discouraged from intellectual pursuits is to encourage them to relinquish their attachment to material good fortune and the defiled wisdom of the secular world, as well as to seek the Great Wisdom of their own inherent truth.”

Everywhere we go, we carry our inherent truth with us, and we can also carry our practice. Whether we are in a garden, walking down a street, shopping in a store, standing up or lying down, everywhere we go and everything we do provides us with an opportunity to practice and to see our own truth.