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The Jesuit Connection to Japanese Gardens and Tea Ceremony


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The Cultural and Historical Background:
Japanese Gardens and the Tea Ceremony

Just as the Gothic cathedral was the signature cultural expression of medieval Christian Europe, the Zen tea garden is a singular expressions of East Asian culture. (Both were created in the same era.) Japan's monastic, artistic and political elite built formal gardens and cultivated a tea ceremony that expressed the synthesis of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism; these diffused an ecumenical tradition throughout Japanese society. Preserved and cultivated up to the present, Zen gardens and tea ceremony still stimulate individuals to contemplate nature, and consider their place among fellows humans and amidst mountains and streams.

Gardens and Tea were developed to provide spaces outside of the profane sphere where individuals could contemplate the spiritual dimensions of life. In the simple and natural garden landscapes they crafted, and through the process of making and drinking tea in a highly simplified format, the greatest religious and artistic virtuosi of the era [1200-1800] sought to express the teachings of the Buddha, Daoist and Confucian sages in concrete ways, while harmonizing them with the veneration of nature found in Shinto. Stones and plantings suggest the Buddha nature in all things; in the movement along the garden path from gateway to tea house, the hidden energy of the cosmos can be felt, a force [qi] that Daoists envision flowing through and linking the natural world with humanity; the subtle profundity [yugen] and innate dignity of humanity [ren] as taught by Confucius is conveyed in the customs of the tea house; the majesty of the arranged stones viewed from the tea garden alludes to the sacred mountains of Japan.

There are two types of Zen garden. One is the dry landscape garden [karesansui] that is designed to be viewed from a specific vantage point, usually at the edge of a monastic meditation hall. The wall-enclosed arrangement of moss-lined boulders amidst a field of raked stone or sand provides a wealth of contemplative themes.

The second garden type is the roji, a "dewy path" that leads the person from the garden gateway to the simple confines of a tea house. Trees (both wild and cultivated), the array of paving stones, a bamboo grove, basins for purification…all are arranged to suggest a trail leading outside the confines of normal life and into a small and simple space where a spiritual encounter can unfold and contemplative grace can be won.

On a bench outside the small teahouse, guests remove their Shoes and enter the door cut low so all must bow to enter the tatami mat-covered floor. Inside, a single sprig of the currently flowering tree has been arranged in a small alcove. The tea master kneels behind a simple hearth. Soon he will boil water, whisk the powdered tea into a frothy (and delicious) broth, and serve it with gentle dignity in large handmade bowls to appreciative guests. Snacks or a small meal may be prepared as well. Little is said, but the fullness of being present in simplicity abides. Within the teahouse - where all are equal and where nothing artificial should be found -a basic exchange of artful service and grateful sustenance occurs, fostering an immersion into the "eternal present."

The success of the great medieval Japanese masters who made gardens and cultivated tea ceremony is still evident today. Zen gardens, writes one authority, "hold together the culture of Japan's past, an important source of balance amidst the unceasing socioeconomic changes the nation has undergone." The moral, aesthetic, and religious ideas embodied in the Japanese garden open a window on the past, while also speaking to the present. To encounter garden and teahouse with understanding, then, is to have access the wellsprings of East Asian civilization and one of humanity's most sublime aesthetic creations.