Endless Path: Zen

by James Harrison
London, Flame Tree Publishing, 2006
Quotes by Peter Fritz Walter

Zen and the Home

A key appeal of Zen to people in our fast-paced era is its simplicity—its seeking of a stripped-down, clutter-free approach to life, where less is more, space is central and time as as much as you set aside.

The beauty of Zen is not just in its pared-down meditative and spiritual approach to daily life, but also in the application of its minimalist approach to the many practical everyday things you do.

You can tap into Zen as a way to relax, to perform gentle martial arts and even to steer you in pursuit of sporting excellence. You can apply it to guide you in laying out your home interior spaces and designing your garden. You can even practice Zen in your approach to cooking, flower arranging and serving tea.

Traditional Japanese houses were influenced by the guiding hand of Zen in contemplation and calmness, combined with the natural Japanese love of scarcity. They have open spaces, clean lines and geometric shapes, as well as a sense of harmony between the private interior and the garden exterior, a wooden veranda sometimes linking the two.

While it might be idealistic to expect a sudden transformation from muddled, lived-in, child-friendly Western interiors to austere, architect-oriented settings, you could aim to achieve a Zen space where you can meditate, allowing one room to be clutter-free. 

Space, light, order and openness are key to Zen spirit, in the home. A simple way to achieve this is to buy or build simple storage spaces. Basic cupboards with sliding doors are the traditional Japanese way of keeping things uncluttered. Installing a rail for clothing and boxes for books, CDs and DVDs, in an alcove or recess and fixing a blind or curtain in front will do just as well. In this way you continue the sense of space, continuity and fluidity around the room. 

Another storage option is a simple square or oblong trunk or chest (in Japan these are traditionally made of natural wood such as pine) in which you can store possessions.

In Japan, traditional sliding latticework panels covered with translucent white rice paper are used to screen off areas and create inner-room partitions. Shoji screens as they are called—or variations on that design—can be purchased at most furniture shops.

Use such a screen to cover an unsightly interior, storage or shelving areas or to divide a living, working or sleeping area. That way you can create a Zen meditation space, either on an ad hoc or a more permanent basis.

In traditional Japanese homes, plain tatami straw mats are used on the floor. Often beige in color, they are traditionally made of tightly packed straw, with two cloth borders and a rush cover. They offer a surprising amount of insulation and comfort.

The Zen way of life certainly focuses on a quiet, still and pared-down environment, both to avoid distractions and to help you be closer to nature to your true self. This does not mean you have to be uncomfortable, cold, or having nothing to gaze at or contemplate. Cushions, simple fires (real or otherwise) and personal artefacts are perfectly acceptable.

Zen Gardens

Ryoanji is a famous Zen garden in Kyoto, Japan, which Zen monks use for quiet contemplation and meditation. People come from all over the world to visit this garden because it is the embodiment of Zen; in one glance, it says more than 1,000 words about the Zen Way and where it travels.

The dry garden of Ryoanji temple, Kyoto, is over 650 years old. There you will find raked sand with structured lines drawn into the sand and 15 stones placed perfectly into the garden. It is said that you cannot see all the stones together at any one time or from any single perspective. It is beautifully serene and still, abstract yet full of function, sweeping and directing the eye yet never giving up all scenic shapes in one view. It appears dry, superficially dull and stark in its textures and colors, yet it offers a great deal to the realm of the senses.

Researchers at Kyoto University, Japan, have used computer analysis to study the garden and discover why it has such a calming effect on the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come every year. Was it that the rocks were symbols, representing a tigress crossing the sea with her cubs? Or were they the Chinese characters for the heart? Using image analysis, they found that the seemingly random collections of rocks and moss on this simple gravel rectangle formed the outline of a tree’s branches.

So this apparently empty space created the image of a tree in the subconscious mind, and the unconscious perception of this pattern contributes to the enigmatic appeal of the garden.

Groups of skilled craftsmen called senzui kawaromono (‘mountain, stream and riverbed people’) were responsible for creating a new style of garden, known as koresansui (‘dry mountain stream’). Heavily influenced by Zen, groups of rocks represent mountains or waterfalls, and white sand is used to replace flowing water. This form of garden, not seen in any other part of the world, was probably influenced by Chinese ink-painted landscapes of barren mountains and dry riverbeds. Examples include the rock garden at the temples of Ryoanji and Daitokuji, both in Kyoto.

Zen gardens are not to everyone’s taste—the apparent random positioning of unhewn rocky outcrops, some covered in moss, and the linear shaping of gravel are austere to those used to a profusion of borders and color and wide expanses of lawn.

Western gardening is so much about statement and flourishes and cramming empty spaces with some eye-catching arrangement. Zen gardens are the opposite. They are about reducing the number of elements to a minimum and using the spaces between to create a harmonious experience. They are about soothing the senses rather than stimulating them.

Balance and harmony are the heart of the Zen garden, reflecting the Tao symbol of yin and yang: the two opposing forces of nature—male/female, outer/inner, darkness/lightness. The opposites are harmonious, however, because they are mutually interdependent. They balance and maintain harmony. The dark and light colored halves are mirror images making up a whole. In each half there is the tiny circle containing the other half’s color. This symbolizes that one cannot exist without the other, that yin and yang are inseparable.

So it is in the garden—yin is represented by sand and gravel. Zen gardens are dry, so this takes the place of water, which is a ‘soft’ yin element. This is counterbalanced by the ‘hard’ yang elements of rock or clumps of bamboo.

Individual rock groupings are planted to create harmonious shapes such as triangles, though it may be very subtle. The rocks are also symbolic of the mountains where the monks went to meditate, so these rocks are not just positioned on top but rooted firmly below the ground level of the garden.

Types of Zen Garden

There are several types of Zen garden today.

Tusukiyama or landscape with a pond or hill. This garden is designed around a meandering path that has stepping stones and bridges that pass over a stream or pond. The views change at each bend.

Karesansui or dry rock with gravel or sand (the archetypal Zen garden). Specifically designed, almost ‘brush-painted’ for contemplation, these gardens are inward-looking, simplistic, three-dimensional representations of grand Japanese landscapes of misty mountains, gorges, waterfalls and forests. Ryoanji, created with just 15 rocks and white sand on a flat piece of ground, is also typical of flat-style gardens, whose motif was taken from the sea, lakes and ponds.

Chaniwa or tea garden. Tea gardens were developed in conjunction with the tea ceremony, as taught by Sen no Rikyu. It was through the tea garden, which avoided artificiality and was created so as to retain a highly natural appearance, that one approached the tea house. Elements included stepping stones, stone lanterns, and clusters of trees. The simply designed gazebos in which guests are served tea also have their origin in the tea garden. They were planted at the end of the roji, or dewy path. The tea house was modeled on a monk’s rustic retreat. Often there would be a tsukubai, a constantly replenished water basin surrounded by carefully placed stones. The fresh water is used to make the tea. All this condensed the experience of a monk walking through the mountains to a hideaway.

Zen and Flower Arrangement


Bamboo is an extraordinarily versatile plant. It can be used to make a shelter with pillars and roof, adapted for a rake, a fishing pole, a storage container or a flower vase. In a Japanese tea ceremony it is used for stirring and scooping.

Above all, bamboo has a natural rustic beauty very much in keeping with Zen. The sound of bamboo leaves rustling in the wind or raindrops striking the shoots is highly evocative.


Lotus is an iconic plant in Zen, because it is a symbol of peace and perfection. It is also the name of the zazen sitting position—an open, receptive, beautifully balanced and rooted stance.

Zen and Flower Arranging

The art of flower arranging, for it is an art, is called ikebana in Japan. The vases and flowers are the tools and materials with which the artist works.

It is closely entwined with Zen because it is a manifestation (like raking the gravel, or making the ta) of the pursuit and development of mental composure and, through that, the contemplation of our inner nature.

When the early Zen monks took the central ideas of Zen and applied them to their daily lives, it was their living quarters and gardens which became important to them. Arranging flowers and studying their shape and form can tell you something new you did not realize before. They are the very essence of a Zen experience each time you look at them and so open up the possibilities of enlightenment.

A flower design and arrangement is a natural way to help focus the mind because it is so superficially simple and refined, yet so deeply complicated, working on many levels. By concentrating on this quiet and natural interplay you are unconsciously emptying your mind and filling it with no-mind. The simple perfection of the flower shapes should wash over you.

Flower arranging is also part of creating a Zen living space and can be an integral part of your meditation area.

The choice of flowers is down to personal taste, seasonal availability and cost, but more exotic varieties such as orchids or birds of paradise, cut sunflowers, morning glory or snake grass work well. Red roses and pink peonies are also effective.

The key to Zen expression and experience is in the relationship between your patient contemplation and the forms and shapes you arrange. Allow time and space to express this even though it is a largely spontaneous act. Do not cram the plants or allow them to be obscured.

Flower arranging is a meditation in itself, and the result is something to inspire as a focus for later meditation—both an end and a means to an end.

Zen and Cooking

The Zen tradition touches all parts of day-to-day living and this applies to the kitchen as much as to the garden or tea house. The ancient Zen monks took as much care and attention in their food preparation as in their zazen preparation. Dogen wrote two reference works much studied in the monasteries: A Guide for the Kitchen Supervisor and Instructions for the Zen Cook.

It was an old monastery cook who showed the gifted Zen master and monk Dogen a fundamental Zen way. Dogen had just arrived from China at a Japanese port. The cook turned up at the ship to buy Japanese mushrooms. Dogen asked him to stay awhile and talk but the cook insisted he had to get back to his kitchen to cook. Dogen was a bit taken aback and asked the cook why he did not practice zazen and leave the cooking to younger monks. The cook berated Dogen; did not the newly arrived, naive Japanese monk know anything about the spirit of Zen?

Dogen came to realize that Zen was all about the everyday and the ordinary: ‘Each and every extraordinary activity is simply having rice.’

The Zen style of cooking is called shojin ryori, which loosely means ‘spiritual wellbeing through vegetarian cooking,’ though followers of Zen do not have to be vegetarians.

The monk is charge of the monastery kitchen is the tenzo—a highly responsible and important role.

They prepared and cooked food according to Zen guidelines, as follows:

—To harmonize the six tastes: bitter, sour (or vinegary), sweet, hot, salty and delicate (or soft, as in tofu);

—To develop flavors in the mouth rather than ‘hit’ the eater on the first mouthful;

—To balance taste, texture, nutrition and diet;

—To prepare with total absorption—so the rice is washed and inspected to be totally free of grit and chaff, the vegetables washed and the pots boiled.

—To waste nothing;

—To do everything with love and attention for detail.

Zen Monastery Food

Three-bowl cooking is a traditional way of serving food in a Zen monastery, and has practical applications in the modern Western kitchen. There should be:

—One bowl for carbohydrates such as pasta, rice or potatoes;

—One small bowl for protein such as tofu, pulses or dairy food;

—One small bowl for a sald, fruit salad or vegetables.

The monks eat according to oriyoki, which means ‘containing just enough’—another fine principle for the Western diet to follow.

Zen Diet Guidelines

As a vegetarian diet is encouraged, those who want to apply Zen principles to their eating must make sure they make up the shortfall in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals from missing out on meat. As part of a sustainable vegetarian diet, you should include:

Protein, needed for the growth and repair of all body cells. Protein is provided by foods such as eggs, milk, yoghurt, cheese and soya-bean productions such as tofu, all of which contain many of the essential amino acids we need. Other foods such as beans, peas, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds also provide a valuable source of protein.

Carbohydrates, which supply the body with energy. Simple carbohydrates tend to be found in sugars and sweet foods. Complex carbohydrates are a vital part of a healthy diet and these are provided by rice, pasta, bread, potatoes and other vegetables, as well as many fruits. Many of these complex carbohydrate foods also provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Vitamins and minerals have many vital functions, such as keeping the nervous system and other tissues healthy, helping to maintain healthy eyes, skin and hair, and helping to protect against disease. A balanced vegetarian diet should supply many of these, although some vegetarians choose to supplement their intake of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc.

Fats are needed in small amounts in everyone’s diet, to maintain healthy, balanced eating. However, many of us eat far too much fat and we should all be looking to reduce our overall fat intake, especially of saturated fats (found in butter, cream, milk), as this contributes to a rise in blood cholesterol levels and may lead to coronary heart disease. Instead we should choose unsaturated fats such as olive and sunflower oils, as these are healthier types of fat and thought to help lower cholesterol levels.

Zen for Inner Strength

Tai chi chuan is one of the most popular exercise systems coming from the Chinese and Japanese traditions of martial arts. It originated in China over 2,000 years ago and developed into a set pattern of postures and movements which connect and flow into each other to produce ‘moving meditation.’ In its slow, deliberate movements and ‘total mindfulness’ it is a natural preparation for Zen, even when applied to self-defense skills.

Tai chi means ‘great polarity boxing,’ and the ideal yin and yang—the apparently opposing, but complementary forces—are fundamental to the release of energy flow. Basically it is an exercise system that channels physical energy to improve balance, stability and flexibility towards spiritual strength and contemplation. It also happens to be a great way to reduce tension.

The beauty of tai chi is that you do not have to be athletic to practice it. In fact you need to be relaxed and feel yourself ‘sinking’ into each posture with a sense of precision to what is called the tan tien point, two-fingers’ width below the navel where energy is said to be stored in the abdomen.

There is total concentration on the movements in the muscles, joints, ligaments and bones and the body revolves around ‘sinking’ movements combined with slow, deep breathing from the diaphragm. The slow turn from the waist, which characterize much of modern tai chi, can be managed by young and old alike, and are designed to encourage the physical and mental calm while strengthening muscles, balance, flexibility and a well-aligned body.

Horse-Riding Stance

This basic position arises from the ancient martial arts tradition of Shaolin Kung Fu, originally a fighting and self-defense discipline. Today it includes many of the techniques of other martial arts, including the punches of karate, the kicks of toe kwon do, and the throws of judo.

We need a trained teacher to take any martial arts seriously, but you can try this quite tiring stance to understand the idea of ki (Japanese) and qi (Chinese) ‘breath’ or ‘life force.’

(1) Stand with your feet apart at shoulder width, keeping your body upright and relaxed.

(2) Clench your fists, drawing them in at either side of your waist.

(3) Bend your knees, keeping your back straight, and lower your body as though riding on horseback. Empty your mind, ‘placing’ your thoughts in your lower abdomen.

(4) Hold this position for a minute, if you can, breathing deeply. Release the stance if you feel strained.

Standing Zen

Another stretching exercise to encourage overall energy flow before meditating and to help with breath control and visualization techniques is this ‘lifting the sky’ exercise.

(1) Stand with feet fairly close together, arms straight by your side.

(2) Place both your hands palm down, fingers just touching end to end in front of you at navel level.

(3) With arms still straight, raise your palms in a continuous arc forward and upward until your palms face the sky. Hold this pose and count to three. Try to inhale slowly through the nose.

(4) Slowly lower your arms in a large continuous arc, exhaling slowly, until your arms rest at your side. Repeat the whole sequence six times.

Zen and the Art of Tea

Tea is sipped by Zen monks as a protection against falling asleep during meditation. It keeps the head clear and invigorates the mind, hence the saying ‘the taste of Zen (ch’an) and the taste of tea (ch’a) are the same.’ Certainly the closeness of the two words in Chinese is interesting.

Tea and Zen have gone together ever since monks first used it to help stimulation and to stay awake in meditation. One of the first Zen masters, Eisai, is said to have brought tea seeds from China and introduced tea as part of monastic ceremonies.

Serving tea is as pared down as Zen itself. Traditionally, the ceremony takes place in a simple thatched hut known as the ‘abode of vacancy.’ The room is framed by a tatami and shoji and a fire-pit. There is an alcove called a takonoma in which a scroll of calligraphy or spray of flowers is arranged.

Utensils are basic and the room spartan apart from some arranged flowers or a single drawing or item of calligraphy.

Numbers vary from two to four or five people, and the ceremony begins with the special kettle literally singing, creating a tranquil phonic welcome (replicating the sound of water rushing or wind blowing). There ceremony has meticulous methods, including how the finely powdered green tea is whisked with bamboo and poured and served and how the drink should be given and received.

Imagine a minimalist interior. Perhaps the only object is a flower arrangement or calligraphy drawing. Visualize a stillness, with maybe the sound of the water bubbling and later the distinct sound of tea pouring into a cup.

Such attention and simplicity is what Zen is all about: focusing on the detail of the ceremony can be liked to being in meditation and moments of insight or flashes of awareness can occur in the graceful movements of tea serving—it is not just reserved for the stillness of zazen.

The tea ceremony is not really about pouring tea: it is about the idea of pouring one’s conscious thinking and being into this one activity so that it expands infinitely in the present. It imbues—and acts as a foretaste to—many other disciplines associated with Zen such as gardening, pottery, and the art of flower arranging.

The Art of Calligraphy

Calligraphy is the bold, vigorous brush strokes of black ink on paper or silk, sometimes with poetry and painting combined. Not all calligraphy is Zen-related, but Zen and calligraphy are close to each other in their spontaneous approach to an empty mind and a blank canvas.

The artist uses the ink brush to be expressive, sometimes using meditation to achieve clear, sharp lines with vivid expression. A beautiful image may result, but that is not the objective.

The empty space is as important as the swirling lettering or image of a sword or flower. The black of the ink can be varied by the amount of water absorbed by the sharply pointed brush. The brush is loaded with ink ready to transmit to the canvas. The artist holds the brush upright—there is no resting of the wrists on the paper or silk—and there can be no second tries. It is immediate and without correction; the first stroke is the final stroke.

In its simplest form, Zen asks us to live in the moment, to be open to our surroundings, to clear the mind and achieve awareness. This seems to be tailor-made for the artist and especially for the calligrapher. The images may look simple, but they are skillfully created. Zen calligraphers clear their desks and minds of distractions before picking up the pen. Then they allow no tracings or corrections, no helpful ruling up or line spacings.

Their ability to make a pure line is helped by the philosophy that a line is no more than a series of consecutive points, painted in each moment. Again the emphasis is to stay in the present.

True creation comes from the state of mu-shin (‘no mind’) beyond thoughts, emotions and expectations so that the sho brush is the artist. The calligrapher expresses Zen through the fine, pliant hairs of the brush, the carbon that makes up the ink (itself a life force) and the spontaneous and instant brushed letter work.

There is crossover with another Zen-inspired art, that of the tea ceremony. Sen no Rikyu (1522-91), who established many of the essential rituals of the tea ceremony suggested that a Zen calligraphy in the alcove of a tearoom was the most important ‘utensil’ in bringing host and guest together in devotion.

Poetry and Haiku

When you meet a man who is a master swordsman, show him your sword. When you meet a man who is not a poet, do not show him your poem.

Zen poetry, like Zen painting and Zen flower arranging, is about capturing the essence of an object. Likewise, a Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry closest in spirit to the approach of Zen. It is brief, perhaps the shortest form of poetry known, yet it opens up a visual world that can be meditated upon deeply and endlessly.

A classic haiku is typically a three-line, 17-syllable verse with five syllables in line one, followed by seven in line two, and five syllables in line three. The exact number of syllables can vary as they are lost or gained in translation from the Japanese.

This form of Zen poetry appears to be preoccupied with the minutiae of nature and seasons—the crane’s wings, the fall of snow, a still pond—but they are bound up with sabi (a solitary mood reflecting the beauty in simplicity) and wabi (an emptiness suddenly filled with a seemingly ordinary object, yet incredible in its ordinariness). As with the other Zen arts, a haiku knows when to stop.

The Zen Companion

by James Harrison
Quotes by Peter Fritz Walter

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
—Shunryu Suzuki

Before a person studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are not waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters:
—Zen Saying

I’m not young enough to know everything.
—J.M. Barrie

The willow is green; flowers are red.
—Zen Saying

The flower is not red, nor is the willow green.
—Zen Saying

—If you have to ask what Jazz is, you’ll never know.
—Louis Armstrong

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
—Tao Te Ching

The thing about Zen is that it pushes contradictions to their ultimate limit where one has to choose between madness and innocence. And Zen suggests that we may be driving toward one or the other on a cosmic scale. Driving toward them because, one way or the other, as madmen or innocents, we are already there. It might be good to open our eyes and see.
—Thomas Merton

Every da people are straying away form church and going back to God.
—Lenny Bruce

Love God and do what you will.
—St. Augustine

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
—William Blake

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.
—Meister Eckhart

If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?

The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
—Robert M. Pirsig

Zen is the unsymbolization of the world.
—R.H. Blyth

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
—Gertrude Stein

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.
—Yasutani Roshi

In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.

What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?
—Berthold Brecht

To be a man of knowledge one needs to be light and fluid.
—Yaqui Mystic

Act without doing; work without effort.
—Tao Te Ching

We think in generalities, but we live in detail.
—Alfred North Whitehead

When the student is ready, the Master appears.
—Buddhist Proverb

Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.
—Chinese Proverb

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.

Water which is too pure has no fish.
—Ts’ai Ken T’an

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
—Tao Te Ching

Where there are humans you’ll find flies, and Buddhas.

When the Many are reduced to One, to what is the One reduced?
—Zen Koan

Categories zenTags
%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close