Over 500 years before the development of "Modern Art", monks were saying things with metaphor in the temple dirt. The ‘Zen Gardens’, called dry landscapes in Japanese, sometimes have very specific meanings.
In Kyoto there is a tiny garden called the Eastern-Water Drop-Pot (above). It explains the Law of Cause and Effect and the value of a clear heart. It refers to a quote from the Buddha: "Even drops of water can make an ocean; dust particles a mountain." Our apparently insignificant actions become causes for great effects. The garden is completely enclosed by raised paths and rooves, but the garden itself has no roof. This allows the rain to drop into the "pot". There may be a reference here to the Buddha's words: "Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good."
Further, the rocks represent a frog jumping into the pond. It is said the effect of the jump is a wave that goes out and, if strong enough, the wave will come back to push the frog out of the water again. This is used as a metaphor for our intentional actions. If we act strongly, with a heart that bears no selfish desires or anger, our actions create far more powerful effects that will eventually return to support us. The garden itself is an example of this idea. Although it is the smallest Zen Temple Garden in Japan, its deep meaning and sincerity of purpose make it very powerful.
Other gardens are more abstract, but still function. The mind is very flexible if we practice flexibility. This ability to think flexibly is useful in ordinary life and in the pursuit of Zen. Some people see the gardens as images of hills with their peaks poking above the clouds. Some people see tigers crossing a river. Some people see islands rising from the sea. Some see a lake or heaven itself. Some people see only rocks. What do you see in the gardens?
Modern life is full of distractions. Our minds weren't built to absorb all the information coming at us. Even when these temples were built, the outside city life was busy and full of entertaining distractions. At breakfast, we think of work. At work we think of going home; while going home we plan our weekend. How much time do we spend right now, right where we are?
Visiting a garden with a few rocks in it gives our mind just enough information to feel comfortable. Here we can train our mind to stop jumping about from one unrelated subject to another. In this way, it is similar to the breath counting meditation. Calming the mind, like calming water, allows the dirt to settle, and the water to clear.
This is one reason to put a Zen garden into your life. In other chapters I will explain different Zen gardens you can build from desktop micro-models and computerised virtual gardens to full size versions.