Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part VII, The Chinese Garden and Gift Shop Rapture

You might agree that most gardens of an ornamental nature are intended to give the visitor a sense that the world is a beautiful place. And under the auspices of human ministration, the chaos of wild nature is tamed and framed into a kind of heaven on earth. We could say it is an attempt at creating transcendence. For if there is any place we should expect to experience timeless transcendence, it should be in a place called heaven.

Fan Kuan (early 11th c.), Travelers Among Mountains and Streams

My ideal of a heaven, which is closely aligned with true freedom, would more closely match the chaotic, yet elegant, wild nature you might find in a Northern Song Dynasty landscape painting. But I am not at all adverse to visiting manicured gardens around one of those pavilions that sometimes appear down in the corner of one of those ink on silk scrolls. Barely visible, they are dwarfed by the dark, woolly mountains and monoliths that dominate the landscape. But transcendence should not only spread out from the wilderness to the garden, but onward to the home, the city street, the work place, and even the market place. In the words of Dogen Zenji, the 13th century Japanese monk who discovered Zen in China, and brought it back to his country, “Those who regard mundane activity as an obstacle to the Buddha-dharma, know only that there is no Buddha-dharma in the mundane life; they do not yet know that there is no mundane life in the Buddha-dharma.”

On the Huntington Garden’s map guide is a place called the Chinese Garden, that looked to be in the direction I was headed on this last afternoon of my L.A. jaunt. I had not recalled seeing such a place in previous visits so I followed the meandering waterway past a stone Buddha propped up against the real and faux rocky embankment, where falling rivulets tumble down into the creek. Up ahead at a slightly higher elevation were what looked to be ornate Chinese structures surrounded by foliage. The Chinese Garden is dominated by these pavilions with moon gates, elegant marble tiled courtyards, an iron lattice and glass teahouse, and a wide pond filled with giant carp. All around the pond are unique rock formations displayed like sculpture. They are sometimes occasioned by Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucianist sayings carved in both Chinese and English. The rock formations are like twisted tufa, something out of a fantastical fantasy landscape. They are called gongshi, scholar’s rocks, and are of limestone with natural porous erosion, giving the shape like frozen curling smoke eaten through by giant, stone digesting termites. They come from only a few regions of China famous for these formations. Once I ascended to this Asian Rivendell I wondered along the ornate bridges and gazebos surrounding the pond and gazed at the reflection of the scene on the still waters. Here and there in small alcoves were specimens of penzai, the art form the Japanese imported from China, which came to be known in the US by the Japanese name bonsai. A few banners on the edges of the garden declared new pavilions that were due to be developed. The Chinese Garden is all new since I had visited this place before, and expanding. Another reason to frequent Los Angeles more often, as I was continually discovering on this L.A. excursion.

It was late afternoon and I had yet to make plans for my last L.A. meal. Pleasantly I discovered the pavilions around the iron latticed teahouse contained a small kitchen run by authentic Latino cooks. I ordered a rice congee dish that had a bit of pork sausage and herbs artfully dabbed in the center. I took my dish to a table just under the eaves of the teahouse and sat watching the pond while I fumbled around trying to recall my chopstick eating method. It was well worth the challenge as the dish was sublime. For some reason the Chinese Garden seemed more subdued, the wanderers less chatty than the crowd at the Japanese Garden. Maybe it was getting near closing time and there were just less people. Or maybe it was my interior that became more subdued as my phone battery had died, so I was freed from the compulsion to capture images. I lingered in this garden until dusk began its opening acts. The Huntington closes at 5:00 pm and this was a couple of days past the winter solstice. Hazy skies were already starting to wash out into the grey monochromes of early evening. I made a last circle around toward the Japanese Garden to discover another bonsai exhibit with some suiseki, the Japanese take on scholar’s rocks. These were black molten looking entities that called forth the hand to touch the smooth parts of the surface. As I descended the steps from the hill of the Japanese House I was directed by attendants to make my way toward the exit as closing time was approaching. I walked through the Rose Garden and the Shakespeare Garden. I took a flashing glimpse at a couple of statues in a classical sculpture dotted u-shaped hedgerow. Scenes and gardens I do hope to revisit again for a longer duration.

As it was a couple of days before Christmas the gift shop stayed open later, and as I wandered the store glimpsing the gardening and art books and other arty merchandise, I got that feeling again I sometimes get. That feeling that everyone is focused on the objects on the shelves, but are missing the real treasure in the room. That treasure is the people themselves. I know I complained slightly, in a previous post, of the overly chatty people in the Japanese Garden, but here they seemed more hushed, as they concentrated on what was worthy of a purchase. There were certainly busy holiday purchasing noises and friends and loved ones discussing the merits of books and objects. But here I could abandon the judgment of the value of goods and become enraptured with the simple movement of the people. I guess in a way, it was my own interior that had quieted down to such a degree a space opens where what one sees is simply what one sees, without judgement attached. Looking through these eyes is the place perhaps where unconditional love lies. It is unconcerned with political views and opinions of the people one gazes at, but just enjoys the exquisite human form, no matter if old or young, handsome or peculiar, joyous or sad. The variety of dress or mannerisms becomes something truly to rejoice in, whether or not they wear it well. The faces sculpted by years of those joys and pains. The sculptor working off a template of millions of years of evolution.

This reverie I can find myself in from time to time on a fairly regular basis, has only come later in life. And I believe as a result of years of meditation practice. It has the undeniable quality of what Buddhists call suññatā. The word translates as emptiness or voidness. Not the emptiness of loss or want, but the emptiness of personal attachment to any fixed idea of oneself. Even to an attachment to anything at all. It is the direct experience of this thing that one reads about called anattā. When one starts to really see all the phenomena of life and its resultant joys and sorrows one grasps at or tries to avoid, is impermanent, and then the grasping and avoiding is realized as fruitless. Thus one sees, as Bhikkhu Bodhi comments, “Since they cannot be subjected to control, these very factors of our being are anattā: not a self, not the belongings of a self, just empty, ownerless phenomena occurring in dependence on conditions.” Contrary to what one might expect of this realization, of a hopelessness that all is beyond our control, the experience is one of a profound love. A giddiness that blossoms like a blooming lotus in time lapse photography. It is the experience of unity beyond trite new age and hippie anachronisms that ‘all is one.’ And it is a rather quiet ecstasy, that one is reluctant to bring up with anyone. You can’t express it in words, and even if you think you could, you are certain your listeners would laugh it off as a marginal bit of your character that borders on fanciful lunacy. We all might agree everyone seems to have a bit of lunacy. If they are a spiritual seeker of sorts they’ll think your putting on airs, or worse they’ll be jealous of your seeming attainment.

In my travel bag book Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac, in the voice of the novel’s protagonist Ray Smith, occasionally regresses into his Neal Cassady inspired On the Road routine and descends into Mexican border towns to get drunk, smoke reefer, and cavort with prostitutes. At one point, after too many drinks he finds himself “yelling at old mustachioed Mexican peons ‘Todas las granas de arena del desierto de Chihuahua son vacuidad!’” You might argue this is that moment in my essay. But you’re not an old campesino and I’m not stoned and drunk. It’s not the vacuity of desert sand grains that creates this space I can find myself in. I don’t want to conjure up the idea of some mysterious mystical state or some rhapsodical samadhi beyond ordinary consciousness. I would say the average human, without the least bit of meditation practice, experiences something akin to suññatā when they are visiting exquisite examples of the natural world that are on display in a National Park.

Zabriskie Point

Not a view from Towne Pass, but an equally epic Death Valley view from Zabriskie Point.

When a camping buddy and I crest the Panamint Range at Towne Pass on Highway 190 and see the vastness of Death Valley horizons,  our breath is taken away. The beauty is so stunning the little concerns of our own ego, our likes and dislikes, our desires and wanting, are irrelevant. And since likely we’re going to be there for only a few days we make the most of it, by leaving our little mind concerns back on the roads we took to get there. I have a colleague and friend who doesn’t frequent National Parks much, but has a special fondness for visiting Cannon Beach on the coast of Oregon. When she gazes out at the ocean’s horizon and the sea stacks and the conifers along the dramatic coastline, I imagine during that experience there isn’t much concern for her place in the world or what will happen to her. And these states do seem to be available to us when we are in the natural world or perhaps when traveling, finding ourselves in new exotic places where our main duty is to be fully aware of all that is around us. Judgement of the things we see and experience is restrained, because we aren’t familiar, thus we are instinctively aware we do not understand enough to make any sort of judgement. And if we did, the imprint of such judgments would obscure the next scene or experience we might have in our exotic surroundings. But these are temporary moments that wash out when the situation turns uncomfortable. And especially once we are required to return home and attend to the minutia of our everyday lives. For me though, this opening of transcendence has become available and can occur in the very midst of my mundane life. Walking home from the bus stop, on a busy street corner, walking the campus full of students hurrying off to their next class, it’s all an opportunity to see through my expectations and judgments, to things just as they are. And when I do an extraordinary contentment and joy sets in. For a person who once raged at the congestion of a populous place like L.A., during even a temporary visit, having this experience of simple blossoming love, feels rather miraculous.

This is all well and good of course, but as one of my teachers likes to remind members of our sangha the ultimate point of the practice is to free oneself from dukkha, that is, from suffering. From a general malaise at the far less than ideal circumstances of our everyday lives. From being disappointed that events never turn out to our expectations. With this practice we discover that even a thing like ‘our expectations’ is a delusion. And that is the culmination of the Four Noble Truths. Yet these stretches of transcendence, whether overwhelming and bliss inducing, or subtler, like a soft hum underneath the routines of my daily errands, have a direct correlation to my ability to let the events of my life pass as they are, and as they were. Still, when this realization of the practice becomes most important to wield, when someone flips you the finger in that L.A. traffic congestion for an assumed driving slight; when the plate of food you paid good money for is bland and tasteless; and on further to when you, your friends, your colleagues, and your neighbors are on mandatory evacuation; if your home and belongings are burned up or washed away; and when loved ones die in such catastrophes, this is when the fruit of practice becomes real manna and sustenance to get you through in the end, with less damage to your well being and a shorter duration of grief.

But here’s the thing I’ve noticed about all these wisdoms one realizes for themselves through the practice. Although solid foundational cornerstones are laid and they do not go away, still there is a seeming precariousness, a fragility to attempting to fully live in this abode of equanimity. And it is dependent on how, and how much, a person takes in of the pleasures and pains of life. We like to think of travel as a heightened form of life, where sense pleasures are to be deeply indulged. As well, the potential for uncomfortable situations, for disappointments and even pain, are themselves heightened. The tenets of the Eightfold Path are more difficult to follow on the road. The Intention of Renunciation is more easily set aside. In Dharma Bums, even as Ray Smith is learning from the rucksack wandering renunciate Japhy Ryder, who himself is somehow able to manage travel and renunciation (albeit he does complain somewhere in the last half of Dharma Bums he should “get married, soon…” and that he was “tired of battin’ around like this.”), Smith is hitting the bottle far too often in his wandering state. It is only when he gets to the fire lookout on Desolation Peak, that he’s able to dedicate his attention to Right Concentration, as well as the involuntary renunciation seclusion demands. My own experience with the indulgence that travel affords can counteract potential stretches of transcendence. Even as the novelty of new places heightens my awareness and potential enjoyment, the temptation to not be prudent, to binge on the novelty, dulls the possibility of the opening of this experience of suññatā. And as there are many pleasures to be had the danger of an overstimulated ennui setting in is strong. As well, the inevitable discomforts will arise. The thoughts in my head have the potential to begin sounding like the narrative of some Paul Therouxesque slog through third world countries on decaying public transportation. It is possible I could become a mobile curmudgeon hitting the bottle of dukkha frequently. There’s something in the pursuit of the novelties of travel, that can be the very opposite of awakening.

I had no novelties to purchase at the gift shop, as I’d filled up on gifts or stocking stuffers at the Getty, to bring to Michigan. Even more than I could stuff in my carry-on baggage. As it was, I would need to check my baggage and carry an extra sack with gift shop spillover on to the plane. I let my unconditional love rhapsody subside, as it tends to do when thoughts of moving on to the next scheduled thing on the itinerary arise. I find if I try to extend the rapture beyond its natural life, beyond its waxing and waning, then the feelings become contrived, unnatural, and tarnished with ego and grasping. I just have to let it go and trust the impression stays in the background and helps to lead me to further feelings of loving kindness and harmlessness, those Right Intentions that bend toward less suffering and more harmony within myself, and with all those around me.

By the time I made it to the parking lot and the car it was dark. I listened to Google Maps Siri direct me through the elegant homes and neighborhoods of San Marino. As I knew, according to my agreement with the car rental people, that I’d have to be up at 3 AM, drive the rental back across L.A. to the Union Station, then hop a bus to LAX, I planned to get to bed early. I passed on the hotel room TV shows and read a little of Dharma Bums. Although most of the book takes place on the West Coast, Ray goes back to North Carolina and his family home for a spell. I was headed to my family home the next day. I always have good intentions to sink into a good meditation schedule when returning to that comely house in the hush of a Michigan winter. I usually fail in this endeavor. Ray seems to thrive with his practice and makes some real progress when he visits his family home. He even impresses an “old tobacco chewing stickwhittler” that maybe the meditation thing is a worthy endeavor that the old man might take on someday. After a heated argument with his brother-in-law about the denied freedom of a chained-up dog, Ray has a genuine enlightenment experience. How deep it goes or how long it lasts is up to the reader’s interpretation. Ray beat poets his own version of the Heart Sutra, “I am emptiness, I am not different from emptiness, neither is emptiness different from me…” At some point in a dream he declares, “I am Bhikku Blank Rat!” ‘O Sariputra, Form does not differ from Emptiness, And Emptiness does not differ from Form’ goes the real Heart Sutra. I would ask, ‘O Sariputra, is Jack Kerouac an inspiration for the would be Zen Buddhist?’ In the introduction to the Dharma Bums I was reading, the author Ann Douglas quotes a remark by Alan Watts, himself a character in the book named Arthur Whane, who urbanely discusses world affairs with a Kenneth Rexroth pseudonym while bohemian girls dance naked at a party. The Watts quote was that Kerouac had “Zen flesh but no Zen bones.” Even so, Kerouac’s pseudonym Ray was probably more successful than I was going to be back in our home towns. What with the holiday drink, the giant screen TV and endless cable stations, the sumptuous meals, and the inevitable entertaining that my folks provide with visiting dinner guests each night to meet their infrequently present son, my Zen flesh would drip off any fractured Zen bones I might have. Chances for rhapsodical transcendence would be slim to non-existent. But so it goes through a lot of this life. But even the mundane non-transcendent life can have a softer, less discouraging contentment. Somehow the same effort to reveal this thing called enlightenment or awakening, also reveals a simple, kindly contentment.

I ended up with maybe 5 hours of sleep and made do with a strong cup of coffee to keep me awake to the Union Station. I parked the car in the designated garage and attempted a stairwell up to the rental booth in the station to drop the key in a box. A young homeless man was fast asleep in the stairwell. My compassion, one of the attributes of the truly enlightened, has much more to grow. Besides, I only had time for a few moments of sadness for his condition, as I found an alternative route into the train station and waited for the Flyaway. For a modest $9 the Flyaway bus took me back across the city to LAX. Most of the city stays lit all night, but I slept. The caffeine had its effect when it was needed, but now I let myself be subsumed by drowsiness and an hour of unconsciousness.

Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part VI, Huntington Gardens

Los Angeles is a thriving city and buildings and gardens in a state of neglect, as I described in my last post on the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, is only a small part of the city’s landscape. For my last afternoon in the city I took the 110, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, a few miles east into Pasadena, or San Marino to be exact, to visit the Huntington Library and Gardens. I’ve been there before, once when I was a kid, and later when I lived with my brother in Anaheim. And the thing that enchanted me the most was the Japanese Garden. There are lots of buildings at the Huntington housing rare book collections and art, but the highlight of the place are the variety of ecologically-regioned gardens laid over several acres. There are the desert gardens with seemingly every kind of agave and cacti species. There’s a subtropical garden and an Australian garden. There are gardens dedicated to camellias and roses, palms and herbs. The plants all have labels giving you their Latin derived genus and species names. IMG_4893With Carl Linnaeus’s categorizing hierarchy inspired by monarchy, this place is a monument to the plant kingdom. I was a botany student for a stretch. I can tell you why plants are categorized into families because of their characteristics, their similarities. Asteraceae, Orchidaceae, Pinaceae, Moraceae. But here so much of everything is packed in like a living botanical library, where all the books are seemingly stacked willy nilly. There may be a method to the jumble, but when you have to house a huge variety of cacti from the Colorado to the Atacama Desert in a few acres, it is going to get crowded. Aloes of southern Africa send their bright orange inflorescences high above the fleshy leaves, jockeying with the agaves and the bromeliads, which have their own impressive blooms. It gives me that out of context feeling museums often engender. It fatigues me. I came here for something more transcendent than plant identification. I was hoping to locate it in the Asian gardens. An artifice that strives for natural authenticity; these gardens are created for one to move silently through stillness and poise. On my way toward them I wandered through a jungle habitat, then below tall eucalyptus of the Australian Garden. Southern California is no stranger to this genus, the Tasmanian blue gum long since naturalized. It was a busy afternoon at the Huntington and the crowds milling about gave the impression there are quite a few visiting Los Angeles that would prefer the subtle excitement of botanical gardens, to the thrill of Universal Studios. And probably quite a few locals here. Although the entrance fee is a demanding $29 at the door for the day, if you split an annual membership with a friend or loved one you’d beat that price with only three yearly visits. I’d be signing up if I lived anywhere near there.

The man behind all this, Henry Huntington, was a railroad magnate who later developed the Pacific Electric Railway Company in the Los Angeles area, the world’s largest electric railway system in the 1920s. Whether the auto industry conspired to dismantle it or its unprofitability sealed its doom, it was eventually swept away by internal combustion consumer madness. The rail line was ultimately a means to acquire and develop real estate, to which Huntington was very successful. His name is on lots of things in this area of Southern California. There’s a Huntington Drive of course, and a beach town bares his name, and a lake up in the Sierras created as a hydroelectric project to power his once extensive trolley car system. The other thing he did, like Getty, was to build an impressive art collection. Getting in on the post-World War I European art market boom, he then moved on to American art. The institution has also amassed a huge collection of rare books and manuscripts.

But I only had an afternoon and I was there to be in the gardens. I finally found myself around the Japanese House, the wooden platforms and steps, the moon bridge, and the bonsai gallery. The illusions of the bonsais as timeless ancient trees that only nature could sculpt is well represented. There was olive, gingko, elm, cypress; the juniper lends itself well to this art form. There was even a California coast live oak. A tree that knows well the twisted, curling branches and gnarled growth that gives the viewer a sense of timeless antiquity. The form of the little specimen didn’t match what a couple of centuries in the arid foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains would do, but it was a nice inclusion of a California native. It is a marvel that the roots of these trees are maintained in moss covered dirt held within the boundaries of rather shallow rectangular or oval ceramic pots. I seem to recall seeing other bonsai exhibits with age labels for each tree. Perhaps their absence here was better, giving more the illusion of timelessness.

I came around a corner to see the Zen garden with its raked gravel around stoic stones. A line of tall ginkgoes in golden leaf coloration stood on one side of a tiled walkway, the raked gravel garden on the other. I took my shoes off and sat cross legged on a wooden bench to gaze at the patterns of the raking and the stone islands. As much as I tried to maintain a silent mind I couldn’t help but be a little bothered by the chatting all around me. It seems the beautiful stillness that the gardens imply is only superficial. Something to be seen two dimensionally, as one talks with friends and family. Four kids sat or stood around a bench next to the Zen stone garden and stared at their smartphones talking about some game they were all involved in at that moment. Maybe there were pokémons in the stones that I did not see. But the kids weren’t even holding the phones up to the space to see them. This was all just an observation on my part. Nothing I was sad about. Just a pondering of how true peace and silent contemplation that such a place would instill, is only truly accessible through the interior of the people that are there. One could provide all the trappings of heaven, but the scattered worldly concerns and trivial mundanities of the visitors would soon make the heaven irrelevant. But I sat still on the bench long enough so the ebb and flow of people passing became superfluous. For some minutes I found myself completely alone staring at the carefully pruned juniper along the border of the raked gravel. People of course have the right to chat. I’ve spent many a hike in the natural world with a friend babbling on about worldly affairs, my own and the perceived rest of it in the abstraction I think of as the world. But this garden is specifically meant to hush the babble. I guess it would take more to do that than a short visit to this island of quiet contemplation in the chaotic sea of Los Angeles, but I was visiting alone, so it was accessible.

It was in a garden like this in my early adulthood where I had an epiphany of sorts. I had recently left home with everything I owned stuffed in my hatchback. I had a daytime job prep cooking in Austin, Texas, while I played guitar in 6th Street bars on open mike nights. I tried to learn live sound engineering from a guy named Delon at a place called the 311 Club. It seemed half way through the evening shows he was angry drunk and yelling at the owner of the club, of all people. The musicians I got to know lived in various stages of un-residents, as did I. Couch surfing, car sleeping, some of them maybe had rooms somewhere. The clubs didn’t need to pay anyone to perform. The supply far outpaced the demand. The singer in one band would come down off the stage near the end of their set with a big Stetson held upside down in the palm of his hand. He continued to sing as he held it out, so the crown would get fairly stuffed. Still, for an entire band it was measly pay. And the musicians on 6th Street jockeyed for attention, elbowing each other in the desire to be noticed. The Darwinian aspect of the whole thing turned me off. There was lots of alcohol and drugs. I had a daytime job but I wanted to get away from restaurant work. Maybe it was because I was fresh to the town and only just newly off on my own, away from home, but the whole thing depressed me. It didn’t seem these people were headed in a healthy direction, whether or not they were going to have success. Maybe I hadn’t completely understood at the time that I was looking for a healthy direction, whatever that might be. And this part of me was diverting from the musician part of me. Or at least I wanted a direction that wed both the music and a more wholesome lifestyle. That wasn’t what was on offer in Austin. If it’s offered anywhere for a performer.

It was a long time ago and all the forces that moved me at the time cannot be adequately accounted for. There was a Japanese garden on a hillside across Austin’s Colorado River. A place I visited a couple of times while I was living there. One night after another sordid evening on 6th Street, I found myself in that garden after closing time. There was no fence, nothing that stopped me from taking repose there on a waxing moon night. As I sat on a wooden bench and watched the reflection of the moon on a pond dappled with water lilies, I felt a profound sense of gentleness to my situation. Even a kind of promise of potential transcendence. A limitless horizon that was not contingent on whether I was to be a hot guitar player on the scene or not. It was so long ago, but I do remember the feeling. It was only shortly after that I ditched Austin and went out west to join my older brother. A series of discoveries, as well as mishaps, would follow, but it was a pivotal moment in that part of my journey.

At the Huntington gardens there is a pond below the Japanese House. I walked down to it to gaze at the moon bridge, then followed a path along a creek. The garden is carefully constructed to give the impression of nature as the gardener. Even so, evidence of concrete pourings made to look like granite and sandstone, which might improve water cascade flow and more dramatic pond edge reflection, still remind you that this is a nature inspired scene according to a human schedule. A lumpy contrivance that does not match a wild land trail through nature’s elegant chaos. An elegance that looks to have been maintained by a much more mysterious gardener who exists in a dimension beyond our comprehending. But these gardens are like the finger pointing at the moon. They are not the moon. But if you are quiet enough, and perhaps in need of direction, they can reflect the moon and point the way.