Moss is cultivated as a symbol of inner realization

In Some Japanese temples, moss is cultivated as a symbol of inner realization. Its progress cannot be forced, and the cultivation, in fact, amounts to removing the obstacles to the natural growth. If these are patiently and continuously got rid of, however, the moss makes a surprisingly rapid advance.

Moss, like realization, has a great inner strength against even extremes of change in the environment. Under very warm or very dry conditions mosses can become dormant, and quickly revive and grow again when conditions improve. If they feel like it, some of them can keep on growing even on hot, dry and exposed rocks. Most of them, however, grow best in shady and moist environments. In the temple gardens where they are cultivated, small trees are therefore planted which shed their leaves at different times of year, thus providing a certain amount of shade for the moss almost all the time.

A huge training temple like Eiheiji of the Soto Zen sect has a good number of courtyards covered with moss. One of the daily jobs is to weed out its competitors, and then to sweep the moss clear of fallen leaves. This is done with a light broom of twigs, and there is quite an art to it. If the strokes are too heavy, the surface of the moss is damaged, but if the strokes are not strong enough, the leaves are not taken up. So it has to be done just right. The piles of leaves are then put into sacks and burnt to help heat the bath. After the sweeping is over, unbroken lines of the undulating green carpet are a rewarding sight.

The job, however, may involve little irritations. When one is sweeping a courtyard, and the part that has been done is taking on its pristine appearance, a breeze dislodges a few more leaves. One goes back and picks them up, only to see a couple more redly blotting the ground somewhere else.

When I was first given a courtyard to sweep, I thought to myself, as foreigners tend to do, ‘Well, I may not be as good as some of these professionals at sitting in meditation, and perhaps I don’t always understand what’s said to me, but this I can do, and I’ll do it perfectly, absolutely perfectly.’

To me that meant sweeping every last leaf from the moss, as I had been asked to do. It was surprising, and then infuriating, to find that it seemed impossible to get the desired result. On the first day I left the place spotless, having made a last quick circuit picking up the few newly fallen leaves, but as I took the sack and turned to go, I saw a few more come down. There was no time to go back yet again.

I evolved a strategy which I tried out the next day. Before beginning to sweep, I visited each tree in turn and shook it furiously, in both senses of the word—I was then still fairly strong, and knew how to use my strength. Every leaf that was even beginning to weaken its hold on the tree came down in the shower with all the others. Then I happily swept them all up into piles, and put the piles into the sack. No leaves remained to defile the perfect carpet of green.

As I moved off triumphantly, I noticed a monk watching me. He said, ‘Leggett-san, don’t you think that was a bit extreme?’

I replied shortly, ‘Well, it got all the leaves up.’

Yes,’ he said, ‘But, you know, we sweep these places every day. If a few leaves come down after we’ve finished, we take them up the next day. And just a few of them might make an attractive pattern, don’t you think?’

I remembered a Chinese poem: One spot of red in a sea of green. I don’t know if he was referring to that.. ? Anyway, I suddenly felt a bit uncivilized.

So I stopped fighting the trees.

Years afterwards I came across a Japanese poem by a great master named Mamiya, written early in the twentieth century. The experience I had in mind helped me to appreciate it:

We sweep up the fallen leaves in the garden,
But we don’t hate the trees for dropping them.

It doesn’t apply only to leaves!

Leaves and Moss from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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