Working to Move Rocks

by Margaret Louderback

There is small black and white photograph hanging on the wall in the cozy book stuffed library at Tassajara. The photo shows Shunryu Suzuki arranging flowers. One of many creative acts in the Zen tradition, the physical activity in flower arranging is minimal, yet concentrated with thoughtful effort resulting in an expression of beauty. Suzuki also moved and placed rocks with the same thoughtful concentration. Vignettes, living compositions are visible at every turn if one is observant at Tassajara.

These rock vignettes are physical records of thoughtful intention, paintings or flower arrangements set in the natural landscape. The placement of rocks not only intensifies the natural beauty of the Tassajara landscape, a setting deep in a canyon surrounded by forested mountains, but are meaningful statements rising in context with the living whole. These placed rocks seem to serve as a calling and a record of observation, of awareness and mindfulness in a sacred place where daily meditation practice is supported by the natural world. The Tassajara landscape is an easy setting to find metaphors for inner reflection, realization and direction.

Although we practice with people, our goal is to practice with mountains and rivers, with trees and stones, with everything in the world, everything in the universe and to find ourselves in this big cosmos. When we practice in this big world we know intuitively which way to go. When your surroundings give you a sign showing which way to go, even though you have no idea of following a sign, you will go in the right direction.
(page 105-106, Not Always So, Shunryu Suzuki, 2002)

While at Tassajara I also moved rocks enduring the physical stretch of my back. I can remember the process of placing a threshold rock at the entrance to a utilitarian garden shed. First there was the search for the best rock. The one that spoke to me was flat and gray with a natural hole at one side, big enough for a solid footstep. I had found the threshold rock. Then the process began of placing the rock. That should have been easy enough … the rock was heavy, it had to be moved, but just to the front of the shed door. (What is this creative process …… enhancing environment, observation, creating spaces, a place that holds meaning, where meaningfulness is a value?)

The placement wasn’t as easy as I thought. I set the rock in its intended place. It didn’t seem right, so I moved the rock out of the way, dug out a hole, replaced the rock…. still not right. Fighting with myself, I thought ‘It’s good enough! It’s serving the purpose of a step! …… No…. it can be better.’ I went back in. (Was I finding my natural self, resonating with the process of placement, that meaningful place inside myself?) Lost in time I finally got the rock where it settled into the surroundings. Mental struggle and physical finally resulted in a felt placement…functional, beautiful and inwardly resonating.

(Of importance to me was that the rock wasn’t at the entrance to a special place, for instance a building used by guests, but at the entry to a simple shed in a working area of Tassajara. Beauty can be everywhere. And what is meant by beauty? Within the Zen context it could be defined as mindfulness… observation, realized connection to inner beauty or a truth that seems to arise within one’s self. It is not the typical idea of a beautiful image, underscored with status and commercial affordability in presented places. Zen’s definition of beauty motivates the creation of a sacred space in which people can realize their own ‘original nature’ unique to every human being and as part of the largeness of the cosmic whole.)

‘My back is really killing me, but I can’t get up! I’ll disturb all these other people. Peer pressure is powerful’…. I was thinking as I bent over in real pain during an evening zazen practice. But I kept at it… sitting… trying to endure the pain. And then it seemed to happen that I felt an arising and everything was gone, and I was there in the silence of myself, and I was content, not striving, not thinking, just being. Another metaphor for thresholds, a break through, the spiritual threshold of self-realization, a natural arising, a glimpse that dharma gates are boundless…..

Suzuki moved and placed rocks months before his passing. Applying poetic license the intent was to complement and support the inward sense of observation found during meditation. Observe your thoughts, let them pass…and at some point the thoughts will dissipate and through the stillness a natural arising can be experienced. This arising Suzuki describes in Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, as emptiness in darkness. In the book he explained that darkness is holistic, the opposite we all know from light that illuminates and defines objects, the dualistic world.

This is one narration of many reflective experiences had at Tassajara during a fall workweek. There was an enthusiastic willingness to do physical work, and an overwhelming awareness of not only nature’s natural beauty, but also the man-enhanced beauty of careful rock placement in a revered landscape. With a life long passion for and involvement in landscape architecture I was in a particular kind of heaven.

What was unexpected was the pain threshold I pushed through to firstly get a rock into position that resonated meaningfully to me, and most importantly the back pain endured during zazen that brought me to an experience of arising… another threshold into the world of darkness, of emptiness, of possibility, of creative force….the threshold of being with my natural self.

Sometimes I use the landscape as an outdoor gym…for exercise. And sometimes the landscape can be like a schoolbook where information is gathered for study and analysis. And sometimes the landscape is a phenomenological experience (Is the experience experiencing me?) and I’m filled up with happiness and contentment. And sometimes an answer, an ah ha arises, and I feel even better and more thankful for the privilege of being in nature and for the practice of meditation.

“Thank you very much” Shunryu Suzuki