Today I took a class in shrub trimming at Shofuso, a Japanese tea house and garden located in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. This is one of those “off the beaten path” places that many people here in the city don’t know about. They celebrate the Cherry Tree Festival, have traditional tea ceremonies and other cool educational programs. So, if you have an interest in Asian Culture, this is a must see.
Okay, now on to the shrubs. I’ve always liked Japanese gardens, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was about them that made them so pretty — except that I recognized that they looked curvy and had lots of open space. Well, today I learned some terminology to help address the beauty. For instance, you won’t see an abundance of plants as much as you will see well defined composition. From the vantage point of entering a garden, you will find lower shrubs in the front, then the medium/larger behind. This graduation of heights is much like you see in Ikebana work. For those of you who like Photoshop, it is a lot like thinking of layers. These shrubs are trimmed in specific shapes –the smallest shrubs are trimmed into small domes called Tamamono. They usually are things like Boxwoods and Azaleas. Then the larger shrubs are trimmed into a tall dome called Entoh-kei. There is even a beautiful undulating curve that can be formed by multiple shrubs together called O-karikomi. I can’t be sure how these arrived at being all rounded, but I can tell you that the trees pop nicely surrounded by these simple shapes.
Today’s class was taught by Master Gardener, Asher Browne. Asher studied in Japan and makes shrub trimming look effortless. It is far from that. He showed us the difference between Japanese and American shears. The Japanese were much lighter with their wooden handles, compared to our heavier metal ones with the rubberized handles. It seems like you use the shears much like you would chopsticks. You keep the one arm steady while the other moves. This creates a more controlled way of moving across the plant. Asher is able to make a sweep across a shrub with a beautiful rhythm. You really can hardly see the shearing except for the bits of plant that fly quickly to the ground. He also taught us how to use hand clippers. These are often used to trim individual pieces when a plant is not so dense. We learned to trim close to the leaves on a stem so you don’t end up with just stems poking out. For a beginner, it can take quite a while just to trim one shrub, especially because you must keep stepping back to view it from different vantage points to be sure you are creating the curve correctly.
So, what does all this have to do with Zen? Well, I first decided I wanted to volunteer to do gardening at Shofuso because it would mimic the outdoor work practice we do at the monastery. You simply work in silence staying focused on what you are doing. That is the short answer. However, I think there is a lot more going on here. The design of the garden appears simple, yet it is not. That is much like the practice, too. Finally, it does bring about a sense of calm that is also like zazen. Later today, I discovered that the Shofuso garden was first created by Hiroshi Makita, a Master Gardener that studied Zen. So, I’m sure there is a lot more yet to be learned. I’m excited about my new role as grasshopper gardener, and you can bet there will be more posts as I meet more people at Shofuso. Okay, be quiet and trim.