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The Spirit of Gardens
In every religious tradition, gardens and images of gardens have been used to express spiritual truths and a sense of God. In this Encounter, we explore the spirit of gardens in Zen Buddhism, Christianity and the Baha’i Faith.
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When I see heaven and earth as my own garden
Bill Coaldrake: The garden in Japan is more a spiritual space than a religious space. It’s something that transcends any particular creed, doctrine, or place and time. It goes to the fundamental Japanese affinity with the natural world around them, and that’s true of all peoples, ultimately.
The Japanese have managed to find a much more intricate and subtle way of representing that, and it is one that appeals universally today because of its apparent simplicity. They can create nature, which is artificial, and in so doing they can elevate the process of making gardens and experiencing gardens from religion, to something profoundly spiritual and universal.
Flower in the crannied wall,
Lindy Raine: Hello, and welcome to Encounter, where we explore the spirit of gardens.
Gardens are soothing to the soul and all religious traditions see the hand of God in the cycles of nature and in the mystery of growth and renewal. In the Koran, heaven is a garden and in the Hebrew Bible, the Garden of Eden is a vision of what the world could be like, if it were free of human sin. In medieval Japan, the Buddhist Pureland sect created elaborate gardens to represent their heavenly paradise whereas the followers of Zen created gardens of the mind: simple, often abstract arrangements of rocks and stones, as an aid to meditation.
Through the ages, garden designers have attempted to express spiritual ideas in the choice and arrangement of natural elements like water, rocks and flowers and in their use of man-made materials such as walls, pathways and statutes.
In broad terms, garden designers fall into two groups: those who strive to reproduce nature and those who seek to use nature as raw material for human artistry.
While the formal gardens of Western Europe, with their geometry and elaborate structure bend nature to human desire, Japanese gardens celebrate natural lines and seek to create the natural world, in miniature. This love of nature draws not only from Buddhism but from the indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto, which believes god-spirits inhabit all parts of the natural world.
Professor Bill Coaldrake is the Foundation Professor of Japanese at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Kyoto Guild of Traditional Master Builders.
Bill Coaldrake: Shinto saw itself as part of nature, so that original Shinto belief was really in awe of the processes and phenomena of nature, so it didn’t require a system of representation, it didn’t have icons, it didn’t have impressive sanctuaries and religious buildings.
The sanctuaries of Shinto belief, if you like, were the woods and trees, the rocks and waterfalls of famous sites, and it was also to be seen in the natural processes of the universe, in the transition, for example, between the seasons from spring to summer and into autumn and into winter. And that was considered to be something mystical and spiritual.
The garden itself, the Shinto garden, was really a sanctuary where you would be in awe of nature and could approach the Gods, the multiple Gods of the universe in their various manifestations in nature. So a garden in Shinto would consist first of all of a space cleared in a forest, and then roped off perhaps, and then covered with gravel and rock, and in a way by walking onto that rock and onto that gravel, the crunching sound of your feet would itself indicate that you are entering a sacred space, but it wasn’t clearly delineated, and that was the important point: nature and religious belief, the garden and the rest of the world were all part of one unity. And therefore there was a profound affinity with all religious belief in those natural processes.
When Buddhism arrived however, it was highly impressive. It came with sophisticated government systems of order, and the result was that the original type of Shinto sanctuary, which was really just a clearing in a lovely mountain setting surrounded by trees, was replaced by orderly compounds, separated by walls and gateways in the Chinese way. And for a while at least, the Japanese adopted these Chinese conventions as part of their religious belief.
Lindy Raine: Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the middle of the 6th century, and with it came many of the cultural beliefs of China. The first gardens, inspired by Buddhism, followed the Chinese garden model, which favoured geometric symmetry but, over time, the gardens changed to reflect the Japanese preference for the shapes and forms of the natural world.
The Chinese love of right-angles gave way to more natural curves and rather than seeing the whole design at first glance, the Japanese garden is revealed in stages, adding a sense of mystery as the participant is led into the garden along a certain sequence of views.
Different varieties of Buddhism added their own unique vision to garden design, from the elaborate paradise gardens of Pureland Buddhism to the austere sand gardens of Zen.
Bill Coaldrake: Buddhism itself is very diverse in its type of physical expression in the garden. The most striking contrast can be seen between the gardens of the so-called Pureland sect and those of Zen Buddhism.
The Pureland sect sought to recreate in a garden, the idea of paradise. It was rather like the way the medieval builders of cathedrals in Europe set out to create heaven on earth in the form of the cathedral. In the same way, the Pureland sect created a garden with wonderful pavilions, where the Lord of the Western Paradise, the Amitabha Buddha, who is the particular manifestation of the Buddha venerated there, would actually sit and contemplate the garden, and it would be orientated in such a way that it conformed with the idea of the Buddha of the Western Paradise, which is what the Amitabha Buddha was. And he would sit there on the West side of the garden and shine is radiance upon the garden.
And the garden in front would consist of a lake, often put in the form of the Japanese and Chinese character for ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’, and it would have a pavilion extending down towards that lake, where you could walk away from the Buddha, then turn round and look to the West and there the Buddha would be.
In this way it was a recreation of paradise, but it was also the recreation of a quite strict theological representation of that particular Buddhist paradise that was found first not in gardens and buildings, but in fact in paintings. So that’s one of the Buddhist representations of paradise.
The contrast with this particular type of garden paradise is the Zen garden, which has one thing in common, but also diverges quite radically from that Pureland notion.
The thing it has in common is that like the Pureland paradise, it is also based on concepts that were first found in painting. It was the idea of putting oneself as an individual, rather than as a Buddha, into the universe. And it started with paintings, the imaginary ink-wash landscapes that became part of East Asian culture generally in the 14th, 15th century, and had certain quite clearly defined pictorial elements: three levels of landscape, of heaven, earth and man, or heaven, earth and people. And each separated by mists, in which you could lose yourself as you walked the ways of enlightenment. And it would also have paths and bridges, and perhaps a lonely hermit, very small, almost intimidated by the vastness of the landscape around. Water, pinetrees, rocks, subtle shades of grey, and certainly no colour. And this made the representation of this type of world in the garden form, quite an aesthetic challenge, but also a very important tool of meditation, and I think that’s the point of departure from other forms of Buddhism.
Zen itself as a term means ‘meditation Buddhism’, and it is a type of stripping away of levels of chaos and disorder to find the fundamental meaning of things, whatever that might be, and I’m sure it varies from person to person. And this is the enlightenment of Zen, and that enlightenment is often achieved by the process of both making Zen gardens and then contemplating them as a series of visual challenges to stimulate the mind. Those visual challenges come out of the basic pictorial vocabulary of ink-painting.
Whenever learners or those beyond learning awaken the mind, for the first time they plant one Buddha-nature. Working with the four elements and five clusters, if they practice sincerely, they attain enlightenment. Working with plants, trees, fences and walls, if they practice sincerely they will attain enlightenment. This is because the four elements and five clusters and plants, trees, fences and walls are fellow students; because they are of the same essence, because they are the same mind and the same life, because they are the same body and the same mechanism.
Bill Coaldrake: The Zen garden is meant to be looked at as a cosmic and meditation exercise, but it can be participated in, and that’s very important. But it’s not participated in in the way that we talk about going into the garden and sitting in it. Rather you participate in the garden by helping make it and helping maintain it. And that process is itself part of meditation.
It’s very interesting, you can look at ancient Zen books of instruction about meditation, and you will often see in there little ink-paintings showing monks raking leaves, or raking gravel. And in fact the act of raking was considered one of the ways of approaching enlightenment.
I think we’ve probably all noticed that sometimes in autumn, as we’re confronted with all those autumn leaves piling up in the garden, when we finally get out into it, and start to go about that process with our little plastic rakes, that in fact there’s something quite soothing about the repetitive process of slowly, or perhaps trying more hastily, to rake those leaves together, to create order out of it. And somehow I find that when I’m raking, you start to think about other things. It liberates your mind from your immediate preoccupations, of things that you’re worried about that you didn’t get done during the week, you start to relax in a way that is really quite interesting, the subconscious starts to flow.
And I’m sure that that’s what’s at the heart of the idea of raking gardens. It is of course not just leaves that get raked up, it’s the rocks and the pebbles themselves, and in fact for anyone who’s been and looked at one of the famous stone gardens of Kyoto, you wonder how on earth they manage to create such an intricate pattern. That’s of course part of the challenge, and I think the first thing you think is How on earth did they manage to create all those concentric rings of ripples, moving out from the rocks at the centre, and then this orderly procession of waves moving away into the distance, and actually not have their footprints on it?
It requires a great deal of premeditation and thought before you actually do anything, and I think that’s at the heart of Zen. You sit, you’re quiet, you still yourself, you find a place of calm meditation in the centre of chaos, and then gradually something is liberated from the subconscious and you work out what you’re going to do, and it can be something quite simple. Often we know that complex things can be solved quite simply if you think about them enough.
And that’s the meaning of the garden; it can be quite complex when you look at it, it can comprise many diverse elements, but ultimately there’s a unity and a pattern, and by helping make it, and by spending a long time contemplating it as in the Zen garden, you actually achieve a level of awareness and of self-assurance that is far greater than when you started.
The road enters green mountains near evening’s dark;
Bill Coaldrake: The most famous examples are to be found in the city of Kyoto today, in the great Zen monastery of Daitokuji which can be visited. And that has something like 20 sub-precincts, walled gardens and small buildings built in the 16th and 17th century where each had a particular Zen master and his disciples. And they would spend all of every day in forms of meditation.
Sometimes they would be sitting inside the building and inside the building they’d be surrounded by paintings of these imaginary existential exercises in philosophy, using the garden form, that is the ink-painting. And then as the afternoon wore on, they’d move out and sit on the verandah and look out at the garden beyond. And that garden has become something that is inextricably associated with Zen Buddhism, we’re all familiar with it: the raked gravel, the grouping of rocks sitting at some distance away, perhaps covered by moss, perhaps just stark and rugged like the elemental granite that they’re often made from.
And then in the distance you can see the gravel itself, as it moves away, begins to take on the form of the ocean if you like, and you begin to see yourself as moving across a physical landscape. The longer you contemplate, the more you begin to see this not as a physical landscape, but as something that represents order in the cosmos. And it turns from something that’s outside yourself into something within yourself as you set out to identify yourself with it.
In the third month of spring
Lindy Raine: For the subsistence farmers of the dry Middle East, water was especially symbolic and, where possible, Middle Eastern garden designers made abundant use of fountains and pools. Of course, pleasure gardens were the preserve of the rich.
Most people in the ancient Middle East gardened simply to feed themselves. Lush and well-watered gardens are a recurring image in the sacred writings of the three major religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity, representing the goodness of God’s creation or as a vision of a heavenly paradise.
The creation story of the Garden of Eden has been a powerful image of paradise lost.
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up...then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.
David Firth: The garden is really designed to present a natural idea of paradise to people in the ancient world.
It’s a garden in which there is abundant provision of food, a garden in which there is the opportunity for work, because the man’s role in the garden is to tend it and to keep it, so there is work, there is provision, there is aesthetic appreciation.
Genesis is very keen to emphasise that the garden contains everything which is good to look at. So that the aesthetic dimension is regarded as being essential to the nature of the garden. It’s not a purely aesthetic garden, but a working garden is also understood to be something of aesthetic beauty. And all of this is to be understood as the provision of God. And in the ancient world, where so many people lived essentially subsistence lives, to be able to live in a garden where all of that was available and accessible, and where work was not painful, would naturally be understood as paradise.
Lindy Raine: Dr David Firth is a lecturer in Old Testament Studies at the Wesley Institute, Drummoyne, in Sydney. David Firth describes Eden as a image of God’s goodness, an idea which stood in opposition to the other creation stories of the time.
David Firth: Genesis is deliberately wanting to confront Israel, and in a sense almost to enter into a religious dialogue with what was happening in the ancient world. Essentially the Book of Genesis is well aware of the fact that life is hard, and the ancient world knew that very, very well.
Most people were subsistence farmers, and so most people had to say, Well, why is the world like this? Now the Book of Genesis wants to suggest that the problem is human sinfulness. The rest of the ancient world took a very different view, which was to say that the world must have always been this way and that this must be the decision of the gods, to create a world like this.
So for example, in the Babylonian creation story, some of the gods enter into a fight, one of the gods slays another one, and out of her innards which spill out when she is run through with the sword, a whole watery mass comes, and the gods basically sort of push it together and say, Oh my goodness, we’ve created a world, what are we going to do with it? And then one of them says, Well we’ll put humans on to be slaves to keep it for us. And this is a very typical story that we find from different creation sources in the ancient world.
And so Genesis especially wanted to take that on, and say, No, it’s not the gods that you believe are the problem, because there is only one god, as Genesis would say, and that god intended to create a good world. The problem rather is human sinfulness and we need to look at who we are in relationship to God, and therefore of our responsible back to the world of which we are a part.
Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
David Firth: I think probably that idea that the earth is there to exploit comes about from a divorce of Genesis II and III from Genesis I. Genesis I represents a creation account that seeks to describe creation as something intended by God, ordered by God, that is good. And as I mentioned before, that’s in direct contradiction to the dominant world view of the ancient Near East. And the pinnacle of that is humans, and God creates humanity and says You are to rule it, and to subdue it.
Now if you take that on its own, you might come to the idea that the earth is intended to be exploited. But Genesis II then takes the story from the other perspective, that is to say if Genesis I says This is God’s function, Genesis II says, Now let’s take it from human function; how does that work out in practice? And so I think as a result of this divorce of Genesis I from Genesis II, we’ve created a situation where we say, Ah, the earth is there to be exploited. But Genesis II makes, I think, very clear that our relationship to the earth is one of earth-keeping, and our rulership is intended to be something that is positive and blessing.
The garden has a very, very strong ecological message. I’d also make the point that the word for ‘rule’ and ‘subdue’ that occurs in Genesis I is perhaps not as strong and harsh as the English that we’ve typically translated it with.
It’s often a word that’s used of a caring rulership, rather than an exploitive one, but we just don’t have a direct English word that matches that entirely, and so this divorce I think, has taken place in our history of reading the text, and create some problems as a result of that.
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
David Firth: The garden contains two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. These incidentally are trees which appear in creation myths of quite a number of the surrounding nations. But in the midst of the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is specifically prohibited.
The idea of that is essentially to say that there is an element within the world which still rightfully belongs only to God and not to humans. And it’s the decision of the humans to eat the fruit of that tree which indicates rebellion against God, and so we find the first alienation actually is from God himself, where the man and the woman hide from God and God’s presence in the garden; then there is this alienation between man and woman, as male and female. An attempt to instigate a form of hierarchical relationships, rather than the equality that’s there. It doesn’t say that that’s good, it simply says this is an inevitable outcome of sin.
Then there is also the alienation that takes place between the man and the woman and the wider order of creation. So that as God announces the outcome of their sinfulness, he says that the land will no longer produce its fruit bountifully, but it’s now by hard work, by the sweat of your brow, quite literally, and at the same time it’s also going to produce weeds and thistles. So that work itself becomes hard, frequently unpleasant as a result. So the alienation works at those three key levels.
Lindy Raine: While alienation is the key theme of the Garden of Eden, another garden in the Old Testament, in the Song of Solomon, presents us with images of love and communion.
David Firth: The Song of Songs draws on a lot of Eden imagery in fact, but the difference is that the Song of Songs is essentially two lovers speaking to one another, they’re courting one another, they’re being very, very playful, sometimes coy, sometimes overt. But in the song, one of the places that they look to retreat to is the garden.
In Chapter 4 it speaks of a walled garden. Now a walled garden is very much a royal experience because the average person simply wouldn’t have the funds to have a walled garden. Now in reality, the two speakers in the song are probably a shepherd and a lady who works in the fields, so they are not themselves royal but they project themselves into the images of royalty. And therefore they look to a garden that would be walled, that would be secret, that would be a place of experiencing every form of pleasure, pleasure in relationship with one another as well as the aesthetic pleasure of a beautiful garden, and also the security that a walled garden would provide.
The Song of Songs in many ways is a celebration of human sexuality, but I guess if you see the Eden links that are there which run throughout the book, part of what it’s wanting to suggest is that in a perfect human relationship, we’re able to begin a restoration of that equality that is indicated in Genesis Chapter 2, and so part of the use of the garden imagery in the book of Song of Songs is to say human sexuality is something that can be celebrated as the good gift of God, and by using the Eden imagery, we are reminded that in that relationship as properly expressed as one where there is no longer hierarchy but there is joyful trust in one another, that we at least have a foretaste of what was available in Eden.
Lindy Raine: Dr David Firth.
The possibility that Eden could be recreated is explored in the book of Ezekiel and in the Psalms and in the final book of the New Testament, Revelation, we are presented with an image of Eden re-born. It speaks of ‘the river of the water of life’ and of ‘the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit’. And of course, garden images in the parables struck a chord with an ancient community so dependent on the harvest to survive.
Sister Michelle Connelly is a Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
Michelle Connelly: You know, the great majority of people in the ancient world would in fact have been peasants who lived on the land and they lived on the land before modern fertilizers and before the stump-jump plough and all those things. And they lived very close to the fertility of their soil. So for them, images of abundant growth or of abundant production are very, very powerful.
You know, in his Parables, when he’s trying to explain things to people, Jesus very, very often resorts to images of growth in the natural world, and perhaps one of the best known one really is the image of the parable of the sower. You know, the sower who goes out to seed, and he sows the seed on various soil, some of it’s rock, some of it’s hard, you know, some of it is promising, but then the birds eat it up, all those kinds of things. The thing about that parable that most of us don’t get the point of, is that he actually says something extraordinary.
He says that in the reign of God, not only do you get thirtyfold yield, which is a bumper crop, you get a sixtyfold yield, and you can get a hundredfold yield, and that’s just unimaginable, unimaginable in the ancient world. It’s the sort of thing that only God can produce, and for those people that would have been a riveting sort of claim to hear somebody make. It’s simply part of their life experience.
I think Jesus also actually made lots of jokes. I don’t think we let Jesus be anywhere near as wry or funny as in fact he is, very often when he’s talking to people. You know, there is the famous little parable about the mustard seed, and the mustard seed is a tiny, tiny little seed, everybody knows that. And he says, The way things work when God has God’s desire is even a tiny thing like a mustard seed, you throw it in the soil and it grows up, he says, into a great tree in which the birds of the air can shelter in the branches. Now actually the mustard seed never gets to be a great tree, it’s just a little shrub, you know. So I think sometimes he was meaning people to get his point, and yet to laugh at the same time.
Jesus talking about the great powerful people, you know the beautiful people of his day, who wear beautiful clothing, and he says, You know, don’t be worried about them, don’t get upset about how beautifully dressed they are and feel yourself put down, he says, look at the lilies of the field; Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed like one of these. And I think people are meant to have a little bit of a joke and a laugh and say Yes, you know, let’s get a bit of proportion about this.
So he appeals to I think what they know, and also to what they don’t know.
One of his other famous images which you get in Mark’s gospel in Chapter 4 where there are lots of images of growth, is where he says, Look, how does the reign of God work? Well, we don’t quite know, but we know the experience of not knowing. He said, just like when a farmer takes a seed and he sows it in the soil, and night and day it grows. He doesn’t know how it grows, but it grows, and then eventually it produces fruit. So I think really a great deal of it is coming out of people’s experience and it’s experience that for them was to do with life and death. If your crop didn’t produce enough yield, then you didn’t survive the next year.
Lindy Raine: Does the New Testament suggest though that there’ll be a new Eden once Christ returns?
Michelle Connelly: There’s a very strong suggestion of that in the Book of the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelations in its final vision.
When you get to the last chapter of that book, after there has been you know, the Armageddon to end all Armageddons and we are told that in fact the earth will be destroyed, there is this wonderful picture of God letting down a new heaven and a new earth as though God has always had it, almost in storage, and when the old earth which has become impossibly evil, has been destroyed, then this new heaven and new earth will be let down from out of heaven, and within that there will be a new city of Jerusalem which is built very much on some of the old images of a new city of Jerusalem that come from the Hebrew prophets, and then within that city there is a river, which is filled with the water of life, which is interesting, people are trying to buy the water of life these days in Sydney, but it’s going to be, according to the Book of Revelations, in the new Jerusalem, and this river flows through the middle of the street of the city and then it says on either side of the river the Tree of Life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
So a wonderful image of a new city, it’s going to be an absolutely glorious city, all glitter and shine in every possible way, with all the jewels of the world and in the middle of the city a river, which is a River of Life, and on either side of that trees, which are said to be The Tree of Life, which is very much I think the Genesis image of the Tree of Life, and it has twelve kinds of fruit, an image of fullness, and they are going to bear fruit every month.
So there’s a very rich image there of, if you like, a garden, but this is a garden that is not just beautiful to be in, it’s a garden which is going to feed and sustain people, and it’s also going to heal, its leaves are going to be for the healing of the nations.
So this is the last chapter of the Book of Revelation, so it’s very much an image with which the New Testament, as it happens, eventually closes.
Michelle Connelly: The Garden of Eden of course is the original garden, it’s really a symbolic way, I think, of talking about the whole environment that God creates for human beings to be in, which begins as a beautiful idyllic place with all the promise that is possible.
When we come to the Garden of Gethsemane by contrast, Gethsemane is a very specific local place outside Jerusalem, and it’s a place in which in the Christian tradition is associated with the beginning of Jesus’ agony about his final life choice. So while there is the sense of garden, one has a sense of huge possibility I think at the very beginning of the world, with all of God’s desire for creation possible. The other one is really where we see, if anything, a narrowing in, a coming into the point where Jesus is going to face the crucial question of his life.
So I think for me, anyway, reading those two there are two very different feelings about those two places.
There is remaining there today, an ancient olive grove and Gethsemane is actually called in the synoptic gospels say that Jesus goes to a place called Gethsemane, but they all say that he goes to the Mount of Olives. The other thing that is there, that I think is very crucial for the Christian story of Jesus going there is because it was on the east of the city of Jerusalem, and there was a Jewish tradition that when God came for judgement, God would come from the east, and would sit there on that hill watching Jerusalem and judging the whole world. It’s a place where people get buried, and so when Jesus went through the garden, he actually probably went through a whole tombstone area, and there are still graves today.
When we’re seeing in today’s current distress in that country, Jewish people being buried, a lot of those scenes are actually of the area right around Gethsemane.
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no-one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
Michelle Connelly: Now the interesting thing is that it is only in the Gospel of John that we get any reference at all to a garden.
It is John who begins the passion narrative by saying that Jesus goes across the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden. And it is John only who says that in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden, and there was a new tomb in that place in which nobody had been laid. And again, that’s a very specific Johanine stress.
So I think this is where we can say John takes the life of Jesus, the whole death of Jesus, into a garden place which can evoke Eden for us. I think it’s even more strong in the sense that he is buried in a tomb where nobody else has been placed. So there’s a sense that the body of Jesus which in John is really in fact already raised, is placed in a place of great abundance, of great life and it is brand-new. And in that context, then, because with the idea of garden has been placed in our mind by John, then Mary Magdalene when she finds somebody to say Where have you put the body? thinks that he is a gardener.
Maybe you could even say there’s an echo maybe of Adam, who was the original gardener that is going on in this story. I think John is certainly wanting to suggest that new life is taking place here, and a garden is certainly a way to suggest it.
Consider the flowers of the rose garden. Although they are of different kinds, various colours and diverse forms and appearances, yet as they drink from one water, are swayed by one breeze and grow by the warmth of the light of one sun; this variation and this difference causes each to enhance the beauty and the splendour of the others. The differences in manners, in customs, in habits, thoughts, opinions and temperaments is the cause of the adornment of the world of mankind.
Lindy Raine: From the writings of Abdul Baha, the son of the founder of the Baha'i faith. Baha'is celebrate the diversity of humankind while at the same time, promoting its essential unity. The Baha'is have just completed an extraordinary terraced garden on Mount Carmel, in Haifa. The terraces stretch across the mountain for a kilometre and surround the burial shrines of the prophets of the faith and the Baha'i Administrative Centre.
Mount Carmel is a sacred site not only for the Baha'is but for the other major religious traditions.
Ben Hinton spent a year at the Baha'i World Centre.
Ben Hinton: Spiritually, Mount Carmel is the administrative and also the spiritual centre of the world for Baha'is. All the prophet founders are buried in and around that area and the international body that co-ordinates the affairs of the Baha'is is there on the site of Mount Carmel, what is called the House of Justice.
During the whole of Bahaullah‘s life he was in exile. At the end of his exile, in fact when he landed in the Holy Land he landed on Mount Carmel, he landed in the Bay of Acre and so for Baha'is, it was set out by Bahaullah as a holy spot.
So if you have your back to the bay and you’re looking up the mountain, you’ll see what looks like the gardens of Babylon perhaps. You see nine terraced gardens rising up the side of Mount Carmel to a most beautiful building with a gold dome, called the Shrine of the Bab where the remains the Bab, one of the twin manifestations of the Baha'i faith are buried. And beyond that, another so many terraces till we have 19 terraces in all, including the terrace where that central building is.
Lindy Raine: Is 19 a significant number, or that just happens to be how many terraces it takes to move up that stretch of Mount Carmel?
Ben Hinton: Well it is a holy number. It has significance not only in a more mystic sense, but also in a historical sense. In Arabic, each letter has a numeric value, unlike in English, and 19 is of particular significance.
I think it reflects the numeric value of the name of one of the prophet founders of the Baha'i faith, the Bab. But there is also this historical connection that you picked up on which is that during the very beginning stages of the Baha'i faith, a man called the Bab came to proclaim the coming of Bahaullah the world redeemer, for Baha'is, and as part of the propagation of that mission, as part of its spread, 18 people had to find the Bab, independently, and they found the Bab through dreams, through visions, through their intuition.
One famous woman, and a poetess in Iran at the time, a woman called Tahirih dreamt of the Bab and wrote to the Bab declaring her belief in his revelation. So there is that historical significance. We can think of above and below those terraces, above and below the Shrine of the Bab as perhaps representing each one of those followers.
There are ornaments in the gardens, the beauty of the classical architecture and the marble. That really reflects for us this paradise, this idea of heaven, and there’s talk for example in many of the Baha'i writings of ‘breezes wafting from this garden of heaven’.
All the horizons of the world are luminous and the world will become indeed as a garden and a paradise. It is the hour of unity of the sons of men and of the drawing together of all the races and all the classes.
Ben Hinton: This is a beautiful quote from Abdul-Baha that talks about the significance of this particular time in history for Baha'is, and really the building of the gardens is timely for Baha'is. It represents the age that we live in, and our vision of the age that we live in, the light, the water, all these things for Baha'is are a symbol of unity and of purity and of all the things that the world needs at this time. And of course part of the gardens are dedicated to wildflowers, and others to beautiful roses.
So really this oneness of humankind can be thought of as the garden with the many flowers, all the different cultures and people are different coloured flowers in the garden.
And so really for us, the fact that we’ve built these gardens is a demonstration to ourselves that we can build a beautiful garden and that of course represents for us a worldwide effort that the Baha'is as part of our teachings, which is the oneness of humankind, and trying to bring the races and the prejudices and dissolve those and have a unified world.
One of the prayers we say, and in fact it’s a prayer for Baha'i children is all about flowers and gardens, and the prayer goes like this, it says: Oh God, educate these children. These children are the plants of thine orchard, the flowers of thy meadow, the roses of thy garden, let thy rain fall upon them; let the sun of reality shine upon them with thy love, let thy breeze refresh them in order that they may be trained, grow and develop and appear in the utmost beauty.
So there’s this image of human souls being like a garden, being like flowers in a garden.
Lindy Raine: This has been Encounter, the Spirit of Gardens.
My thanks to Professor Bill Coaldrake, Dr David Firth, Sister Michelle Connelly and Ben Hinton,
The readers were Dr Peter Holbrook and Enju Norris. Production in Brisbane by Lindy Raine and Peter McMurray.
What will be my legacy?
©Copyright 2002, ABC Radio National (Australia)