2000 Student-Faculty Fellows: Hiram College

Japan: Zen Meditation, Gardening, and Contemporary Japanese Life

Mentor: Lisa B. Safford, Art Department
Student: Julia Levin, ’01, Philosophy and Art History

Julia Levin

My experience in Japan was eye opening, different than I expected, and extremely rewarding in terms of realizing human diversity. I found some things about Japanese culture distasteful and others very appealing. I did not find the Zen-like atmosphere I had imagined from my reading but I loved the experiences at Zen temples and monasteries that I did have. I found the Japanese gardens even more beautiful than one can tell from pictures. Culturally and academically I did not find what I expected but left with a more accurate conception of a part of the world that has always fascinated me by its sheer difference from what has been ingrained in me.

Prof. Lisa B. Safford

The greatest benefit I derived from my travel to Japan was in the confidence I gained in creating a pedagogical focus for student learning, planning and arranging the details of the travel experience and utilizing to the fullest the candor and expertise of Japanese people to learn about their culture while in Japan. These confidences will aid me as I prepare to teach a new interdisciplinary course on Japanese cultural artifacts and institutions, and to take a student group to Japan for the first time next spring. I also learned a great deal about Japanese garden history and design, which will become an enlarged topic in the Japanese Art History course that I currently teach. And I am learning, through the purchase of a digital camera, to use photographic imagery acquired while in Japan to enhance my teaching through the use of computer based information technology.

Research Findings

Our research findings challenged our preconceived ideas of what Japanese gardening and contemporary culture are all about. Zen is not as prevalent a force in contemporary Japanese culture as we had expected; people are more concerned with materialism and the stresses of conforming to their roles in society than with something as abstract and arcane as Zen. Furthermore, we found that gardens were only connected with Zen during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1185-1568), and gardening today in general doesn’t have much to do with Zen or Buddhism. Gardening is still a dominant aspect of Japanese culture; however, peoples’ connections with gardens, whether they visit or create them, has more to do with a sense of cultural identity, with “Japaneseness,” than with religion or philosophy.

Venues for Sharing

We are currently working on writing a paper about our research and our experience in Japan. We plan to present this paper, along with slides of Japan and the gardens there, on campus at Hiram and at any other available venue. We also plan to create a Japanese garden somewhere on campus, but not likely within this academic year due to financial constraints.