Smelling the Flowers in Dogen’s Gardens – Marcia Lieberman’s ‘Clean Slate’

Photographer Marcia Lieberman’s new book, Clean Slate, is a meditation on nature and temple gardens made in the footsteps of 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen. 

“I wake up to gray clouds and the skyline of Kyoto. Outside in the street, I hear the murmurs of good morning. I gather my journal and camera to venture into Dogen’s world. Why am I here? Who am I looking for? What am I looking for?”

This is the beginning of Marcia Lieberman’s exploration of the poetry of nature in Japan seen through the lens of the temple gardens she visited with her camera. Driven by her love of horticulture and her connection to the ‘topsy-turvy grammar’ and ‘hidden meanings’ embedded in the teachings of Eihei Dogen, a prolific Zen master who lived in Japan more than 800 years ago, she was compelled to understand more about the physical world that surrounded Dogen and the in particular the nature that inspired his spiritual practice and his written work.


Clean Slate is a series of plant and flower portraits with accompanying written observations and stories, that bring in Zen history, the Japanese art of hana kotoba (the practice of poetically characterizing and conferring meaning upon various blooms), as well as practical information about optimum conditions for the plant.

Lieberman sets out her process in the book’s introduction: “Looking and observing is a slightly different activity for someone studying Zen. It is more colorful than scientific scrutiny, more evocative than hana kotoba, the emotional words the Japanese use to define flowers. This is similar to but not the same emotional expression as in ikebana. For example, the hana kotoba of wisteria is “love and new life.” As a Zen practitioner, I deeply consider and see the tentative, fleeting nature of a flower. I don’t pick out the prettiest bloom I encounter, but see, without judgment, a flower browned at the edges, slumped with weather, eaten at the leaf’s edge, yet still retaining a timeless beauty. The weathered bloom speaks to me; I listen, then observe, then take a photograph. Just there—that’s it.”


Japanese Black Pine

HANA KOTOBA : Happiness, long life, endurance, hope
JAPANESE : Kuromatsu
GROWING CONDITIONS : Full sun, well-drained soil, hardy, tolerates container.

Dogen loved these native plants and walked near them often. He said, “Pine and bamboo endlessly speak on my behalf.”



HANA KOTOBA : Love, pride, honor
JAPANESE : Tsubaki
GROWING CONDITIONS : Shady site. Keep roots cool by planting on north side of a building away from drying winds.

The color of the bloom is important. The meanings associated range from red (noble death/love) to yellow (longing) to white (waiting). How is it that love and death can both live in the same blossom? I imagine Dogen considering this duality with a camellia on his writing desk.



HANA KOTOBA : Moderation, pliancy, constancy, abundance, pure innocence
JAPANESE : Take hachiku
GROWING CONDITIONS : Abundant watering

Buddhist practice is slow and quiet, in stark contrast with the bamboo, which can grow several feet a day. How can it be a favored symbol of moderation— perhaps because of its enduring and prolific patience? Most temples I visited had a grove of bamboo as part of a sacred barrier against evil.


Japanese Maple

HANA KOTOBA : Neatness
JAPANESE : Momiji, iroha-kaede
GROWING CONDITIONS : Steady supply of water through root zone, filtered shade.

In winter, when a chill breeze whisks off the maple leaves from their branches, the Japanese exclaim, “It’s kogarashi!” or “wintry wind.” I arrive at the Saiho-ji temple garden in Kyoto after kogarashi when the deep red leaves of the maple are vibrantly carpeting the ground. A dedicated pruner works on these maples nearby. I notice his timing and attention to detail and how essential it is for the tree’s healthy growth. I learn my first lessons in pruning a maple.



HANA KOTOBA : Natural, sublime, love of nature
JAPANESE : Haku mokuren
GROWING CONDITIONS : Slightly acidic moist soil with some sun.

The Chinese first cultivated the magnolia in 600 CE and used it as a symbol of purity in the gardens of the emperor’s palace. Because of the bloom’s durability and association with invigorating a person’s chi, they are often given on the occasion of birth. The leaves on these trees, which can grow for 120 years, are used in the kitchen and the bark for medicinal healing. The petals I took home to flavor my rice.


Japanese Iris

HANA KOTOBA : Elegant spirit
JAPANESE : Hanashōbu
GROWING CONDITIONS : Waterside, full sun.

Basho, a Japanese poet, wrote in 1688 a haiku about the iris’s swift demise to honor a friend whose sudden death surprised him.

Iris withered
only in one night


Marcia Lieberman is a photographer, author, academic and bee-keeping maker of honey. Her work has focused on people of note and particular projects driven by an idea or subject that concerns her. Her previously published books include When Divas Confess, and Being Still.

Follow Marcia on Instagram here.

Clean Slate is published by ORO Editions at Goff Books and can be purchased here.

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