Dogen was a prolific writer and poet. In the 13th Century he would have strolled among a variety of gardens in Japan. Throughout his work there are references to nature that stun the listener. These references made Marcia wonder. Wonder what he saw as a boy. Wonder what colors and fragrances he enjoyed as a young man. Wonder what branches and trees he sat under as an old monk. As with all artists, the experience of daily life makes its appearance in the work that is created.
Clean Slate combines Dogen’s poetry with images of plants he might have seen during his lifetime while living in Japan. With the support of Kyoto University and the San Francisco Botanical Garden Library Marcia was able to complete research that led to a list of plants that are recorded to have existed in Japan during the 13th century. She made it her intention to find and photograph these specimens. The gathering of these images is not to make a scientific analysis, rather to consider and imagine what beauty provoked his writing.
Japanese literature is well populated with descriptions of beauty and imperfection. Marcia’s pictures isolate and render the plant so that it no longer is a member of a garden, but rather an example, a cue, an object that invites the viewer. Alone in the garden. Throughout the history of literature there are inquiries as to where an author lived; what studio setting a painter worked in; what musical melodies influenced a composer’s later work. Clean Slate brings the rhyme of Dogen together with the glance of things both he and Lieberman might have seen.
Smelling the Flowers in Dogen’s Gardens – Marcia Lieberman’s ‘Clean Slate’
Lucky me, to get an early look at this wonderful book. Images like haikus. Text like a Greek chorus. I can hear Dogen snoring above Marcia’s footsteps through his garden. Shhhh. Let the old master dream.
—Red Pine, author and translator of over 20 books including Chinese Buddhist texts, poetry, and sūtras. In 2018 he won the American Academy of Arts & LettersThornton Wilder Prize for translation.
In this book of photographs and poetry, Marcia Lieberman offers us a botany of Zen. She takes to heart the Buddhist thought that there are myriads of plants and multitudes of grasses on the earth, yet each blade of grass, each flower, is itself the entire earth. A total delight!
—Liza Dalby, author of Geisha, The Tale of Murasaki, East Wind Melts the Ice, and Hidden Buddhas.
“Clean Slate magically transported me to my favorite plants, trees, gardens and Zen temples of Kyoto. Thank you very much Marcia!”
—Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi– for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Gardens of Gravel and Sand, and Arranging Objects a Rhetoric of Object Placement.
It’s hard to imagine a more apt portal to the heart of Dogen’s Soto Zen sensibility than Marcia Lieberman’s Clean Slate. Her brilliant photographs isolate fragments of plants from Dogen’s Japanese gardens in various stages of life’s impermanence so vividly that the fragrance seeps through the medium. Breath in: Black pine, Camelia, Wisteria, Magnolia. Responses from five lifelong Dogen affectionados and an introductory doorway to Dogen from Soto teacher Taigen Leighton let the extraordinary Zen master and these botanical sentient beings speak to us directly. Just breath, savoring “mountains and waters”– no translation required.
—Dale Wright, author of The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character and Buddhism: What Everyone Needs to Know.
Poetic, reflective and full of horticultural storytelling, Marcia Lieberman’s book is an delightful foray into a world most of us know little about. With her words and images, she invites us to look and look again at the natural world that surrounded and inspired a Zen Master, 800 years ago. ‘Clean Slate’ is engaging, imaginative and wonderfully informative both about Zen philosophy as well as the plants and flowers she encounters with such curiosity and respect.
—Vanessa Able, Editor in Chief of The Dewdrop
Marcia Lieberman, with a little help from several eminent Zen friends, provides us with beautiful images along with supporting text that offer a vivid view of the flowers and trees Dogen beheld many centuries ago while gazing atthe landscape on the grounds of Eiheiji temple. As the master said ironically, “Seeing Buddha in each and every thing does not detract from Buddha, and hearing sūtras in all sounds does not separate us from the sūtras.”
—Steven Heine, Professor and Director of Asian Studies at Florida International University, has published Dogen and the Koan Tradition, The Zen Poetry of Dogen, Did Dogen Go to China?, and Readings of Dogen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.