Summer's here and the living is easy. Make that supposed to be easy. Let's face it--stress rarely takes a holiday, which could mean that your frenetic summer state of mind may need a little help. Meditation gardens--especially the many Japanese-style gardens around the Southland--can provide the setting for rejuvenating those spiritual batteries.
Kendall Brown, author of "Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast" and art professor at Cal State Long Beach, explains, "Most Japanese-style gardens in Southern California have at their base an idea of escaping the world, this machine age that we live in, to a simpler place where one is surrounded by the calming influence of nature.
Americans create Japanese-style gardens for numerous reasons, Brown says by phone from Tokyo, noting that gardens were started for a particular function, whether by a millionaire to show off his expensive tastes, civic-minded communities to reestablish their ties to Japanese ancestry, or universities to commemorate their international flavor.
"The Japanese garden is so adaptable it can serve a variety of purposes," Brown says. Here in Southern California, Japanese gardens were created as early as the turn of the century and as recently as the mid-1980s. "In some Southern California communities, there are more Japanese gardens than bowling alleys," he adds.
Don't expect bright colors or heavily perfumed flowers in Japanese gardens. "They are very monochromatic and green," Brown says. "But these colors help us to pull our eyes into deep space, which produces a very calming effect."
Any meditation garden invites the visitor to really stop and examine the scenery while emptying the mind of clutter. Here is our list of quiet, contemplative Southland spots arranged from north to south.
The Serra Retreat Center Gardens
Nestled high in a Malibu canyon is a cozy retreat house that has been welcoming the spiritually weary for more than 50 years. Run by the Franciscans, the Serra Retreat Center has stunning panoramic views of the ocean and picturesque hillside gardens. The winding paths lead to Stations of the Cross, a small grotto, hillside benches, and a patio area where a statue of Father Junipero Serra beckons guests to stop and rest awhile.
"I come here to sit, be alone and be quiet," says Kelly Basehart of Los Angeles while showing the gardens to her New York friend Pat Jones. "It's relaxing even when it's pouring down rain," says Basehart.
The public is welcome on the grounds during daytime but is not allowed inside the retreat facilities.
* Serra Retreat Center, 3402 Serra Road, Malibu, (310) 456-6631.
Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine
Even with the tens of thousands of visitors who come to the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine every year, it's still possible every day to find a secluded bench or rock overlooking the tranquil lake and windmill for some quality private time.
The Lake Shrine, founded by Paramahnsa Yogananda, marks its 50th anniversary this year, and is an international organization that is based on Yogananda's teachings. The Lake Shrine has a Court of Religions where symbols of the five major religions are displayed as a way to remind visitors of the unity and commonality of all religions.
"We have two types of people who come here," says Lauren Landress, assistant director of public affairs. "Tourists come to see the beauty of the shrine and to view our Gandhi memorial, which is the only known repository of Gandhi's ashes. But locals come here for a 'mini-retreat,' whether it's for 20 minutes or two hours. They see this place as a sanctuary."
* Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, 17190 Sunset Blvd., Malibu, (310) 454-4114.
The Japanese Garden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant
In one of the strangest places to plant a garden--right next to a water treatment facility--city officials in Van Nuys have found an unusual way to use taxpayers' money. The garden was designed to demonstrate how reclaimed water could work in a delicate environment.
Guests can purposefully get lost in the 6 1/2 acres of gardens that contain floating bridges, crashing waterfalls and perches for egrets and cormorants that fly in from the nearby wildlife reserve.
Many elements of the Japanese-style garden--such as the black pine trees and various bamboo --have been imported from Japan, says Gene Green, garden manager. "Every step you take in the garden reveals something as it hides other elements," he says.
* The Japanese Garden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, 6100 Woodley Ave., Van Nuys, (818) 756-8166.
The Zen Garden at the Huntington
Sitting on a bench overlooking the stark, dry Zen garden with intricate patterns raked in the sand, two women lazily gossip, until there's a pause. "I don't want to talk anymore," one admits, "I just feel like being quiet."