Surprised by Heaven in Sydney

Sydney is spectacular.  The view of the harbor and skyline from North Sydney is breathtaking.  The cultural scene of coffee houses and cafes near the Opera House sings with energy.  And the city is full of surprises—one of which is a sacred space I’ll never forget.

I had been encouraged by Mehmet Saral, Co-Founder and President of Affinity Foundation--one of the sponsors of my tour--to visit Darling Harbour.  He assured me it was just a short walk from my hotel.  So, on a bright, sunny Monday morning I set out in search of the sea. I never made it.  Within a five- minute walk from the urban hotel I stumbled onto Sydney’s Chinese Garden of Friendship.  I spent the morning there.  It brought me to tears; a transcendent peace incarnated in place.  I was surprised by heaven in Sydney.

The Chinese Gardens symbolize the friendship between Chinese and Australians.  As Peter Hill put it--a British businessman with whom I struck up a conversation during my awe-filled circumambulation of the space--“this shows what two people can do when they cooperate.”

Sydney Chinese GardenThat’s true.  But the significance of the gardens went beyond their cultural symbolism, to me.  Each element bore meaning, in a yin-yang of inclusion.

The first paradox was between nature and cultivation.  Just past the gate to the gardens is a grove of bonsai trees.  These miniature greening things point to the persistence of nature.  Yet they are carefully trimmed to take a particular shape.  In my own tradition of Christianity, Jesus taught, in paraphrase:  “The Holy One will prune you to bear fruit.”  Nature and cultivation can, and must, coexist.

A second yin-yang in the place was between sunshine and shadow.  I moved continually between the two—as the attached picture of my feet on a path in the garden suggests.  Forested groves and roofed gates and pavilions alternated with bright bridges and sunlit pathways.  The light danced.  Shadows sheltered. 

A third complementarity-in-contrast in the garden was its use of water and rocks.  A bubbling stream and cascading waterfall fed a tranquil pond that flowed through the space.  Koi darted here and there.  A heron alighted.  Birds sang.  It was all one flow.  Yet the path was dotted by rocks and pillars.  The rocks forced you to stop, to turn, to change course.  Pellucidity met permanence.

One rock that I particularly came to love held a miniature pond in its recess.  A red leaf floated in the rock’s waters.

So, the central theme of this sacred space, as I experienced it, was the paradox of fragility and attentiveness.  Near the center of the garden, opposite the entry gate, I came across a huge spider web woven between two tree branches.  It was intact; its symmetry a fragile, persistent form—life asserting itself into tenuousness.  Behind it, on the horizon, loomed the skyscrapers of urban sprawl.  The fragrance of jasmine--from a tree in bloom nearby--filled the air.  The sweetness dissipated into nothingness with distance. 

So, this was just a garden in the center of a huge metropolis.  I heard trucks go by; the sound of the city. Yet the loving attention of its curators, and my participation in their loving attention, made it a sacred space.  As Jesus put it:  “those with eyes to see, let them see.”  I was surprised by heaven in Sydney.    (for a nice photo essay on the Garden, see here:

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