The garden of quiet contemplation
I had been travelling for several days in Japan when I took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto. While Tokyo is a buzzing metropolis of tailored business suits and costumed Sailor Moon look-alikes, Kyoto is like a geisha, elegant and discrete.
You see geishas in the Gion district near the Kamo River as they scurry along laneways at night to their respective houses, only visible to outsiders if they know where to look. Kyoto boasts 1,600 temples and I set about seeing as many as I could. The Kinkaju-ji Golden Pavilion set in a shimmering reflecting pond and the Heian Shrine with its large red Tori gate, were awe-inspiring, but the more modest Ryoan-ji Temple spoke to my soul.
In 1473, a warlord named Katsumoto Hosokawa founded Ryoan-ji, known as the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon. Within the confines of the beautiful temple is a Zen “dry landscape” garden. It contains fifteen stones set in a 250-square meter (295 sq.-ft) ground of raked, white gravel. The stones are arranged in five groupings of 5, 2, 3, 2, and 3 surrounded by rings of manicured green moss. Some believe that the stones represent islands in the ocean, others a mother tiger carrying her cubs through a stream. But no matter what one sees or where one sits, the garden is planned so that one or more rocks are always hidden from view. Rounding the corner of the monastery, I sucked in my breath when I saw the garden.
I had never witnessed anything so profound yet so simple. The clay wall, topped by a tree-bark roof, exuded soft ochre hues, while the cherry tree branches leaned ever so gently over the wall. I took off my slippers and sat cross-legged on the veranda and stared. Soon, tears spilled out of my eyes, my chest ached with sorrow – and joy. Quiet sobs leaked out as I meditated on the stark reality of rocks and gravel, leaves and moss. How could something so simple evoke such deep wells of feeling? For 45 minutes I didn’t move. My eyes swept over one rock cropping after another. I counted and recounted. Sometimes I saw fourteen rocks, other times just thirteen. It is said that when one reaches enlightenment, one will see the fifteenth rock. Clearly, I was nowhere near being in a state of enlightenment, but I did realize a few truths.
That most things I think I see might be an illusion, and to be aware that when I look, I may not be taking in everything that is before me. I also knew then that quiet contemplation would be important and necessary for restoring my sanity in a world of chaos, terrorism, uncertainty and fear. On my way out of the temple, I passed by a well with Japanese characters carved into its stone. It says: “What you have is all you need.” Indeed, I felt a sense of satisfaction for the first time in my life. From this Zen garden, I realized that there is a deep beauty in meditation which could feed my soul. From that moment on, I made meditation an essential part of my life to still my mind, soften my heart and allow my intuition to speak to me in a stronger voice. Ryoan-ji Temple inspires me to this day.
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