Powerful in its simplicity, refined in its aesthetic, Ryoan-ji (龍安寺) is a rock garden and temple in Kyoto. I spent three hours there over two days, and I wish I could go back several times every season. I had just visited Ginkaku-ji and Kinkaku-ji, which were very crowded, and I was on my way to the bus when I stumbled upon Ryoanji. At the entrance, a single and beautiful cherry tree, hunched over in a humble manner, a prolepsis of what is to come.
As I walked in, I knew that this would change my life. Not only the garden, but the entire temple is absolute perfection, a wabi-sabi aesthetic of such taste. How could something so apparently simple be so perfect, so powerful, so complex? A sight of true beauty, with a single cherry tree in full blossom, a wall marked by time.
How perfect the color of this wall, a color that Matsukawa reminded me of later that week. The earthen wall abura-dobei is unique to Ryoanji, as it is made of clay into which rapeseed oil is mixed. The subtle asymmetry in the height of the wall inclined slightly downward to the southeast corner (the left corner at the back of the garden when viewed from the hojo). The color and texture of the wooden gallery, the simplicity of it all was overwhelming. I always thought that few sights truly needed to be experienced in person now that we have Youtube, and that food, in contrast, was something one could only experience in person. However, nothing would do justice to the experience of spending time at Ryoanji.
At this quiet garden, the drama of life unfolds on the gallery. Successive groups of school children are asked by their teachers to count how many rocks are in the garden. Inevitably, they count 14 whereas. There are 15 rocks but they cannot all be seen at the same time. It is said that in Buddhism, the number 15 denotes "completeness" or "enlightenment". Of course, I did also do this at first. But after the excitement of finding one area where one can partially see all 15, I understood how magical this garden is.
The excitement and curiosity about the number of rocks inevitably amuses all visitors, but it also dissipates quickly. There is also no lasting pleasure in finding the way to see all 15 rocks, it is only a false success. The playfulness, the cleverness, the curiosity is inevitable in life, but it also inevitably quickly disappears.
What is left is a garden of rocks. I started to be mesmerized by the visual effect of the gravel, blending into each other with an incredible texture which makes it easy to lose your focus. The patterns in the sand are straight lines (chokusen-mon) and a stream pattern. The power of empty space is difficult to explain. Then, I looked at the big rocks, their shape. There are various explanations, such as islands coming out of the water. The garden has also been called “tiger cubs crossing the river” I wondered how the garden is maintained, how often and by who. I thought it is meant to look like something, but like many abstract art, it really is abstract.
Inside the hojo, empty space and fusuma painted walls. I walked to the back of the temple, where a tsukubai water basin (蹲踞) meant to purify oneself reads: “I learn only to be content” (吾唯足知, Ware tada taru koto wo shiru). This sentence struck me, as it seemed unclear from the English translation whether it means “I learn to only and always be content”, or whether it means “the only thing I learn is to be contented”. To me, they are different. The former seems to emphasize that you can become completely contented, whereas the latter emphasizes that it is something you can learn, in fact the only true learning one can do. Furthermore, if this is the only thing that we learn, what about all of the other "knowledge" and "experience" that we learn, through life and at work? I found the ambiguity so fit for this garden. I wonder if the original clarifies the meaning or if it is equally ambiguous. How profound, only with four characters.
This inscription puzzled me and I had water in my eyes reflecting upon it. Some of the people I admire always push themselves to become better, and tell themselves never to be contented. It seems very Japanese for farmers or artisans to say that they can always do better. Oftentimes, on Trails to Tsukiji or similar programs, a master artisan recognized as the best will say that they hope one day to do a really good one, or that they have never made a perfect one, when everyone else thinks it is perfect. How to balance the quest of improvement with the learning of only being contented? I struggle to see the balance.
I walked back to the rock garden, where more people were counting the rocks with curiosity and amusement. This garden seems simple to understand, it is easy to describe. But what is there to understand? Is it not the mystery of life that the more you understand about its origins, where love comes from or what you are doing here, the less satisfied this understanding leaves you? Making discoveries about atoms takes away none of their mystery.
Perhaps, we are like rocks, at one with rocks, the material and the immaterial blending into one. There is no meaning, yet we find so much meaning.
After walking back and forth several times between the rock garden and the tsukubai, I finally left and stumbled upon my first Kyoto yodofu restaurant on-site, another wonderful experience in its simplicity.
This garden always changes through the seasons, in the snow, in the rain, and it also has not changed in hundreds of years, eternally immobile. I later discovered that there are two cherry trees next to each other at Ryoanji, but they must bloom at slightly different times as there was only one when I was there. I wanted to take a good picture, because we want things to last, but no picture can do justice to this experience. How surprising that the most material and static garden of all is the one that is so fleeting. Material things do not last forever. Does it mean that they do not matter, or that we should cherish them?
I will forever remember and be grateful for seeing Ryoanji. How overwhelmingly powerful was this expression of ultimate simplicity, at the intersection of what we see and what we do not see with our eyes.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
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