Ryoanji reflections

Wanderlust editor Don George describes the garden at Kyoto's Ryoanji temple, a simple plot of sand, rocks and moss that makes visitors stop -- and see.

Published December 14, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

When I think of the sacred places I have encountered in my own travels, I recall the Temple of Poseidon on the cliff of Cape Sounion in Greece, where I spent a wild night huddled in my sleeping bag among the moonlit columns, surrounded by tearing wind, the crashing of waves and ghostly, godly dreams.

I think too of Bali, of the lush, lovingly sculpted land and the gentle people, more profoundly imbued with a sense of sanctity -- of life as a holy gift to be celebrated -- than any other I have met.

But most vividly of all I think of a simple plot of sand and rocks and moss in Kyoto -- the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple.

The guidebooks will tell you that the rock garden was built in the 15th century, probably by a renowned, Zen-influenced artist named Soami, and that it is considered a masterpiece of the karesansui ("dry landscape") garden style. It consists of fifteen irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes, some surrounded by moss, arranged in a bed of white sand that is raked every day. A low earthen wall surrounds the garden on three sides, overhung by a narrow, beamed wooden roof; on the fourth side, wooden steps lead to a wide wooden platform and the main building of the temple itself. Beyond the wall are cedar, pine and cherry trees.

Such a description gives a sense of the history and look of the place, but to understand its power, its pure presence, you have to go there. The first time I visited Ryoanji I was overwhelmed -- first by the spareness of the site and second by loudspeakers that every fifteen minutes squawked out a recorded message about the history and spirit of the garden to the busloads of obedient schoolchildren and tourists who filed through.

But something held me there. Morning passed to afternoon, and still I sat on the well-worn platform, staring. Kids in black caps, tiny book-filled backpacks and black-and-white school uniforms passed by, studying me while I studied the garden, and adults in shiny cameras and kimonos clicked and clucked and walked on.

Clouds came and went, and the branches beyond the garden bent, straightened, bent again. I saw how the pebbly sand had been meticulously raked in circles around the rocks, and in straight lines in the open areas; and how those lines stopped without a misplaced pebble when they touched the circular patterns, and then resumed unchanged beyond them. I saw how pockets of moss had filled the pocks in the stones, and how the sand echoed the sky, the moss echoed the trees, the wall and roof balanced the platform, and the rocks seemed to emanate a web of intricate, tranquil tension within the whole.

It was an exquisite enigma, telling me something I couldn't put words to, and so it has remained. I have seen Ryoanji in spring, when the cherry trees bloomed, and in fall, when their branches were bare; in winter, when snow covered the moss, and in summer, when the cicadas buzzed beyond the wall. I have been there among giggling teenagers and gaping farmers, bemused Westerners and beatific monks. By now it has become a part of me -- and still it eludes me.

I love the place partly because it is so emphatically not a ten-minute tourist stop. Its dimensions defy the camera -- I have never seen a true picture of the place -- and its subtle simplicity defies quick assimilation. It makes you sit and study, slow down and stare until you really see it -- in its particularity and in its whole, simultaneously.

And yet -- and here the enigma expands -- you cannot see all of Ryoanji at one time: The rocks are so arranged that you can see only twelve of the fifteen stones wherever you stand. You have to visualize, imagine, the other three.

How wonderful! It is in this sense that Ryoanji is, for me, the essential sacred place: It is complete in itself, but for you to completely perceive it, you have to transcend the boundary between inner and outer -- to travel inward as well as outward, to find and finish it in your mind.

And the gigglers, the camera-clickers, and the squawking loud-speakers are all, in their exasperating reality, part of this completion. Beyond a great irony of modern Japan -- loudspeakers instructing you to appreciate the silence -- they embody a much larger meaning: You must embrace them all -- the monks and the moss and the trees, the schoolkids and the stones -- to really be there, to be whole.

This essay is reprinted from "Travelers' Tales Guides: Japan," ) 1999 by Travelers' Tales, Inc. It is excerpted with the permission of Travelers' Tales Inc. and of the San Francisco Examiner, where the article originally appeared.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

MORE FROM Don George

Related Topics ------------------------------------------