The hidden stone — Ryoanji zen rock garden

25 Feb

In Art History 101, we studied a wide range of works from around the world. For tests, a few images would be flashed on to the giant projection screen in the cavernous lecture hall and we’d have to write one page about each.

One work was the rock garden at Ryoanji temple in north Kyoto, possibly the most famous in the world. The garden is the ultimate in zen minimalism — just fifteen rocks set in gravel. I remember complaining to my mother “how am I supposed to write a whole page about a bunch of rocks?” I was relieved it wasn’t chosen for the test.

Ryoanji's zen garden is protected on three sides by an earthen wall, allowing viewing from only one side.

Ryoanji’s zen garden is protected on three sides by an earthen wall, allowing viewing from only one side.

Now, ten years later, I’ve seen the garden in person and am doing that very thing.

The garden is thought to have been created around the 15th or 16th centuries and has puzzled people ever since. It’s not known who exactly built it or what it’s meant to represent.

Some say it looks like islands strewn across the ocean or mountains peaking through clouds. One story states that it’s a tiger carrying her cubs across a pond. Others see the kanji character for “heart” in the arrangement.

Considering life or how uncomfortable kimono is.

Considering life or how uncomfortable kimono is.

Possibly the most interesting thing is that the rocks are arranged in such a way that not all fifteen can be viewed at the same time from any angle. The number 15 is thought to have connotations with ‘completeness’ in Buddhism. But in the imperfect world, the fifteen rocks cannot be seen at the same time. There is always one hidden that can only be seen in the mind’s eye.

A meditation hall borders the rock garden, with a ledge to sit on and contemplate what it all means. Why would someone decide to make this? Where is the hidden rock? Who rakes that gravel? How often do they rake it? What food will be available at the golden temple up the street? (Meditation seems to make me either sleepy or hungry.)

Get lost in the temple's grounds after visiting the popular rock garden.

Get lost in the temple’s grounds after visiting the popular rock garden.

After all that meditation, be sure to wander the surprisingly extensive temple grounds with many buildings and a large lake. Visiting in the end of winter, it wasn’t as lush as I imagine it will be in the spring or fall, when all of Kyoto is gorgeous of course.

Ryoanji is not the easiest temple to get to in Kyoto. I try to take trains and subways as the buses can take ages to get around Kyoto. We took the Karasuma subway line to Kitaoji station, then took a bus to a stop close to Kinkakuji and walked from there. (The bus stops were well marked and there was an information centre at the train station.) Of course, pair this temple with the famous Kinkakuji, the golden temple, or others in the area.

 

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