There is a garden that one can see in under five seconds! Yup, that’s right. It is inside the Ryōan-ji template near Kyoto, Japan. I was there just a few days ago. Visiting this garden is a simple affair. You enter a small building, remove your shoes, place them in the shoe rack, walk around the corner and face an open area. There is a rectangle filled with gravel and it has fifteen rocks of varying sizes on it. That’s it. That is the “garden” :-) There is a porch where you can sit and look at the rock garden some more or you can get going.
Now these Japanese rock gardens or “dry landscapes” as they are called, are apparently common and have been a part of Zen Buddhism for long. I am not really familiar with the concept since my knowledge of Zen starts with the Wikipedia page and ends at a few Zen stories (Kōans), but apparently, creating these gardens is a full-fledged art as well as science. The arrangement is carefully thought out and executed. The gardens are well maintained and the gravel is raked by the monks of the temple every day. Also over the years, people have done much analysis and tried to identify what the arrangements possibly look like, what their intent was. This internationally-acclaimed Japanese rock garden of Ryōan-ji is no exception to that. But when you are on a vacation and wandering in a new country, you have two choices: you can either be methodical and try to understand the rationale behind the arrangement or you can forget about the analysis and just watch.
I took the latter, a bit lazier route and sat on the porch watching: the rocks look so naked and randomly placed. Nothing very artsy about them. They look stable and grounded if you look at them individually, yet the whole arrangement is rather asymmetric, a bit flaky and incomplete. If you look closely at the pattern in the gravel, then it slowly starts moving and floating as if to show its fluid nature. The concentric circles made in the gravel around the rocks offer a mild hint of continuity. You cannot capture the entire garden in one glance but you just know it’s all there – the bare naked simplicity, the incompleteness, the fluidity and the continuity, all together. It makes a statement, a loud and a clear one, if you are willing to pause and listen. You can get up from the porch and are free to leave whenever you want. There is no need to sit there for a long time anyway. You can simply carry the essence of the garden with you like a perfume in a bottle and know in your heart that you are the sole owner of it.
This little place stands in contrast with some other places I have been to. A travel-o-zealous family that ours is, I have ended up visiting the beautiful chapels of Rome and Vatican City, golden decorative churches of Russia, ancient Viking churches of Norway, elegant temples and mosques of India, and stylish pagodas of China. These are some astounding examples of art and finesse, power and accomplishment. I have bestowed appropriate amounts of “oohs” and “aahs” upon each one of them. I have covered my head with a scarf before entering the place where that was deemed necessary. I have washed my hands and feet where that was the protocol. I have thrown many a coins in the wishing wells for fun and have lighted candles around the world. But I have not put any money in any of the donation boxes. I have not really prayed in front of a deity or a shrine, nor asked for anything – at least, not in a really long time. I don’t think I can say I have much sense of belonging in any of these places.
I guess then it is tricky for me to be a good pilgrim, huh. But then should I be all rigid about it and deny a pilgrimage? Not really. So one thing is certain and that is this – if at all there is a pilgrimage for me, then this little rock garden is it. It suits me on levels that I can barely describe in words. Plus in a totally pilgrim-y way, I traveled over the globe (BTW, the flight from DC to Japan does go ‘over’ the North pole) to see it, didn’t I? :-) I traveled all the way to Japan, saw a bunch of rocks on gravel and quite unexpectedly I am done with my pilgrimage – once and for all.