LAST AUGUST my wife took me to Kyoto, Japan’s old imperial capital. We spent three days there before continuing on to Nara and finally to Hiroshima.
In Kyoto we visited temples and shrines of great beauty. We saw a shrine that hosted one thousand and one handcrafted statues of Kannon Bodhisattva, an enormous temple constructed without a single nail, a golden pavilion whose roof of pure gold shone in the sun. We walked through countless gardens with trees and shrubs and moss so green they hurt our eyes. I have never seen green as green as the green of Japan.
And then we saw the Rock Garden at Ryoan-ji. Fifteen rocks, big and small, scattered across a bed of white gravel. No color but gray. No thing but stone. A horde of tourists took mad pictures of the rocks. They posed with the rocks. They oo-ed and aah-ed and shook their heads, utterly impressed.
I could understand a golden pavilion with a roof of gold. I could pose by a golden pavilion and let it take my breath away. I could understand one thousand and one statues, meticulously hand-crafted, crammed in a tiny space. I could understand a temple as giant as the Great Pyramid, constructed without a single nail.
But a garden of scattered rocks I could not understand. I grew angry with the tourists, with the stones, with my wife, with myself. We didn’t need to pay ten dollars for this. I could watch stones free of charge in my spare time.
We were tired. We had been hopping from one national treasure to another all day and so we sat down on the wooden floor to catch our breath. I might at least get my money’s worth, I thought, and for the lack of anything better to do I fixed my eyes on the rocks. I counted them, one, two, three, fourteen. Even in this I felt cheated – of the advertised fifteen, only fourteen were present. I counted them again and again. Then I watched the space between the rocks, the tiny, white pebbles and discovered that they weren’t just scattered about, but were raked in furrows.
I asked my wife about this and she told me that Buddhist monks raked the stones every morning, by hand. To me, plowing stones sounded as pointless as scattering rocks about and calling it a garden, but I didn’t say that. “How come there are only fourteen?” I asked, of the rocks. “You can see the fifteenth,” my wife said, “when you achieve enlightenment.”
Then we were quiet for a long time.
And a funny thing happened. A cool breeze picked up and cooled me down and I watched the rocks, and the empty space between them, and the wall behind and I tried to figure out what the rocks symbolized, what the space represented, why the wall appeared to be sweating oil in patches. And the more I thought of the rocks the less I thought of anything else, my fatigue, my thirst, my anger.
And the more I thought of the rocks the less of them I thought. Instead, I remembered a field in Bulgaria, where a giant boulder lay; a boulder which Krali Marko, our great mythical hero, had once hurled from the other end of the country. I remembered my grandfather who, most certainly, had climbed up on this boulder as a child. I remembered that he was dead now. Then I didn’t think of him, or of the field. I didn’t think of anything at all. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t happy.
I would like you to take a moment now and look at the Rock Garden at Ryoan-ji. You don’t have to keep a pious silence; you don’t have to think of those people in Japan who lost their lives to earthquakes and giant waves. You didn’t know them. They didn’t know you. Such is the undeniable truth of our existence. But for a moment, watch the rocks and think of nothing.
Who knows then, maybe there is no fifteenth stone in the garden. Who knows then, maybe you will see it.
Just a quick note to answer some emails I’ve received: I’ll post the second part of the interview (thank you for asking about it) next week. But I was reminded of this Rock Garden during a class last week and the very next day Japan was hit by the awful disaster so I thought of the garden again and wanted to share.