Reading zen in the rocks

Reading zen in the rocks

At the beginning, it is the emptiness that takes you. The beauty of emptiness. The one that in our western societies is so frightening that we never stop trying to fill it, by getting restless, by consuming, by possessing. To stop the fear of missing something.  In Japan, emptiness is not nothingness; on the contrary, it embodies all the senses and all the possibilities. The Zen garden of the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto is the ultimate garden of emptiness. It was designed according to Buddhist principles as a space for meditation and enlightenment. An area of raked, smooth, shimmering gravel that reappears untouched each morning under the monk's rake. No trees. No flowers. Only a few rocks and stones stand in the depth of emptiness. Emptiness frees the mind and in this way allows a connection with the intimate self, which brings the deepest part of oneself to the surface.  Similarly, in Japanese calligraphy painting, the landscape is designed with hazy and bright areas, parts rich in detail and others white left untouched. The emptiness part of the painting refers to a world that exists and invites the viewers to imagine it for themselves, thus stimulating their creativity.  In the same way, the writer, by sometimes leaving it up to the reader to decide the fate of the characters, encourages us to better know and recognize ourselves through the lives we invent for ourselves. It is like director Sofia Coppola, who explores the mysteries of Tokyo in her film Lost in Translation, and has the viewer formulate the parting words that Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johansson.

At Ryoan-ji you are drawn into the serenity, tranquility and silence of the place. In Japan, silence is an essential part of life. At the beginning of my visits to Japan, I was often impressed by the silence that some Japanese people can instill in the course of a conversation.  Today, I don't see it as an embarrassment or a lack of repartee, simply as a necessary time to adjust to the other, an invitation to fill the space together. The travel writer Pico Iyer* says that when you come to Japan, “more important than learning to speak Japanese is learning to speak silence.” There is something important in silence. Perhaps because it brings us closer to the essential.

We do not enter a Zen garden as we would enter a French or English garden. We are required to contemplate it from a designated point of view. And it is the garden that enters into us, all of it.  We feel drawn in by this powerful movement of gravel. Immediately we know that we are in the presence of something very deep and mysterious. There are 15 rocks in the garden of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, but you can only see 14 at a time, no matter how you look at it. Elements hidden in full light. In Eastern culture, the number 15 is believed to connote perfection while the number 14 connotes imperfection; two opposing forces that run one after the other in the circle of life. As viewers, we are suspended in this hiatus, a moment hinging between 15 and 14, invited to seek our balance in the moment, to live fully within this energy. 

The way home holds another lesson. The ablution and purification basin bears these ultimate words: "I learn only to be satisfied", in other words what you have is all you need.  I don't want anything material after my visit... 

*IYER, Pico,  A beginner's guide to Japan, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019

*BERTHIER, François, lire le zen dans les pierres, Paris, Adam Biro, 1989

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