Kyoto: Descending into silence

Breakfast was a quick “thick toast” with marmalade in the hallway of the inn, where I could admire the old fashioned salmon pink pay phone. We got an early start this morning to see Ryoanji temple, which is famous for its Zen rock garden. The grounds are gorgeous, but because it is a stop on the standard school tour (think Independence Hall in Philadelphia), it is generally overun with kids in school uniforms and their tour guides. We got there when there were only two busses in the parking lot, by the time we left, the lot was full.

The garden was created behind the abbot’s quarters by Tokuho Zenketsu in about 1500. The garden is empty, except for 15 rocks (of which you can see only 14 at any one time), and was created (perhaps) for night time meditation. I can imagine it would be gorgeous in the moonlight. It’s surrounded by low walls, with a lone cherry tree dropping its branches over the side. One side of the abbot’s quarters is an open veranda, which is where you sit. For all that is a icon of Zen, of stillness and contemplation, the place is anything but still and quiet.

As you can see, there are lots of people looking at the garden, tour guides chattering, and recorded announcement playing (in Japanese) which, I’m told, tells how quiet this space is. Still, sitting there, tuning out the chatter, I could get some sense of what it might be like in the middle of the night to sit in this space. I suspect it would be a very still spot.


From there, we went to Rokuon-ji temple, which was, if possible, even more frenetic than Ryoanji, if you can imagine. Packed with school tours, signs everywhere forbidding group pictures (a prescription which seemed to be ignored, but you could see the logic of, as it clogged up the viewing area). Rokuon-ji’s grounds are open and lovely, but the pavilion at the edge of the lake is the draw, the top two floors are covered in gold leaf. It is spectacular. But not quiet.

Hank had written to the Saihoji temple in west Kyoto, which is more often called the Moss Temple because of its extraordinary moss gardens. The only way to get in is to request entrance ahead of time, in writing. Hank had also asked that we be allowed to see a very old tea ceremony house on the grounds (built about 400 years ago by the first disciple of the man who created the tea ceremony) for scholarly purposes. You show your letter to the man at the gate to get in, and then are offered a thin piece of paper with a sutra likely inked in (in kanji!) and shown to a room full of writing desks on the floor. For about an hour, you listen while the sutra is chanted, and copy it out with a brush and ink, then you add what you want to pray for and leave it to be burned. Then you can walk through the gardens.

The garden are amazing, softly rolling, carpeted in moss, with occasional touches of color, as in the iris on one of the small islands in the center of the pond. Because of the limits on visitors, this is a very quiet spot (except for the cell phone ringing behind me during the sutra chanting – a truly universal experience, if there is liturgy going on, there is a cell phone going off!)

The tea house was beautiful and rustic. We could only go out onto the veranda one at a time, since the boards are original and they won’t support too much weight. I was kindly allowed to take photos, so we can show the students the interior in the fall, since we will not be able to bring them inside.

From there we went to our fourth temple of the day. (Yes, I know this is not sounding all that contemplative, but we’re getting there.) This is another 14th century space, Jizo-In, a Zen temple sacred to the deity of children. It is surrounded by stands of enormous bamboo. There was only one other visitor there and we walked up to the abbot’s quarters and sat there quietly, contemplating his garden. It was so quiet I could hear the bamboo canes (which were thirty or forty feet tall at least) clattering in the wind. It was a space soaked in stillness, more than six centuries worth, and like many other still places, draws you into that quiet. I could have sat there all night, but alas, up the hill came the elderly, nigh on ancient, caretaker to kindly turn us back out into the world.

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