the zen garden in the Ryoanji Temple

  • the zen garden in the Ryoanji Temple

    Posted by Zak Safra on April 25, 2023 at 7:42 am

    hello everyone,

    In Iain’s writings and conversations, you may have come across a a description of a Zen Garden in Japan located in the Ryoanji Temple. I recently visited Japan with my family, and I made a point to seek out the garden that I had read so much about.

    Iain often talks about what is lost when making things explicit, its one of the most important things I have learned from him, so what I think I’ll do is just describe my visit shortly, and I’ll share photos. But if you prefer to visit the garden before looking at pics, I would understand.

    I really do recommend making the effort to visit this garden in person, if you are in Japan. Nothing I share here can replace that.

    Also, I think it would be untrue if I didn’t say that without Iain’s descriptions and communication of significance, I don’t know if I would have made it out to garden. There’s a kind of relationship that develops with Iain through his ideas, and so, I really felt I just had to go to visit the garden.

    We were in Kyoto, which has many temples and gardens. The day earlier, we learned from our tour guide that Zen gardens often communicate ideas, and their creators often want to promote contemplation. The stones and their placement often have symbolism. The dragon, apparently, is a symbol of enlightenment (I was so surprised to learn this, I had always thought of dragons as fearsome creatures!). See the first photo — “dragon’s bridge”, from a different Zen garden in Kyto.

    We took a train to a suburb of Kyto, and then made an approximately 2km walk in the pouring rain (with kids!) towards the garden. In fact the walk was mesmerising for me, it felt a bit like a pilgrimage of sorts, walking along narrow streets, trusting google maps to get me there, and trying not to get my phone wet.

    When we arrived at the Ryoanji Temple, we bought tickets and walked thru the entrance. We found ourselves in a park. Reading instructions isn’t my strong point, and for a while we wondered if this was, in fact, the famous garden. The path wound its way around a lake, closer and farther from the water at times. Thanks to a marvelous umbrella, I was able to enjoy the fresh smelling air, the gorgeous sound of the rain, and the beautiful lush greenery and blossoms around me. We were fortunate enough to be in Japan for the cherry blossoms, and I hope you will see the pine tree next to a blossoming cherry tree. These two trees are often planted near each other so as convey the importance of both the enduring and the ephemeral.

    It was fine to be lost in this park, it was truly gorgeous. But my wife and I counted more than 15 stones. Surely this can’t be it? Or, gasp, maybe there were more than 15 stones? It didn’t really matter to us. The sounds, smells and sights were profoundly moving. Such care had been taken into creating this park.

    Apprently the word for garden in Japanese literally means “controlled nature”. My knee jerk reaction to the word “control” is “ooh – don’t know about that” but upon discussion with our tour guide from the previous day, Japan is a country with massive challenges from natural disasters. It has been that way in the past and apparently still is the case, that landslides and earthquakes cause major problems every year. This park, or zen garden, was, in any event, a meditation and I appreciated greatly how much care had gone into crafting each part I walked through.

    But, what was the story with the 15 stones? Surely we had counted more by now and, were they hidden in any particular way? Something wasn’t right. I decided to take the radical step of looking at a map, conveniently located at the entrance to the garden. To my amazement, enjoying the garden so much, we had walked past the entrance to the temple, home to the famous zen garden. We had honestly felt it was enough, but now we had more to look forwards to.

    I made my way in and sat for about half an hour. It was indeed as Iain describes, the stones were not all visible from any particular angle. It was enough to just sit there silently contemplating. I should add there were quite a few others doing the same.

    I had so many thoughts and feelings that arose from the garden. It was a visual lesson. On the incompleteness of knowledge, from any single perspective. Is knowledge of the whole possible? Is recognition of our limits, in a way, liberating? Might it let us see more?

    The photos are posted below. The last one is the actual zen garden.

    Zak Safra replied 1 year, 1 month ago 3 Members · 4 Replies
  • 4 Replies
  • Whit Blauvelt

    April 25, 2023 at 3:26 pm

    Beautiful. Sounds like you got as much from the journey as the destination. It’s been 43 years since I visited Kyoto. Reassuring to see it still much the same.

    • Zak Safra

      April 28, 2023 at 12:04 pm

      Hello Whit,

      That’s a great point. The journey really was saturated with meaning. I was excited to visit, almost a feeling of pilgrimage on behalf of Channel McGilchrist!


  • Lucy Fleetwood

    April 28, 2023 at 7:58 am

    Hi Zaf,

    What a beautiful story and experience. I could feel the embodied-ness of this.

    I think knowing our limits is helpful if the left brain doesn’t run off into a story about that. Did you find you were looking differently out of your eyes?

    I sometimes ask myself ‘what’s looking out of my eyes’, or perhaps I’m in the middle of the business of a working day (left brain focus) and suddenly I’ll catch sight of a bird surfing the air currents and instantly my eyes feel different, because I’m looking out of them in a different way.

  • Zak Safra

    April 28, 2023 at 11:56 am

    Hi Lucy,

    I think Iain’s writing in general, and with many examples in particular, have made me feel that way — seeing the world in a new way. Iain speaks so much about the attention we bring to the world, how we attend to the world, that in itself is probably the most powerful lesson I have learned. That a meaningful, connected outlook — It’s all there, waiting for us, we just have to find it in ourselves, and we have agency in the matter, we can try for it. If anything, we must say learn to say no to what we know isn’t the right path, and allow our other mode of attention to come flooding in. Hope that makes sense in a not to weird way!

    The Zen gardens of Kyoto, specifically, really did open my eyes in a new way. I felt humbled and inspired by their beauty and profundity.

    Thank you for your reply 🙂


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