Thursday, May 26, 2011

When is Zen not quiet

We arrived in Kyoto in the late evening, to stay in a small inn, again with traditional rooms (but Western toilets!). We had dinner at a small space down the street that served various sorts of Japanese savory pancakes. Batter mixed with vegetables, then filled, and cooked on a griddle. I had negi-yaki, a green onion based, quite thin pancake. Few of the places we have eaten have been non-smoking, and I'd forgotten how quickly you can ignore the smell of cigarette smoke when it is ubiquitous.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I guess you have to bring Ignatian imagination to bear if you are going to insist upon silence.