The other day a friend and I found out about a few serendipitous connections we share. Here we are in Northwest Arkansas. Yet my friend and my mother attended the same east-coast design school. My friend’s daughter now attends the same east-coast college that I did, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Now my friend’s daughter is going to Kyoto, and I myself was there the summer I spent in Japan studying Aikido.
So in honor of serendipity, here’s an experience I had in Kyoto, at the Ryoan-ji Temple, which I still remember thirty-five years later.
I had survived four weeks of martial-arts training with the Tokyo riot-control police, training that was so brutal I was frequently left bleeding at the end of the day. Who – especially a woman in that kind of man’s world – would even think of doing such a thing? Perhaps only the kind of person I was back then: Driven, desperate to achieve escape-velocity from crippling fear and rage and despair, willing to do just about anything. Fueled by a tendency toward Type A behavior either inherited or culturally induced – whichever, it didn’t really matter.
So the end of my summer in Japan found me utterly wrung out physically, mentally, and emotionally. Perhaps it was this condition that set the stage for the experience. Or maybe it was a childhood fascination I still recall at a picture, in one of my mother’s architecture books, of the Zen garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple. The famous one, this one – this picture was taken about where I sat.
I can’t say what the powerful draw could have been. I only knew, even as a child, that the garden had to mean something profound. So on my visit many years later, I came armed with an implacable determination to stare that garden down until I had it figured out.
I commenced to contemplate.
But conditions were not favorable. I was visiting on a national holiday. The Ryoan-ji garden has been part of the national heritage for over five hundred years. As I sat staring, unmoving, wave after tsunami of giggling, chattering schoolchildren foamed and broke around me, group-leaders in beanies coordinating the onslaught with whistles.
I sat still. What could be the meaning of this dry, austere landscape?
I saw the rocks as mountains, the white stones as clouds. I saw the rocks as islands, the white stones as water.
Still I sat.
I did not know, then, that the number fifteen, of the fifteen rocks that comprise the garden, stands for completeness, and that only fourteen of the fifteen rocks can be seen at one time from any one vantage-point. I could have busied myself with that at least. But this was pre-Google, so I didn’t know.
On and on I sat. On and on with the schoolchildren. Nothing. And I don’t mean the “good” kind of Zen nothing. The bad kind. The frustrating kind.
So I gave up. I unwound and slowly stood up. I turned away.
I then chanced to spot a lectern just to one side, on which was placed a vase containing two stems of Japanese lanterns. Like this:
The red of those two flowers was so blisteringly intense, after all that white and black, that I had to close my eyes. I stumbled back around the corner and I recuperated there for a time, gazing at a soothing carpet of fresh green moss.
The moss at Ryoanj-ji, thanks to the Temporarily Lost blog.
I thought, make of this what you may. Perhaps we can’t fully appreciate the vividness of life without a strong dash of renunciation. Perhaps to see color in its full burning intensity, we need to bracket it between the starkness of black and white.
I doubt, though, that those insights help me much these days.
What I can say is: Today, unlike back then, I celebrate the warm-heartedness of unconditional connection. Today, unlike then, I revel in the fierce red love I have found in two monochromatic cats.