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Enlightenment at Ryoanji Rock Garden

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Early in the year 2004 I was in Japan with my sister, Nicky. After a little turbulence in Tokyo we decided to pan out a little in the much calmer seas of Kyoto. So we went and settled into an apartment and chilled out in the beautiful old city.

I was really devote about my Buddhism in those days, so my sister and I figured that we would go visit to the famous Ryoanji Rock Garden that was just a short walk from where my room was in the Kinka-Ku district of Kyoto. After arriving at the temple we walked right in through the gates and made immediately for the rock garden. I had previously read much about the layout of its stones and how their positioning and shape is a perfect visual manifestation of the enlightening calm of Buddhism. I had seen their photos grace the pages of all the great zen books by Watts, Suzuki, and the rest, and I was excited to sit and ponder upon the mysteries of the stones as I sat before them.

Photo by Stephane D’Alu

My sister and I walked up through the Ryoanji temple and over to its famous rock garden. There was a crowd of tourist with cameras and little notebooks reverentially studying the forms and spacial dynamics of the stones which some ancient monk had laid out with perfection. The tourist were awed into silence as they looked upon the garden with religious devotion.

I too, was awed as I took my place among the throng.

I looked upon the stones and pondered the emptiness that they were said to represent. I took out my little notebook and began drawing the same semantics as the rest of the khaki-clad herd. I excited began telling my sister all that I knew about the Ryoanji garden and zen Buddhism. She politely listened to me for a few minutes before cutting in:

“I do not know what the hell all of you people are looking at,” she roared. “It is just a bunch of f’cking rocks.”

She was right.

Ryoanji was seen for what it was by my sister – the diamond cutter of wisdom – and my self-imposed thrill of the rocks was gone. We left Ryoanji as heretics.

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Filed under: Asia, Japan

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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