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Enlightenment at Ryoanji Rock Garden

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 [...]

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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.

Filed under: Asia, Japan

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • oliv' July 27, 2013, 9:31 pm

    I experienced a genuine dharma-monk-authentified zen vision at ryoan-ji. Listen to this and excuse my french.

    I was in ryoan-ji while bussiness traveling in Japan (september-2012). I’ve seen so much things in Kyoto that I quickly found in love for the city. Anyway. Yes I was well advised by a dharma monk (tourist guide in the manga museum the day, drunk at night) to visit a few places for my very last day in Kyoto. Since I was not that tempted by Bouda statues, I insisted to glance at the most wonderfull gardens the world only knows. There he stenciled what’s left of my map (it’s 35°C, my body does not get used to it so easily), & there I went. Toji-in, Kingakuji, arashi-yama, and so on, so well I finished my 80km (stollen-)bike ride by having a look at this broadly-known rock garden I only knew from it the circle on my shred city-map.

    After vagabonding in the wild garden, I got to the very rock garden. Since it was the end of the day, the place was not that crowed, so I had enough time to take pictures for the friends left in France, and then only, trying to concentrate. You may want to understand that. Ryoan-ji is not that fancy. This is solid rocks, river sand and a little bit of moss, a veranda, a wall, expensive paintings around, and a fountain in the rear end side of the so-called house. nothing fancy. I have been told by translated tourist information that this stuff has been made so that zen-monk may first-experience enlightment after their long&suffering training, some sort of bar-exam. furthermore, rocks have some meanings like turtles ans birds. And I Concurred, after 10-15 minutes of meditation-101 : *It is just a bunch of f’cking rocks*.

    I usually hate travelling so that I spend every least of my (many) vacations in the very same old place in the French Alps (japanese country side is kind of poor compared to my one…). So that I only do travel when it is paid by my employer. And when I travel, I don’t do half-things (don’t try my way unless you are with a L.A.-full-trained-professional stunt. The stewart told me that I felt in the A380 stairway while visiting – I was too drunk I did not remembered). And I’m not stupid – that’s what my Science-PhD degre wants me to promote. But yes : *It is just a bunch of f’cking rocks*.

    I was not disapointed anyway, since night storm came so powerfully among that early dawn’s light and I was left alone in the surounding gigantic moss garden that I smoked my last cigarette on the garden’s inner lake-shore, Nature made peacefull and superb – I love rain at the end of the day. And I came back by the strorms to my 30$/night ryokan the other side of this 1 million people city, get through so mervellous things I have got not the time to tell, flew down at night by the river’s bank right down towards to my hotel at the very first minute of the night.

    Anymay, I took a shower and prepared meself to my own set-routine without getting undully agitated – the same like the other days : public-bath among Yakusa, diner at the same place (excellent&cheap : a must in kyoto I found it by meself!, right next to the bath), and drinking till death at the same yakitori were I used to buddy-buddy with the guiding monk (the cook is a sumo from official kyoto league).

    Before leaving the ryokan (hotel), I checked the photos I took that day. Checked the focus of the rocks in Ryoan’ji while trying to scratch a little of my new-found capillar-winter.

    And then I popped out of my mind. This is where the story begins. You may assume that what’s follow is a genuine ryoanji-zen enlightment.

    1) I felt alone. you know, completely alone. just like you are so far away from civilisation that no one could reach you and you can reach no one.
    2) everything turned white. just like the backgroung of your computer screen.
    3) no horizon, nothing, but I felt like on a solid ground, standing still, looking around at this empty place.
    4) I felt some sort of vertigo and some coming fear.

    5) and when I looked at my back, there were these same old stones filling that white shore.
    6) and the stones turned out to old peoples or animals.
    7) and I was not alone anylonger.
    8) And I pleased

    And it lasted easily 1 second. I came back to my mind. felt like… you know just like after an adrenaline surge, pretty well and astonished.
    And just like any sweet dream the morning, you may want to try to get back at it (Dear Pamela A.).
    And you get back at it.
    It was exactly like a one-second dream but in the day. It was not quick like a good-idea. No it lasted quite some time indeed.
    very different from you know, some sort of a remembrance when you taste a cook like those from your childhood. much more intense but kind of similar as well…
    un reve éveillé : an awoken-dream. A real special stuff happend in my cheap hotel room at 7.p.m…
    After that, the dharma monk autentified this as a genuine zen-vision. To express my vision to him by a quick final sentence, I told him : It was just like when the guy from the movie Matrix get to the Matrix for the very first time. It is white, stretched out to hell, nothing, but he is not left alone because there is a chair, a TV, and a friend who knows.
    He then he called his many girlfriends… that is a different story.
    You may laugh, but the following morning, before leaving for Tokyo for the bussiness stuff, while checking the 30$ room for my surely lost passport, I found two coins of gold (2 x 1/2 troy ounce mapple leaves 99.99%). I sold them in Tokyo for 1570 Euro taxe-free. If I knew, I would have bribed the Novotel to get to the famous Jiro’s triple-stared sushi restaurant…

    And I am not jocking! And I don’t take drugs! And I am not the believer-kind-of-guy (I’m just a drunk athlete who hates traveling…).

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