Japan, Post #2: Zen Gardens

Once again, let’s begin with the disclaimers…

1) These are just tourist pictures, the cheesy ones that everyone takes on vacation, and are not meant to be viewed as professional photography.  We took only one camera, a couple of zoom lenses and no lights: we were on vacation afterall!  We’re definitely not seeking employment with National Geographic here.  

2) We’re not experts on Japan, Japanese culture or religion so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Estimate that I’ll have my facts right about 54% of the time.

Zen is something I have tried in ernest to learn about but the best any academic can do is scrape the surface: it takes years of intense meditation to “get it” and even if you do, its something that can’t be explained and has to be realized.   Its a word that is regularly misused in our culture but at least we’re trying to embrace the idea in some way.

It was simultaneously delightful and disappointing to learn that temples in Japan function more like tourist attractions than places of worship: the paths leading to their gates are lined with food vendors and chachka shops, admission fees are charged, tours are given, fortunes and prayers are for sale, so on and so forth.  The disappointment probably comes from a Catholic upbringing where silence equals sanctity in a place of worship.  The delight came from the volume of people who actually wanted to go to a temple on a random Wednesday morning, our church couldn’t attract that kind of crowd on a Sunday!   I appreciated the fact that a temple visit could be fun, many temples offered a unique activity for procuring luck such as walking through a dark hall and dragging your hand along the wall to feel the key of enlightenment or locating a love stone with your eyes closed to find your true love.  Kids on field trips were ever present, school girls squealed as they read their fortunes, incense filled the air, and bells rang out as individuals stopped to pray.

The gardens, while often lacking the opportunity for solitude, did offer a more quiet and contemplative atmosphere.  It was on the long and winding paths through temple grounds that we escaped the noise and could take in all the natural beauty.  One advantage of visiting Kyoto during the high tourist season is that many temples light up their grounds and gardens for night visits, a time when the temple is ordinarily closed to the public.  Night visits were different all together: candles and lanterns against the dark lent an air of ritual and mystery.  Uplighting in the gardens made the trees and buildings come to life in a dramatic way: perfectly symmetrical and opposing worlds met on the surface of still waters, challenging the viewer’s view of reality:

Here’s another from from Daitokuji Temple at night:

Chion-in is the first temple we saw in Kyoto and the experience stands out.   As we walked past the Great Hall and into the gardens, we heard monks chanting in an adjacent building.  At first we thought it might be a recording but then we heard movement and realized that the sound had too many layers.  It was mysterious and beautiful.

Our favorite garden to walk through was Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavillion).  While the temple itself is under renovation and currently unavailable to the public, the gardens wind on a path up through the mountains for breathtaking views.  It poured as we walked through but it was still our favorite:

If you look down in a Zen garden and look carefully you might find a play on scale.  Mosses are very important to Zen gardens and, when carefully arranged with small bushes and covered with the miniature leaves of Japanese maples, you might begin to believe that a tiny forest exists beneath your feet.  This too helps a Zen student reflect on what they believe is real or true… which scale is correct?  Are you normal sized or a giant?  Or….

Here’s a table display with the “Very Important Mosses” to be found in the garden (like VIP)

We were told that the rock garden at Ryoan-ji is the quintessential Zen art piece.  While this isn’t a good picture of the garden itself, we can be forgiven since its impossible to get a good view: there are 15 stones in the garden but it is impossible to see all 15 from any given vantage point.  A scale miniature of the garden shows you where they all are but its true, we couldn’t see all 15 at once.  I love this picture Sam took because all the forms of people mimic the rock forms and could almost look like part of the garden itself:

That’s all for today but tomorrow we’ll hit one of our favorite desitinations: Nara, the Daibutsu Buddha and map eating deer.

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