Thursday, 20 May 2010

Pondering Ryoanji

Looking back to my trip to Kyoto, one place stands out more than any other- Ryoanji Temple. It isn't the biggest, nor the smallest, so I wondered- what is it about that place that appeals to me so much? 

Ryoanji is most of all known for it's rock garden. Yet there is much more to it than that. A rich and vivid garden, along with a broad temple pond adorn the grounds. Seeing this, we can understand the rock garden in context, disabusing us of misconcieved stereotypes of Zen Buddhism. Just as the Buddha found aeseticism to be merely a way to clear the mind temporarily and not something to take to extremes, so did the Buddhist monks that followed him. 

The rock garden provides a gorgeous opportunity to encounter the concept of negative space. I rank it very highly as being one of the very few examples of minimalism that have captured the public imagination. The joy in simplicity is known as 'wabi-sabi'. In modern times, though, a search for harmony amidst an increasingly busy world has lead to such aesthetics becoming the very embodiment of what modernity stands for, or should I say, seeks for. From crystal-like green-glass skyscrapers to devices like the iPod, 'negative space' is all the rage. Yet for all this, it is worth exploring just why we find it so attractive- why living in such relative opulence to what we had before, would we seek to see less?

One reason, to me is the evolution of mind. We gravitate towards simplicity as we learn more about satisfying, final results. The fact that these Buddhist monks reached so far shows the value of their monastic community, one that emphasised self-knowledge as much as faith. Another is by way of contrast with the relative complexity of daily life. Just as finer foods have become commonplace, even expected, so have better standards of living. Many people are starting to realise that a foundation of serenity helps you to enjoy the otherwise overwhelming stream of impressions that daily life throws our way. By being in harmony, we can find order and meaning in what would otherwise appear as a cacophony of sensation. We yearn for the negative space we need to balance the profusion of impressions around us. Busier than ever, we need more rest.

Yet the negative space itself is best appreciated by beings like ourselves alongside such positive impressions. Hence the gardens or Ryoanji, that have some of the nicest and certainly the most carefully cultivated flowering plants throughout Japan, especially the collection of cherry trees. I was amazed at their colour and perfection, something I've only seen elsewhere at Shinjuku-Gyoen park in Tokyo. I'd never really realised how nice the gardens are, seeing only the minimalist rocks. Yet now I understand that one balances the other, each being a message of the Zen view of life as both simple and vibrant, quiet and relevant, embodying 'Ying' and 'Yang'- though in true Zen style, these are to be experienced rather than merely categorised. Where better to experience them than in a pure land-like garden?

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