Return to Ryoanji Japan| Ancient Japan Tours | GeoEx
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Return to Ryoanji

By Don George | July 23, 2015

I loved Kyoto’s neighborhood temples, narrow alleys, tree-framed canals, and exquisite closet-sized crafts shops—but of all the city’s treasures, Ryoanji’s karesansui dry landscape garden, an intricately designed Zen puzzle of rocks and pebbles and moss, was the one that moved me most deeply.

What did I find there? A living koan. As I wrote in a recent column for the National Geographic blog, “The rock garden is famous for embodying a Zen lesson: It contains 15 rocks, yet is arranged so that visitors can see only 14 of them from any one vantage. The idea is that to fully apprehend the garden, you have to find the 15th stone in your mind—that is, you have to absorb the outside so completely that the distinction between the garden outside and the garden inside disappears. The two become as one.”

In this way, Ryoanji’s rock garden manifested the importance of slowing down, and of looking inward as well as outward, and it became the first stepping stone on the path that would eventually lead me to fall in love with Japan.

Ryoanji’s Poetry

This spring, almost four decades since that first visit, I carved out half a day to return to Ryoanji. I sat on the exact same wooden platform steps where I had sat before and imagined myself at the age of 24, just out of graduate school and freshly settled in Japan, full of hope and fear and longing.

I contemplated what I had learned in all those years, how I had changed, how Ryoanji had changed. And as the hours passed, and a gentle rain fell, and students and tourists came and went, counting the stones, I found myself writing this set of haiku, an ardent amateur’s homage to a place—and a period—that changed my life.

In April, rain on
Ryoanji: Pitter-patter
Pitter-patter time.

I sit and absorb
Just as 40 years before:
Rock, moss, pebble.  Still.

Gust of wind, cherry
Petal lands upon my palm:
Welcome back, old friend.

So green, these maples
In springtime! So pure, these straight-
Raked autumnal dreams!

Slow down, close your eyes,
Complete the garden in your mind:
Every absent stone.

The path I once dreamed
On the platform where I sit
Now: Sacred circle.

Empty your mind and
Open your heart: What garden?
There’s no garden here.


Explore the heart and highlights of Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, with Don George on his new handcrafted journey, Japan: Tip to Toe.

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