Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Memories of Japan: Rock Garden

Today is Tuesday, January 14, 2014.

One weekday during Japan's rainy season, I decided to visit Kyoto with my friend Mitsuko, whom I met at university in the United States.  The so-called tsuyu rainy season occurs in early summer, right about when the plums begin to ripen.  (The trees blossom in late winter.)  That's why the rainy season is called tsuyu (plum rain).  The "plum rain" is different from regular summer rain.  For one thing, there's no thunder.  When I heard thunder, I knew it was no longer the rainy season, and summer had begun in earnest. 

This early-June-to-mid-July weather pattern is caused by cold north winds meeting warm southern winds, but for some reason , the weather front tends to last several weeks each year.  Some rainy seasons are rainier than others, however.  Unlike other places that have a so-called rainy season, it doesn't really rain every day during tsuyu season, but it's cloudy a lot.  Sometimes there is a real downpour, and other times it just sprinkles a bit. On the island of Okinawa, which is quite far south of the rest of the country, the rainy season comes about a month earlier.  On the northern island of Hokkaido, this weather pattern is almost nonexistent.

One thing is for sure: Japan is almost bereft of tourists during the rainy season, so if you want to visit a tourist hot-spot like Kyoto, this is the time to do it.   That was our thinking, anyway.  We enjoyed riding to Kyoto in the uncrowded train and walking to our destination without hordes of gawking tourists from every country imaginable.  Mitsuko wanted to go to a Zen Buddhist temple called Ryōan-ji, famous for its rock garden.  

At this temple, you can sit on a long veranda that runs the length of a huge, room that in summer is kept open to the air, and just meditate as you gaze at the garden, and that's exactly what we did.  We were the only ones there, besides the monk who sat with us, and we spent the afternoon just sitting there on the smooth, dark wooden floor that had been colored and polished not by design but by centuries of use and exposure to the elements, listening to the soft, steady rain as it fell on the rock garden.   We chatted in low voices, occasionally asking the monk sitting nearby for some information, and often lapsing into quiet introspection.  To this day, I love to listen to the rain on a quiet afternoon.

Later, I learned that this veranda was located in the hōjō, abbot's residence.  It certainly didn't look like a residence, as there were no personal effects anywhere in view.  But then, Buddhist priests and monks are known for their spartan lifestyle, in which they need almost nothing to survive.  Their personal possessions are pretty much limited to prayer beads and a begging bowl.

It wasn't until I visited a temple on Mt. Koya to stay overnight that I was privileged to see a monk actually "rake" the garden.   I realized then that the monks have to walk backwards, dragging the rake as they go, to get the lines in the gravel just so.  

Zen Buddhism enjoyed popularity among the Samurai (warrior) class in the 12th century.  The first rock garden is thought to have been made in 1334.   The rock garden at Ryōan-ji is the most famous in Kyoto.  It was created in the late 15th century.  By this time, Zen gardens were abstract, and the large rocks in the garden were said to be "mountains" or "islands" in a sea of white gravel.  The raked lines represented the rippling of the water.  There is no vegetation in the garden, at least, not on purpose.  A few of the larger stones have a little moss growing on them and are surrounded by mossy areas that resembled islands.  

I think I was able to absorb some of the Zen philosophy of simplicity, mostly by osmosis.  One place this showed up was my classroom, which I liked to keep fairly calm and quiet.  Unlike a lot of other elementary school teachers, my classroom walls were not a riot of colors and pictures, and my bulletin boards did not shout.  I had a few things up, but generally speaking my walls and bulletin boards were muted, occasionally interactive, but mostly meant to stay in the background.  I found this to be a great atmosphere in which to teach kids who were desperately trying to learn the English language well enough to get by in school.  So often, I found that they were over-stimulated in their classrooms, and needed quieter surroundings in order to concentrate.  People used to stop by and tell me how much they liked my classroom.  They'd ask if I'd just put something new up, and most of the time, the answer was no.  The other thing I did to maintain my classroom atmosphere was to do a quick morning contemplation in my room, chanting the word HU, which is an ancient, sacred name for God, but that didn't come from Buddhism.  It was something I learned when I joined Eckankar, and HU doesn't "belong to" Eckankar, either.  It just is.  :-)

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