Up a Garden Path

Even before I enter the temple, some indefinable quality about it draws my attention. Just through the entrance, to my right, a stone pathway leads to a small side gate half open, revealing, tantalising. Beside the path, a few azaleas, rocks, moss – the usual elements of the Japanese garden. And something else… I peer through the half open gate. There is no-one in sight. Normally, I would regard this as an invitation to explore. Well, sneak in, to be honest. My personal protest at the overly officious regime managing garden visits that I detest. Or perhaps it’s just a sign of immaturity, of someone who never quite grew out of the childhood habit of sneaking into other peoples’ gardens for an unauthorised look around. Whatever, the open gate arouses a certain fascination for me.

But today something stops me. I stand at the threshold equivocating. Something about this garden invites (demands is too strong a word) respect. Where does this invitation come from? I am not able to say. But neither am I able to pass through the gate. I return to the main path and approach the ticket booth. No-one there. But as I remove my shoes to enter, a screen door slides open and a young woman with a sunny, open face emerges to take my money. Through the doorway behind her, I glimpse figures seated cross-legged in meditation. The calm quiet of the meditation practice seems to permeate the very wood of the buildings and the gardens beyond. I follow a veranda around behind the dojo to the garden.

On entering, I find a collection of close-set wooden buildings. Among the buildings, a series of interconnected verandas with low roofs, looking down into tiny courtyard gardens – each one an intimate masterpiece. Plants rise up from below, some to eye level and higher, their sculptured shapes have solidity… each one separate from, yet somehow related to the others.  The space between them exudes a presence more tangible than air.  I feel like I am looking at an underwater scene.  The whole effect is powerfully three-dimensional, almost hyper-real.

I round the corner of the dojo and the main garden opens out before me; small by Western standards, but expansive after the intimacy of the courtyard gardens. There are several other visitors here, but little talk.  Each sits or stands quietly looking out at the garden. When they do speak, it is in hushed tones. But this is no public-library style enforced silence. Again that word invitation. As I contemplate the garden I find myself slowly sinking down into another state of consciousness. The hustle-bustle of cycling through busy Kyoto traffic, reading maps, dodging taxis, locating temples, lenses, and shutter speeds. Bit by bit this mental chatter subsides. Awkwardly, self-consciously, I bend down and fold my legs to sit on the polished timbers of the veranda. It’s been a while since I sat on the floor.

Subtly, but inexorably I am drawn into the beauty of the garden. Interplay of shapes and textures, shadow and light. At first my eyes rove over the entire garden – feasting. Delicate maples, green velvety moss, the soft/solid azalea balls, gnarled pines with knobbly, horizontal branches, rough, lichen-encrusted rocks, a foreground expanse of raked gravel offer a scale model of nature’s beauty. Nature idealised. And yet the garden is no abstract ideal. On the contrary, it has a powerful presence, almost too real. As though I can feel its many textures without touch. And there is something else – what? A subtle feeling, an atmosphere that pervades the garden. Despite many contrasting strong shapes and textures, the various parts of the garden work together, somehow resolving these tensions creating a sense of harmony, a balance, endowing the garden with an atmosphere, a feeling. Of what? Calm, a kind of settling into oneself.

Gradually my eyes’ wandering slows, becoming fascinated by a single rock. Its shape and the way it leans just slightly towards a neighbouring rock.  The differing colours of the lichen blotches, the fine texture of the surface, the pattern of light and inky black shadows of long fissures down the rock face. Shadows themselves seem to take on a presence, as though one can see into them, into the rock – something.

Behind me in a small room off the meditation hall, chanting starts up.  A lone deep voice leads with a rapid series of syllables then several other voices repeat the call. A gong sounds. The chanting stops. The sound of resonating gong is left hanging in the air, slowly, slowly, growing softer, until there is nothing – just the silence, and the faint splashing sound of a small waterfall at the far end of the garden. The sound of the water stands out crystal clear in the silence, like a spot-lit figure in the dark.

After a while, the lone voice resumes the chant. The other voices join in until once again the gong sounds and slowly fades. The ritual repeats and, like the sound of the gong, time seems to stretch out to nothing. Gone. I completely lose sense of time. At some point, chanting ceases, people shuffle quietly behind me and they too are gone. Sense of time slowly returns. And then the garden. Then my knees, which I notice are stiff from the prolonged sitting. I have no idea how long I have been seated on the veranda here. I feel very calm and contented except for the gnawing in my stomach informing me it is long past lunchtime.

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