Counting the Stones at Ryoanji Zen Temple

The Zen garden at Ryoanji temple is one of my favorite places to bring visitors in Kyoto when we tour the northwest corner of the city. The minimalist garden itself can present something of a challenge for some people, and it’s always interesting to see how travellers approach it. The message it presents to viewers is – perhaps intentionally – vague and difficult to grasp. Some people embrace this, while others shake their head in frustration.

We don’t know exactly who created the garden in the late 15th century. Thanks to some names carved into a few of the rocks, we think it most likely was set down by kawaramono, lower class gardeners who lived by the riverside (kawa) who would later rise to prominence as respected landscape designers. The chiseled names might be thought of as nothing more than graffiti, for if the creators wanted to be remembered, surely they would have tied their names to the garden in a more formal way. Unlike how we think about art in the West, it might be best to simply appreciate the garden as a piece of art without an artist to connect to it.

Even more mysterious is the message the rock garden seeks to convey… if there is a message at all. Are the stones representative of islands in a vast ocean? Mountain peaks piercing above a layer of smooth cloud? Is there a connection to other conventional Zen garden landscapes like the mythical eastern islands of paradise, the Isles of the Blessed? An illustration of a mother tiger carrying her cubs across a shallow river ford, a dragon flying through the skies, or the complex solution of a famous “unsolvable” Chinese geometric equation? All of these have been proposed in the past.

Check out the following unique interpretations and visualizations of the rocks at Ryoanji. Musical notation, mathematical equations, and abstract art, papercraft... the possibilities of how you can view the stones at Ryoanji are endless.

By now, you can see how the garden at Ryoanji often offers more questions than answers. So perhaps there is no one answer. Maybe the garden shouldn’t be seen as a traditional piece of art with an emotional message from the artist, but as an instructional spiritual work that subverts how we think about art conveying lessons.

In this interpretation – and it is certainly one of many possible interpretations – the stones themselves are the medium of imparting a message to the viewer. Placed within the flat expanse of raked gravel are 15 large, rough rocks varied in shape and size.  However, from any given point on the viewing platform, a seated visitor can only see 14 of the 15 stones. Was this an intentional part of the design process that went into this garden? Most likely, but we’ll never know. Perhaps the lesson it imparts on us is even more genuine if this ingenious layout was simply a happy accident.

Let's take it a littler deeper. These 15 stones are present in your life as well. Maybe they are your hope and desires, your fears, your worries, your goals, your memories. Laid out in the flat raked garden of your life – not necessarily a straight timeline, but an ever-changing space of your experiences – your 15 rough stones might not always mean the same thing. As your priorities change and life happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, your stones take on new arrangements and meaning.

But here’s the thing: you can never see all 15 of your stones at once. Whether they represent something positive or negative, there will all be part of a collection of things that make you you that you are unaware of. Some flaw you’ll never see in yourself, a goal you never knew you could reach if you just tried, or a memory that you’ve locked away deep inside your subconscious.

In this interpretation, it’s easy to see the garden at Ryoanji as a quintessential Zen landscape. Zen Buddhists believe that the key to enlightenment is to look inward to find the Buddha-nature that exists inside all of us. We are all already enlightened deep inside, whether we chose to seek it out or not. Being mindful of the actions and thoughts we have is the key to unlocking this inner nature. If we see the stones as pieces of our mind and life experience, we can strive to not see all 15 stones that make up our consciousness, but to know them through experience and personal reflection. For example, you can’t see the stone connected to a strong emotion that you experienced when you were 16 because that moment is long past, but you know it’s there deep inside your consciousness. Maybe that stone is cracked and moss-covered by now, but it’s there somewhere, reminding you of a lesson you once learned that made you who you are.

So, don’t view the 15 stones at Ryoanji as simply a landscape that you can’t see the whole of. Instead, think of it as a reflection of moments and pieces of your life that make you you. Let it teach you that parts unseen and forgotten can still make a whole. By questioning your own rock garden of your life, you’ll perhaps find deeper meaning and richer answers that you ever could find looking out at the landscape at Ryoanji.

Then again, maybe this interpretation is all wrong. I once spoke with a priest at Ryoanji about the garden, and shared my views on the stones with him. He cocked his head and sucked air in through his teeth while thinking silently for a moment. “You and I see this garden in different ways,” he replied carefully. “But don’t worry about finding the meaning of the stones. The important thing is that you’re thinking about it in the first place.” What a wonderful way to think about things!  Perhaps the most important step to enlightenment and contentment is acknowledging that you’re on the path in the first place. Whatever gets you started down that road, it’s important to find your own meaning and explanations for the things you see and experience in life. A Zen Buddhist might say this is a great way to get in touch with your inner Buddha-nature and cultivate a little mindfulness as you pass through this life.

To count the stones at Ryoanji Zen garden for yourself, let KyoTours Japan take you there on our Northwest Kyoto Tour, or add it to a custom itinerary.