On my sixth day in Kyoto, I started off by visiting Ryōan-ji temple which is famous for its Zen Rock Garden. After paying the entrance fee and following arrows (hoping they were telling me the correct way to go), and entering the main structure of the temple grounds, I found the most strikingly un-garden-looking garden I have ever seen. This was nothing more than 15 stones on top of white gravel that had been raked. Many gift shops in America sell miniature versions of these that have pebbles and white sand instead of the boulders and gravel. If you have ever bought one of these and tried to rake it perfectly, you will know that it is a seemingly impossible task which made the perfection of the raking in Ryōan-ji baffling.
Despite its lack of apparent beauty, the abstract and minimal nature of this garden drew me in. I had been told that these Zen gardens do not have centers or visual vocal points because the center is supposed to be within the observer. One is supposed to look into themselves “through” the garden structure.
This is wildly true about Ryōan-ji. There is literally nothing remarkable to stare at but one is nevertheless drawn to stare at it. It has been said that the formation in this garden roughly resembles and tiger mother and cub crossing a river. However, I stared for a long time and could not make heads or tails (pun not intended but it can stay) of this interpretation. Mind you, I have a certain appreciation for abstract art and I keep a moderately open mind when it comes to these things. I even spend a good amount of time staring at rocks in my travels in the wilderness and I just did not see it.
At any rate, I did feel as though I could see something about myself in this art form. Indeed, don’t we always see ourselves in artwork? After all, our perception is the only vessel in which the art can become manifest. We see it, hear it, and experience it and that is what makes it art.
On a literal level, when we hear music (for example) we are actually experiencing a certain connection of neurons firing in response to bones and hairs in our ears vibrating in response to reverberations of air molecules. It is literally all in our heads. On a spiritual level, we each gain something different from hearing music. Some people may be inspired, others offended, and still others may just experience ecstasy. When w experience art, we are actually experiencing ourselves.
There is a considerable amount of talk in Zen culture about the “center”. The breath comes from the center when playing Shakuhachi. When meditating, one places the hands near the navel in order to focus energy toward the core. “Find your center” is probably the most cliché phrase conjured up when we think of Zen.
Indeed the center is extremely important anatomically. It is where all of our major organs are located including our diaphragm which allows us to breathe and hence circulate blood. Our life is literally at our centers.
So as I looked at the not-garden, I felt as though I was looking at myself. Not my external persona (which at that point was sweating profusely in the Kyoto humidity) but my internal being. Some would say I was looking into my soul.
This center is where music should come from. It comes literally from our core muscles which expand and contract to create the breath support that we need (for wind players anyway). But it also comes from our centers in a spiritual sense. We use music like the Zen Garden as a way to view our souls and subsequently as a way for our audience to view their souls.
Those who have stage fright might find solace in this mindset. It may be problematic to be concerned with matters of the external like “Will the crowd like it?”, “Will they know I messed up?”, “Will I win the audition?”, or (my personal weakness) “The cake at the reception sure sounds good right about now!”. Those who play from their centers, using the music like a rock garden, as a lens into the internal center can leave all of these distracting thoughts behind them.
Easier said than done I suppose!
And once again, Japan gave me a life lesson when I wasn’t expecting it. This time it came from a pile of rocks. This country is truly magnificent.