It’s a Sunday morning in Kyoto and I am sitting on the long wooden steps of the hōjō, the abbott’s residence of Ryōanji Temple – one of 1,600 temples in this historic city.
At my feet is the temple’s famous karesansui, or dry rock garden. In a small rectangle of white gravel, measuring just twenty-five by ten meters and raked to perfection by the monks each morning, fifteen stones have been arranged in such a way that they are never all visible from the same vantage point.
At first, I move up and down the veranda, craning my neck to spot every stone. At the same time, much moves with me: the weather, shifting from bright sunshine to wintry wind in a matter of minutes, as well as the crowds, also shifting in and out, debating in a dozen languages whether or not they can spot the fifteenth stone.
But what never move are the stones themselves – and I realize that perhaps this is the test of Ryōanji, and its secret.
“Every moment has a little universe in it,” says my friend Don, who has brought me here, and indeed I am struck by how the entire world can be felt in this moment, even when seated for hours in the same spot. Despite that elusive stone, there is still much to be felt and experienced: all the nationalities represented by other tourists, all the centuries of time embedded in the moss and gravel, all the groups of students from across the country, who are delighted when I manage even one word of Japanese.
Inscribed on a nearby stone washbasin, which dates to the 17th century, is a four-character message that reads, “I learn only to be contented,” or, according to a different translation, “What one has is all one needs.”
Here at Ryōanji, I can feel this to be true – that with or without the fifteenth stone, the moment is always, forever, enough.