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Explore Kyoto's Ryoanji temple, a Zen Buddhism hub, known for its iconic rock garden. The garden's design, with its light-gray stones and moss islands, encourages meditation and enlightenment. The worn aesthetic and shifting views reflect Japanese appreciation for imperfection and the incomplete. The garden is a bright, tranquil space, inviting heightened awareness and inner peace. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Male] We've made our way up a steep hillside on the North end of Kyoto, and we've entered into the temple complex of Ryoanji. - [Female] When we entered the temple, we were asked to take off our shoes. We're in a spiritual space, but also one that tourists are making their way through. And the complex consists of many temples and shrines and places of meditation for the monks who lived here, but this is specifically a place related to Zen Buddhism, and the most famous place within is the rock garden, and that's where we're standing now. - [Male] You can see the garden as a distillation of the ideas of Zen Buddhism and of the highly-refined sense of Japanese aesthetics. This is such a refined space. We see an enclosed courtyard filled with light-gray stones with a series of moss islands from which rocks protrude. - [Female] When we think of a garden, we think of flowers. We might think of a water-feature, the informality of an English garden, the rigid geometry of a French garden, but a zen garden is to encourage meditation. In fact the word zen means meditation. - [Male] The central idea of Buddhism is cultivating one's self of reaching enlightenment. A garden is an attempt to cultivate nature, to bring out its essential qualities. - [Female] For Buddha, the world was a place of suffering and desire was the cause of suffering. The goal is to transcend that suffering to transcend the cycle of rebirth of samsara, and in Zen Buddhism, the path is sudden enlightenment that comes through meditation. - [Male] Nature is looked at carefully, its innate qualities, its imperfection, its inherent forms, and that becomes the starting point. The idea is not to erase nature and make something that's perfect. The idea is to examine something, to understand its qualities, and then to enhance them. - [Female] Finding beauty in what is worn, what is aged. When we look around the edges of the rock garden of this enclosure, we see a wall that hasn't been recently painted, it's worn. - [Male] And that creates this atmospheric quality that makes the entire garden reminiscent of a Japanese painting where the rocks function as mountains and the two-dimensional wall functions as an atmospheric space. And in the study area for the abbot that is just adjacent to the garden, there are paintings that show rocky crags emerging out of a sea of mist. It's a perfect reflection of the garden itself. - [Female] Well, it's more beautiful in a Japanese aesthetic to not see a perfect view of the mountain on a perfectly, clear day, but rather for the mountain to be obscured by the mist. There's an opening for interpretation for the suggestive for-- - [Male] Surprise. - [Female] For things that are half there, half hidden, and as we move through the garden, our view shifts. The numbers of rocks that we see shift. That idea of never seeing the whole, but the appreciation for the incomplete is here. - [Male] The pebbles have been raked into a very deliberate pattern, one that emphasizes the horizontal. It slows our eyes down. Ovoid shapes frame each of the individual islands, the waves of the sea. - [Female] The analogy of water, and it also suggests to me in its sparseness when the stuff of the world came to being out of nothingness. - [Male] This is a garden that's meant to insight enlightenment that could come to you at any moment. Even on this cloudy, slightly rainy day, the garden is bright and feels dry. Just immediately to its right is a densely forested rectangle, slightly smaller than the rock garden. It is completely carpeted with green moss, and it's such a relief for the eye. - [Female] This is all about our eye, awakening our eyes, asking us to look, asking us to pay attention, and the very act of paying attention takes us out of our everyday lives, and takes us to a place of heightened awareness of standing apart from things, and in that way, helping to prepare the path for enlightenment. (jazzy piano)