“What’s your answer?”
I turn to Ochiai, the priest from the shrine who is my guide on this trip to Kyoto.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
He tells me that the Zen rock garden in front of us at the Ryoan-Ji Temple is famous. There are 15 rocks, he says, but you can only see all of them at the same time from one place. I understand the message on clarity that comes from that design, but something about it still doesn’t feel right for me. Why is there only one right way to look at the rocks? Besides, with the number of people there that day, finding that spot was probably near impossible.
“Maybe we should go on the roof,” he jokes. “Then we could see all of them.” That’s when my Universalism kicks in even more.
“OOOH! I love it! Then we could all see the rocks from many different places.” We could all find our way to the roof, which we decide was a metaphor for enlightenment, and then each of us could find our own spot to see all 15 rocks. None of them would be more or less correct, and all of them would still be an elevated way of being and seeing. I wonder if that was partly why Shinto includes purification practices, to help us return to our inherently good nature that would allow us to achieve that clear, enlightened state. We get up from our seats on the ledge, and walk alongside the rock garden. I watch as some rocks almost magically disappear from my view at certain angles, while others similarly appear. As we turn the corner, another thought occurs.
“Hm, Ochiai, I might have a second answer. We have to be willing to move to see all the rocks.”
I share how maybe “one place” could mean a place of constant motion, grounded in the humble willingness to recognize that there is always something new to learn, another way to experience and see the world. Every angle is important, every viewpoint is necessary if we want to see the complete picture. I think about how in just a few minutes, we had come up with two different answers. Maybe there was a lesson there, too. Maybe the garden helps us to remember that there are many right answers, and you can find the answer that makes the most sense for you, without ignoring or devaluing the others. Just because I like my answer does not mean yours is any less correct or that I should not respect it. Just because we look at the garden differently does not mean we are not seeing the same rocks.
Ranwa Hammamy is a sponsored candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry and was the 2014 recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship. This summer, she visited the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, an historical Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, with a long-standing international and interfaith partnership with the UUA. To read more about her experience this summer, see her post on the UUA International Office’s blog.