Zen & the Philosopher’s Path

Zen & the Philosopher’s Path

As you walk along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, you find yourself listening to your own thoughts because the external beauty acts as the perfect foil for a truly zen experience, writes Savitha Karthik

The Silver Pavilion. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

The rhythmic sound of footsteps on the gravel punctuates the stillness. It’s a sunny day in Kyoto and the canopy of trees casts a million shadows on the ground. We walk along a lengthy canal flanked by cherry and maple trees. Cats in meditative repose just seem to emphasise the stillness. It’s almost as if an incident from a Murakami novel is about to play itself in front of us. We are talking about the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural and traditional soul.

The path gets its name from one of Japan’s greatest philosophers, Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945). Nishida took this nearly two-km-long walk everyday, as he contemplated on many aspects of Japanese and Western schools of thought.

The cherry blossoms along the stretch, called ‘Tetsugaku no michi’, must have been to Nishida what the clumps of daffodils near Ullswater were to Wordsworth. Or what the pristine ambience of Kavishaila, Stonehenge-like structures in Kuppalli, meant to Kuvempu, the celebrated poet laureate of Karnataka. But, we digress. Back to the Philosopher’s Path.

Commemorative stone of Nishida Kitaro.
Commemorative stone of Nishida Kitaro.


Perfection in imperfections

At one end of the path is Ginkakuji Temple or Silver Pavilion. If you have only half a day in Kyoto and don’t know what to pick, do yourself a favour and head to this temple. There is no silver at Silver Pavilion. The structure was commissioned by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a shogun of the 15th century, and was intended as a retirement home. Early plans included covering the structure’s exterior in silver foil to match the grandeur of Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Temple built by Yoshimasa’s grandfather. However, work was delayed and the silver exterior was not to be. It is only fitting that we begin our walk with a visit to this temple, which signifies the spirit of wabi-sabi, the concept of finding acceptance and beauty in imperfection. The wooden shrine, with its bamboo groves, tiny paths and brooks, has a starkness that’s appealing.

Out of the temple and back on to the path, we spot a souvenir and washi (Japanese paper and paper products) store. We can’t but admire the Japanese penchant for keeping everything simple and beautiful. The lady at the store asks us about India, and hands out a sheet of paper to write out three destinations in India to help her plan her itinerary.

“In Japan, we get very few holidays. So, I need an itinerary I can cover in five days,” she tells us. Come to Bengaluru, we tell her, as we get our paper coasters billed. Stepping out onto the gravelly path, we are lost again in the sheer beauty of it all.

The path is punctuated by roadside shrines, homes and yeah, a ‘Philosophy Cafe’. There are tiny bridges across the canal, which are perfect spots for selfie seekers and professional photographers alike. A lady in a kimono poses patiently as a young man takes pictures of her. At one point, we come across a stone with kanji inscribed on it. A simple Google search tell us that those are lines composed by Nishida himself. It says, ‘hi-to wa hito/ware wa ware nari/tonikaku/waga yuku michi o/waga wa yukunari’. Roughly translated, it means, “People are people, I am what I am, I will continue to take the path I take. Unperturbed.”

Philosopher’s path, Washi store.


Magical walk

Nishida, known to Japan and the world as the founder of the Kyoto School of thought, wrote them as a reaction to the nationalist sentiment that was sweeping over Japan before World War II. Nishida was criticised for engaging with Western schools of philosophy. It’s another matter that the leftists criticised him for being an imperialist.

I learn all this much later, after my return to India, but when we walk, we are mindful of nothing else but the stillness of the afternoon. The mind retreats inward and we are all left to our own thoughts. It’s almost as if no one wants to mar the silence, so even though there are a handful of tourists, no one talks. We learn to pause and stare, to slow down and saunter, and that means the walk has worked its magic. We find the beauty of the surroundings lends itself well to a meditative state, where we watch our own thoughts come and go. We can imagine why Nishida took his daily walks here.

Soon, we have come to the end of our walk. No Murakami-ish incidents there; we need to head back to our ryokan (Japanese-style hotel) and get to the station in time for the shinkansen (bullet train). There’s time for reflection once we are back on the train that races to Tokyo. We have seen enough beauty to last a lifetime.