Grace Under Fire

Text by Yishan Lam
Illustration by Amaris Chen

I

I’m sitting in a temple garden, in front of a line of rocks in Ryoanji, one of Kyoto’s most loved heritage sites, trying to help myself see a mysterious ‘fifteenth rock’ that is supposedly there.

There’s a gentle breeze blowing, I’m barefoot and cross-legged. My mother is outside the temple waiting—she decided to pass on the zen rock-gazing entertainment in favour of an invigorating walk. We’re on our ‘mummymoon’, a special mother-daughter bonding trip in springtime, early May. From where I sit, the artfully-raked, perfectly white gravel mirrors a clear sky, the air is crisp, cool, and clean.

Sometime in the 15th century at Ryoanji, a philosopher-gardener is known to have carefully assembled 15 rocks into the pattern sequence we have today: one group of five, two groups of three, two groups of two.

It’s a bit of a riddle, though utterly poetic in feeling—designed so that you can’t see the entire composition all at once from the veranda. Placed to offer as much aesthetic pleasure as spiritual contemplation to the viewer, only 14 rocks can be seen at any one time, from any angle looking into the garden—that is, other than from above.

According to the visitor’s guide, it takes having attained enlightenment to be able to see all fifteen rocks at once. And perhaps that’s what being an enlightened person means: to be able to hold in a multiplicity of points of view at the same time, no matter how much at odds they may seem to be.

I get up to go and reunite with mum, satisfied though without having seen, that the fifteenth rock is there.

II

At the back of my mind, I’m thinking about how all this could have been very not there—in other words, obliterated during the second World War save for the famous diversion of the second atomic bomb from Kyoto by then US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

The story goes that Stimson, a key figure responsible for driving the atomic bomb project itself, was also the one who insisted in May 1945 that Kyoto be taken off the list of four cities targeted for attack. As a young man, he had travelled to Kyoto and had spent his honeymoon there. In his mind’s eye he saw the cultural significance of the city to Japan and the irreparable hatred that would ensue from its loss.

The grounds for this position weren’t just geopolitical or economic—they were emotional. Surely, there was a remnant of tender feeling, something that caused him to act in the reverse direction of ‘attack’. Perhaps it was memory triggering a moment of retreat, of retraction—the ideological opposite of pushing a button.

Against the backdrop of gross international conflict bound for escalation, somehow the combination of hindsight and foresight preserved Kyoto—saving its thousands of temples and treasures for latter-day pilgrims like myself and mum, generations down the line. It all begs the obvious question, what if Stimson had never been?

III

How much do we think before we speak, act or make judgements these days?

You could think of right now as ‘peacetime’ in Singapore—a period without war. We just don’t call it that as the prospect of political violence in Singapore feels far from our current reality. Yet spectres of conflict are somewhat rising, with micro-wars being waged every day underneath the tectonics of ordinary life in Asia’s most livable city. Between rich and poor, foreigner and local, religious and secular, governing and governed, binary thinking is on the rise—things are too often either for or against, you versus me. As recent events like the Little India riots and Anton Casey’s social blunder remind us, it just takes a series of unthinking individual acts to unravel a movement and fire up the mob.

Mindfulness doesn’t come naturally. But at a time when all our missteps and misfires can be instantly amplified in the public sphere, where more information access hasn’t led to greater discernment, it has never been more important than now to attain a deeper perspective and defer judgment.

There’s a great story in the bible where a bunch of lawyers and Pharisees (i.e., important, overly-educated men) bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus in a temple courtyard, asking if they should not stone her—trying to hem him in as either left-wing heretic, or right-wing legalist.

Jesus in that instance turns zen gardener. He silently squats and, completely ignoring them, starts writing on the sand with his finger. I suppose, redrawing the lines of debate. Egged for a response, he finally straightens up and says to them, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The crowd dissipates, overruled by grace under fire. What’s more important is what will happen next.

From The U Press N˚5 (Singapore edition).