Skip to content

Japan Reflections: I Learn Only To Be Contented

Kyoto was Japan’s capital for over a thousand years. Home to hundreds of Shinto and Buddhist sites, it is still the nation’s spiritual and artistic heart.

Ryoanji is one of Kyoto’s iconic Zen temples. We wanted to see it because it has the famous rock garden that inspired the landscape technique Americans often call the “Zen garden.”


Like the compound as a whole, the garden is too beautiful to describe. Every board and every rail seems purposeful and points toward some some element in the temple and grounds. The site is a playground of art and mind. The ancient monks trained even its shrubs and trees to make purposeful shadows and sounds.


Zen is more like what Westerners call philosophy than religion. It is the ideological source of those forms of art, sport, cuisine, and psychology we think of as quintessentially Japanese. Zen seeks to bring people into the heightened awareness its practitioners call satori, a state in which the underlying reality of the universe is suddenly grasped, without words. This concept is extremely influential in Japanese culture.

The piece at Ryoanji Temple that seemed to do that for me was the Tsukubai, a stone wash-basin used in the Japanese tea ceremony. It is inscribed with four immediately visible Chinese characters. However, the square basin at its center forms a fifth character that gives meaning to the other four. Together, the characters form a sentence, “I learn only to be contented.”


The sentence has layers of meaning. It most clearly implies that if one learns how to be contented, he will be rich. It also means that learning is the only real form of wealth, which, if one has, he will be content, whatever his other resources. On the other hand, given other elements of Buddhist philosophy, the sentence could mean “knowledge of being produces contentment.” We might even render the phrase as “to know, is to be; and thus, to be content.”

Unfortunately, I cannot not read Japanese or Chinese. I am certainly not an expert in Buddhist philosophy. However, I doubt very seriously I have exhausted the meanings of the Tsukubai. One could turn the wheel over in his mind for hours and constantly come up with new insights into its meaning.

It might seem strange that a Christian would be moved by a piece of Buddhist art. Perhaps the reason is that I see how the attitude that produced the water basin created an entire culture of quality. Wherever one turns in Japan, whether in the city or countryside, there is always some strategically placed shrub, a piece of pottery, or a silk banner. People going to and from work often pause a moment to stare at these things before continuing on their way. It is all quite secularized these days, but the cultural habit persists nonetheless.

Japanese Monument

Here, landscaping is not primarily an investment in real estate value. It is a reflection of one’s life and culture. A landscaper is an artist. He signs his work with spiritual intention. He forms his brick walkway carefully, so that every brick will naturally find its most natural placement.

The wall behind the famous Ryoanji rock garden is ceramic. The artisans first boiled the clay in oil. As the oil gradually seeped out, it stained the ceramic to made the wall look more like a part of nature than like a product of human mind.


Is it any wonder that we find the Japanese car parts, electronics, and even comic books so delightful? The Japanese work hard to subtly encode layers of meaning and purpose into small spaces, merging form and function into a seamless web. That is the essence of how they achieve such artful quality in the things they produce.

It brings to mind the great Western artist who signed his work with this same sort of quality: the beloved and matchless Johann Sebastian Bach.

I once heard a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music claim to reveal Bach’s secret. He said that musicologists had determined that Bach had begun one of his pieces around a cello playing a single note twelve times, followed by a rest. This was followed by twelve more notes and a rest, and so forth throughout the piece. To discover why the composer had done this, the scholars had gone to Bach’s journals. They discovered that the lectionary reading for the Sunday for which Bach had written this piece was about the Lord’s Parable of the Ten Virgins. When Bach sat down to write his weekly cantata, he began by reading that passage. The choir part Bach wrote clearly reflects the passage. They sing “behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him.” But what’s with the cello line, the place Bach began the piece?

“Who begins a piece of music this way?” the professor asked.

Well, the reason the line came first was because it is meant to sound the midnight call. The cello is the sobering alarm — it’s time to wake up!

But here is the part of the professor’s lecture that took my breath away: “did anyone attending Saint Thomas Church that Sunday get all of this? For that matter, has anyone ever got it since? Why did Bach pay such attention to detail?”

“For that, we must look again at his journal,” the professor said.

“Bach believed in the communion of saints. He was getting old. He worried that when he would arrive at heaven and enter the presence of angels and saints, he would be ashamed at his work. He believed these heavenly beings would have been listening to his music each Sunday. They would know if he had really given his art his very best. The church people down here might not know the difference. However the saints up there certainly would. Bach didn’t want to be ashamed when the saints placed his work in the bright light of eternity. He was not primarily writing for his human audience; he was wring for a heavenly one. That’s what makes Bach’s music so angelic,” the professor said.

Amon Yong, a Malaysian born Pentecostal theologian, says that

the Holy Spirit is at work where Christ is not yet named, preparing the way for the revelation of Christ to that culture.

Therefore, when a Christian enters a new culture, he should discern in what ways the Spirit has already been at work. Christian ministry should begin at that place, in cooperation with the work already in progress, as Yong believes.

Here in Kyoto, the site of one of history’s most brutal persecutions against Christianity, one also sees the ancient work of the Holy Spirit. For a long time the Spirit has been preparing the way for the revelation of Christ to Japan. However, the Spirit has also been preserving a vital component of civilization for an increasingly decadent West — the purposeful embodiment of quality through the work of human hands. If we ever hope to produce another Bach, we better pay attention what the Spirit has done.

The carefully trimmed tree, the smell of pine, the rock covered in moss, and a gently floating lotus all whisper to the soul, “don’t rush. Stop a moment. Quietly observe until all your efforts to observe cease. Then you will understand.”

Japanese art is a celebration of human dignity, which we learn for no other reason than this: to be contented.


-Pastor Dan Scott

7 Comments (Add Yours)

  1. WOW!!!! What a powerful and insiteful read. This not only inspired me but convicted my heart at the same time. Thank you. Proud to call you my pastor

  2. Beautiful. I love your very insightful.

  3. I love this. As Christians we are also to learn only to be contented. In Philippians 12:12 Paul says ” I know what it is to be in need , and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” It grieves my heart that so many of us Christians are contentious instead of contented. The story about Bach is inspiring. Lord Jesus show us the way to peace, contentment and joy in spite of our circumstances and what is going on around us. Let us live our lives in communion with You and the saints and angels and look to heaven for meaning and not the world which will pass away. Lord when someone is hateful toward us protect our hearts and help us not hate back but only say words of peach and love. Let us pray for those who persecute us. Let us be true Christians who bring peace and love where ever we go. God help us. We need you.

  4. I am so grateful to be under your teaching, and the way you can see God in so many things, I would never have understood what you saw and how much peace you felt and how you could share it in such a way that you gave me peace, I thank you so much for sharing it with me. Your knowledge is astounding to me, and the wonderful way articulate what you see and can put it into words where the person reading it is pulled into the moment.
    I am so blessed, to be here with you and I pray to God that I will never take you for granted.
    I had no idea that Bach’s music was spiritual, and the way you described it in such a way that just filled me with such peace and tranquility, like only you can. May God continue to bless you and your work for God for many years to come.

  5. Pastor Dan, Thank you for helping interpret the under-tones and overtones of music. Many of us understand it in our hearts but can’t express it with words like you do!!
    BTW: Could, “Selah” in the Psalms have some of this same significance that Bach understood? “….if you must, use words!”