Photo credit: MZMikos
A Tome-ishi (stop stone) or a Sekimori-ishi (boundary-guard stone) is used in Japanese zen or tea gardens, to guide visitors along a prescribed route.
According to the stories, Sekimori-ishi is related to the great tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). The story goes that once Rikyu had invited a famous Zen priest, but before the guest arrived, Rikyu put a small pot in front of the door. With this, he silently tried to challenge his visitor to find a way in without crossing that symbolic barrier.
Whether this story is true or not is questionable, nevertheless it is used in tea circles as the foundation for marking boundaries with tied-up stones. They were integrated into a tea ceremony, serving not only to lead guests to the tea house, but also to express the host’s desire to help guests follow the right spiritual path.
It is not particularly difficult to make a Sekimori-ishi. One needs a rock and rough gardening twine, traditionally warabinawa (made from ferns) or shuronawa (made from palm hemp). However, the hardest part lies in finding the right rock. Weeks and months can pass before the stone of the right shape and size is found. The sole search or placement of the stone is of paramount importance and is related to the role it should play: simple message, transmission of the deeper meaning or initiation of a spiritual process.
Unfortunately, stones are nowadays usually set up by architects and not by Tea or Zen master.
Their choice is based on aesthetics or practicality and their message is limited to “no access”. Although, even so, they can trigger realisation process in an open minded person, only when zen master, zen garden and the stone interconnect, the right balance is established and the stone acts like a pebble thrown into the peaceful water. When in balance, Sekimori-ishi plays the role that Rikyu originally attributed to it: a challenge, a koan and a door to realisation.
How deeply the stone affects visitors depend on their readiness. Some may ignore it or step over it; some may celebrate the beauty of the rope; but some may take a moment to look at the stone with open eyes. In this way they can experience the freshness of the present moment and the unspoken message of the stone will be revealed.