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Finding Zen in the World’s Most Famous Rock Garden

Finding Zen in the World’s Most Famous Rock Garden

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Ryōanji, translated as Peaceful Dragon Temple, is a Zen Temple located in the northwestern part of Kyoto, Japan. This well-known temple was built during the 15th century, and is today best known for its Zen rock garden, which is regarded as the most famous of its kind in Japan. Apart from this renowned rock garden, the temple also includes a beautiful wooded garden and a relaxing pond inhabited by ducks and a goddess of good fortune. Legends and peace blend with the lovely atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage site to create one of the most fascinating places of ancient Kyoto, Japan.

The Early Temple

Ryōanji is recorded to have been established in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto, the deputy to the Ashikaga shogunate. Originally, the site of the temple was an estate of the Fujiwara family during the Heian period. Subsequently, the mountain villa of Lord Tokudaiji was built on the site, and it was this property that was given to Katsumoto. The villa was then converted into a temple by the Zen priest Giten Gensho (at that time the abbot of Myoshinji), who was invited to the villa by Katsumoto.

Hosokawa Katsumoto.

Hosokawa Katsumoto. (Public Domain)

This temple did not survive for long, however, as it was destroyed by a fire during the Onin Wars that broke out about two decades later. Nevertheless, it was rebuilt by Masamoto, Katsumoto’s son. It has been recorded that the Hojo (the abbot’s hall) was built in 1499, and it has been generally assumed that the Zen garden was also constructed during this time. The Hojo, the Founder’s Hall and the Buddha’s Hall were destroyed in 1797 by a fire, and the current Hojo was brought to the temple from Seigen’in, a sub-temple of Ryōanji.

Marker at location of outbreak of the Ōnin War.

Marker at location of outbreak of the Ōnin War. (Public Domain)

The Zen Rock Garden

Ryōanji is best known for its Zen rock garden, which is commonly regarded as one of the most notable examples of the karesansui (‘dry landscape’) Zen rock garden. This garden measures at 30 feet by 78 feet (approximately 9 m by 24 m), and is situated on the south side of the temple. A long veranda is located on the north side of the garden, where visitors may appreciate the peaceful view. The garden is bounded on the other three sides by a low wall. Additionally, on its southern and western sides, the walls are topped by a thatched roof.

As for the garden, it consists of an area of raked white gravel, on which 15 stones, arranged in five groups, can be found. It has been pointed out that the rocks are arranged in such a manner that when viewed from any angle, only 14 of them can be seen at a time. The number 15 is considered in Buddhism as a representation of completeness. Therefore, the inability of a person to see all 15 stones may be interpreted in such a way that as things are in the world, we are unable to obtain the whole picture unless we look at it from various points of view.

Ryōan-ji dry garden.

Ryōan-ji dry garden. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are also other interpretations of the garden. The traditional one, for example, is that the garden was originally named as ‘Tiger Cubs Crossing the Sea’, whereby the gravel represents sea waves, whilst the rocks are meant to symbolize islands. Other interpretations include an emphasis on the garden’s harmony and balance, as well as it being a representation of the minimal or the void. Perhaps, it would be appropriate to say that the rock garden is a place where people are inspired to contemplate and reflect, thus allowing them to make their own individual interpretations of the site.

Close up of the zen garden.

Close up of the zen garden. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Other Interesting Features

The grounds of Ryōanji also include other attractions apart from its rock garden. Behind the temple overlooking the rock garden, for instance, is a stone washbasin called Tsukubai. This is said to have been given to the temple during the 17th century by Tokugawa Mitsukuni. An inscription of 4 characters, which translates poetically as ‘I learn only to be contented’, can be found on it.

Ryōan-ji's tsukubai.

Ryōan-ji's tsukubai. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Additionally, there is a large pond popularly known as Oshidori-ike (the ‘pond of mandarin ducks’), due to its large population of water birds. There are two small islands in the pond and a small bridge can be found on the larger one leading to a shrine dedicated to Benten, the Shinto goddess of good fortune.  

Kyoyochi Pond, created in the 12th century as a water garden.

Kyoyochi Pond, created in the 12th century as a water garden. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Featured image: Cherry blossom at the rock garden of Ryōan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Photo source: CC BY-SA 4.0

By Wu Mingren


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UNESCO, 2017. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities). [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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