A Kyoto Perspective – Ryoanji Temple, The Temple of the Dragon at Peace (Daiunzan Ryoanji)

To the overzealous, Ryoanji Temple can be underwhelming by its main attraction, the zen-inducing rock garden. Over the years, however, I’ve found that this temple has touched me in an unexpected way by its serenity.

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The land used to serve as a villa for aristocrats from the Heian Period. The temple was built in 1450 by the deputy of the shogun, Hosokawa Katsumoto, but later the villa was destroyed by a fire of the Onin Wars 20 years later.  Katsumoto’s son Masamoto rebuilt the temple, and built the Hojo and beautiful garden as well around 1499. Another fire destroyed the temples in 1797 and resulted in the current temple being brought over. Katsumoto and his family are buried on the grounds.

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From the entrance, we took a pleasant walk under the shading trees. To the left, a gorgeous pond overtook our view. Koyou (the autumn foliage) shaped our views with a stunning display of fall colors. If I am ever able to make such a dent on society to be able to afford luxurious accessories, I would like to use my money to create a miniature version of this garden. I imagined the aristocrats waking up in the morning, having tea by their pond, and observing the beautiful creatures that live on their land. There is also a small island housing a shrine that can be reached by crossing the bridge. Next time, I would like to get the opportunity to snack at the tea house (dated from the 17th century) that serves visitors here and eat their Kyoto speciality of Yodofu, fried Tofu.

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We reached the Hojo, which houses the famous rock garden. This used to be the home of the head priest in the old days.  The Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism owns this land. Inside the hojo, you can walk around and see traditional Japanese architecture with tatami mats and fusuma, beautifully painted sliding doors.

One of my favorite memories of visiting Kyoto was getting my goshuinchou (Honorable Red-Stamp Notebook) signed at every temple. In my opinion, this is one of the best souvenirs you can get from Japan. They serve as proof or reminders that you have visited such and such temple(s) on your pilgrimage. The artwork of some of these monks are incredibly beautiful and worth the 300 yen charge.

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Around the back is a small walkway that leads to a famous stone water zen basin called tsukubai literally meaning ‘crouch’ because of its low height (and the symbol of humility portrayed when one crouches is essential in Buddhism). The water is always trickling out for those who are ready to purify themselves. One each side is a kanji character. Counterclockwise wise from the top, they are, 五, 隹, 止, 矢. The square in the middle is also a kanji character meaning ‘mouth’ and this changes the characters meanings when read together; 吾, 唯, 足, 知 (ware, tada taru [wo] shiru) meaning I know only satisfaction, which reminds us to be happy with the world around us.  The meaning is clever. Japanese are beautiful with their simplicity.

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The rock garden displays 15 rocks on a patch of moss floating on a sheet of pebbles. They are grouped; one group of 5 stones, two groups of three stones, and one group of 2 stones.  The pebbles are raked every morning. The meaning of the garden has never been disclosed, so visitors are challenged to find meaning of the rock garden for themselves. The well-known secret to the garden is that one can never see all 15 rocks. No matter what angle you take, you can only see 14. Legend goes, once you attain enlightenment, the 15th rock will be visible to you. The creator of the rock garden is still unknown. The garden is 248 squared meters long and slanted upwards for water drainage; the height of the clay walls behind however were created in such a way as to prevent this from being obvious. The design is also unknown, but I like the theory that it represents the peaks of mountains coming out of the clouds…it’s purpose is to incite meditation.

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I challenge you to see the garden for yourself and make note of how you feel before and after your visit. Let the peace it gives you be transferred to others through your interactions with them.

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