Founded in 1450, Ryoanji Temple, or “The temple of the peaceful dragon” is a zen temple belonging to the Rinzai school. The gorgeous grounds were originally a Fujiwara family estate during the Heain Period, dating from 794-1185. Here is a brief overview for all you history buffs…
Hosokawa Katsumoto inherited the property and lived here before the Onin Wars, when all the buildings were burned to the ground. In his will, he wanted the garden to be a zen temple after his passing. Thus, Hosokawa Masumoto, the son of Katsumoto rebuilt the temple in 1499 to fulfill his father’s dream.
Now that we have all that history out of the way, let’s get to some description.
The iconic rock garden is said to be designed by Tokoho Zenketsu. In this simple yet elegant garden of meticulously raked gravel, there sits fifteen large rocks, shrouded in green moss. The placement of the rocks was designed so that from every angle, the observer can only see fourteen. A common belief is that only the enlightened can see all fifteen at once.
Before entering the rock garden viewing veranda, visitors walk alongside Kyoyochi Pond. A few wooden buckets are placed next to nearby wells, giving the whole estate a feeling that it has been untouched since 1500.
The rock garden itself measures 25 meters by 10 meters. Barricading the long side of the garden, opposite of the viewer lays a wall made up of earthy colors. The clay composing the wall was actually boiled in oil. Now, the oil is slowly seeping out, giving it a distinctive and timeless appearance.
Many visitors come here each day to stare into the rock garden and decide for him/herself what the significance is. For me it is a peaceful place to reflect deep in thought. It was easy to feel the harmony around you because there were so many other people reflecting as well. Visiting this temple helped me better understand Japanese culture because it showed me that you can never really become enlightened just by forcing yourself to see all fifteen rocks. That is not physically possible. But, in a sense, I guess this thinking is what zen is all about.
I hope I can visit again because there is nothing like sitting on a beautiful hardwood floor overlooking a perfectly groomed rock garden. I want to remember relaxing and pondering about how many people for how many years have done the same thing. It just shows that we are all not that different after all.
Ryoanji is very easy to find, and only a stones throw away from the more famous, Golden Pavilion named, Kinkakuji. Below are photos during cherry blossom season from my visit last week.