Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ryoan-ji - The Mystery of the Stones Lies Within

24th October, 2006 - If you're going to Kinkaku-ji then it's best to make it a triple-treat by stringing together Kinkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and finally Ninna-ji. Whilst these can be walked, you can also catch the bus between Kinkaku-ji and Ryōan-ji (might save you a little time - just follow the crowd).

It's about 3 km between the three of them... so it's a deceptively long walk if you do it on foot.

The temple of the peaceful dragon, Ryōan-ji was first developed by the Fujiwara family in the Heian period, and saw several reincarnations before finally being left to the Rinzai Zen sect in 1473. It was however burnt several years later during the Onin war, then again in 1490, and 1790. The truth of Kyōto is that it's mostly re-constructions of reconstructions.

The garden was created at the end of the 15th century, though the creator is not known for sure. The garden is 50 by 102 feet in dimension.

This is one of the classical "zen gardens" of Japan, possibly the world. Now - if you're not into dry garden then you might be thinking - "It's just a couple of rocks... what the...!". However - bear with me. In this style of garden, the elements have been reduced to the most fundamentals. Form is everything. A common interpretation of the garden is that the rocks represent "islands of consciousness in a sea of emptiness". There are as many interpretations as there are viewers - and hence the garden takes on the perspective of those watching. Very zen.

Interestingly, the popularity of the dry garden only grew from the 1930’s onwards. One aspect of the garden is that of the 15 stones that make up the sculpture, only 14 can be seen at any single position in the garden. The surrounding wall was only a later addition, prior to which it was intended as a part of the vista of the lake beyond. The walls show an unusual pattern. The walls were made by boiling the clay in the oil – and the stains derive from the oil seeping from the clay over the years.

Whilst the temple is most famous for the dry landscape garden, the majority of the temple grounds feature lush moss gardens and a large mirror-shaped pond (known as Kyoyo-chi). Within the garden is a wash basin, made of stone and cut into the shape of a coin. On the basin is inscribed the words, “I learn only to be contented” – a poignant Zen belief in the garden known as much for it’s mystery as it’s beauty.

Kyoyo-chi dominates the garden, and makes for a beautiful stroll - so make sure you take the time to go all the way around.

Little known is that Ryōan-ji is also the last resting place of a number of Japanese emperors, from Emperor Uda  onwards (he was buried here in 931 AD). Within the lake are two small islands, one known as Benten-jima is the home of Benten, the Shinto goddess of good luck -  or at least one of her several homes.

This can be accessed via a small stone bridge. Hi T-chan, how's it going over there?

I had not known much about Ryōan-ji apart from the famous dry garden - so the garden and lake was a big (and very pleasant) surprise. I love it when you find things you weren't expecting.

Now off to Ninna-ji... about which I knew very, very little.

Post Script - Blogspot Note: I finally found out how to include large photos without them blurring. The trick is to remove the height and width HTML code altogether. Even if they're the correct dimensions, Blogspot appears to mess displaying them up. Hurray... now comes the big job of going back and fixing about a million photos over the 100+ posts.
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  1. I've never seen one of these dry gardens before. They seem very tranquil. But what happens when it rains? It must be a lot of work to maintain.

  2. Ryoan-ji is one of my favorite temples, I could sit and contemplate the garden for hours.

  3. Ryoan-ji is one of the, if not the, best examples. It's small, compact, and suitably vague - just perfect for sitting around thinking of not much at all. Unfortunately, that's made all the more difficult by the steady stream of tourists coming and going (just like me).

    As for maintenance... that's one of the great arts of the Japanese garden. It at once looks serenely natural whilst simultaneously being incredibly and meticulous in it's design. The hard work is always done (like the ice sculptures at Yuki Matsuri in Sapporo) when people generally aren't watching.