In Kyoto: The Ryoan-ji and the Zen rock garden

IN MY travels around Japan or anywhere else across the globe, have I ever seen a Zen rock garden? I honestly can't even recall. If I did, this one erased all my memories of the others, and if not, then I’m in luck.

On my third stop for the day on the third day in Kyoto I found myself in the Ryoan-ji, an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period converted to a Zen temple belonging to the Myoshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism in 1450.

I sat before a most calming site—a Zen rock garden, said to be the most famous rock garden in Japan and considered one of the finest surviving examples of kare-sansui or "dry landscape" composed of large rocks formation and small, smooth and polished river pebbles which were carefully selected.

How the garden is designed in a 248 square-meter rectangular plot with 15 stones of varying sizes arranged in five groups: a group with five stones, two with three stones, and two groups of two stones. The groups float on patches of moss, the (only) vegetation providing the green against the sea of white pebbles, which is carefully raked daily by the monks.

As to what the garden means, no one really knows. Some say it represents the theme of tiger carrying its cubs across a pond while others claim it’s an abstract concept like infinity.

The veranda of the hojo (the residence of the abbot of the monastery) is the best seat in the house, or it’s the spot meant to view the garden.

Here’s the interesting feature of the garden— it reveals only 14 stones at one time when viewed at any angle from the hojo. To be able to view the fifteenth stone one has to attain enlightenment, so it is said.

Clearly, I won't be able to view all fifteen stones on this visit not unless I can fly over the formation, or I can take the realistic path and see the scaled replica.

Just as the garden’s meaning is uncertain, so is its history. No one can peg the date when the garden was actually created (15th century, perhaps?) and who designed it.

The small garden at the rear part of the hojo bears another interesting feature— the tsukubai, a round stone trough with a square water basin in its center. Tsukubai literally translates to “crouch” and because of the basin’s low elevation, the user must bend over to use it, a sign of reverence and humility.

The basin may look like an ordinary rock mimicking the shape of a Chinese coin, but if one knows kanji, the square is a part of a Zen inscription. With the four kanji inscription combined with the representation of the square on the basin, the characters will reveal “I only sufficiency know”, which can mean, “I know only satisfaction.” The saying is a part of the Buddhist teachings that “one already has all one needs.”

The temple grounds of the Ryoanji also hold a sizable park with a pond, the Kyoyochi Pond. It was built in the 12th century as part of the aristocrat’s estate.

Another one off the Kyoto significant places list. The Ryoanji temple and its gardens are listed as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, and as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

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