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During offpeak hours, Kyoto’s temples offer solitude to visitors. Photograph by David Celdran

Straining for enlightenment in Ryoanji

A famous rock garden in Kyoto, said to be the highest expression of Zen art, invites visitors to explore the inner self.
David Celdran | Oct 30 2018

The back of the admission ticket to Ryoanji temple reads, “Quietly open your inner mind and converse within the self.” Clearly, the Zen monk who composed that line was speaking of another time. Today’s Ryoanji, home to Kyoto’s most famous rock garden, would seem the most unlikely of places to explore one’s inner self. During the day, the temple grounds and veranda overlooking the rock garden swarm with tourists and schoolchildren on a field trip.

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The dry landscape of Ryoanji is considered the finest example of the karasensui garden style in Zen Buddhist temples.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Founded in 1450, the temple belongs to the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, a sect that practiced meditation and koans—riddles that helped monks overcome the limits set by logic, and the overarching ego. Emptying the mind is an important goal in Zen, and carefully configured gardens, like koans, were used as tools to attain satori or enlightenment. 

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Meandering pathways for meditative strolls are a common feature in the city’s temples and shrines.

Although Ryoanji is just one of hundreds of gardens scattered around Kyoto that take after the karesansui or dry landscape style, it is considered the most notable of the waterless rock and sand gardens of Japan and, many say, the highest expression of Zen art. It’s a recognition many tourists visiting Ryoanji find difficult to understand. How, after all, can an austere arrangement of 15 rocks  on a bed of gravel qualify, at least according to the guidebooks, as the pinnacle of Japanese culture?

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During offpeak hours, Kyoto’s temples offer solitude to visitors.

The answer, typical of Zen Buddhism, is hidden beneath many layers of symbolism, and revealed only after many hours of quiet observation and contemplation (a quick search on Google would be helpful, however). The anonymous creator of the garden in the 15th century laid out the 15 rocks in a way that only 14 are visible at any one time from any angle of the viewing platform. In Buddhism, the number 15 represents completeness and monks would be told to sit for hours, even days, in front of the garden until the hidden rock revealed itself. Like the koan, it’s a mind-bending exercise that prepares the way to wisdom.

Today, the crowds on the veranda of Ryoanji make it difficult to achieve any semblance of enlightenment, but there are still certain times of the day when one might find oneself surrounded by little more than a few souls and the maple trees bordering the temple. The fifteenth rock may not reveal itself so easily, but the longer you sit quietly, the more the garden resembles islands in the sea, or as Zen monks of old have suggested, “a tiger crossing the sea with her cubs.” The images that come to mind vary with the seasons or the direction of shadows at a particular time of day. The possibilities are—indeed—endless, and even the empty spaces between rocks communicate something.

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Japanese gardens are miniature representations of the natural environment. The pocket moss garden at Ryoanji symbolizes the mountains around Kyoto.

It’s a pity that many organized tours give little time to explore the rest of the Ryoanji’s grounds. The moss garden on the western side of the temple may offer less in contemplative value, but their natural beauty is nevertheless uplifting, especially in autumn when the star-shaped momiji maple leaves fall from their branches like tiny kites onto the emerald moss.

Such profound beauty is also visible at the rear of the temple where a lone basin of carved stone, a tsukubai, sits. Less important to tourists perhaps, but significant to followers of Zen, the washbasin reveals an inscription that embodies the anti-materialist essence of Buddhism: “What one has is all one needs.”

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In autumn, the 13th-century, mirror-shaped pond in the Ryoanji temple grounds reflects the colorful foliage of the season.

Indeed, a stroll through the temple grounds and past the mirror-like Kyoyochi pond leaves one perfectly satisfied and content in this natural setting. It isn’t quite the same enlightenment Zen promises, but for at least a few hours in crowded Kyoto, it’s the closest one gets to satori.


Photographs by David Celdran

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Vol.5 2012.