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Ryoanji Temple and Garden

Listed under Temples in Kyoto, Japan.

  • Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
  • Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
  • Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
  • Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
  • Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
  • Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
  • Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
  • Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
Photo of Ryoanji Temple and Garden
Photo by mikelyvers
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‘The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon’ is a Zen temple best known for its rock garden, built on the once family estate of the Fujiwaras. Raked gravel is interrupted by 15 moss-edged boulders, which allow only 14 to be seen from any perspective (except, says tradition, to the enlightened, who can see all together). Computerised ‘medial axis transformation’ analysis shows how the garden is perfectly structured in accordance with the architecture of the temple: ‘One critical axis of symmetry passes close to the centre of the main hall, which is the traditionally preferred viewing point. In essence, viewing the placement of the stones from a sightline along this point brings a shape from nature (a dichotomously branched tree with a mean branch length decreasing monotonically from the trunk to the tertiary level) in relief.’ Therefore the structure of the garden is designed to unconsciously promote visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes, to a supremely exacting degree.

Written by  George Monkhouse.

Other expert and press reviews

“Ryōanji (Peaceful Dragon Temple)”

'Ryōanji (Peaceful Dragon Temple) is a Zen temple and World Heritage Site in northwest Kyoto, Japan. It is best known for its Zen garden, a simple gravel-and-rock arrangement that inspires peace and contemplation.' 'The Zen garden is an austere arrangem… Read more...

Written by press. Sacred Destinations

Comments, reviews and questions by other travellers

Ryoanji Temple and Rock Garden

The Heritage listed Zen rock garden, designed in the 16th Century is the largest diamond in the setting of this temple complex, in that it has become a bit of a poster piece for explaining Zen principals to the rest of the world. Its fifteen stones laid out on white gravel, raked into perfect lines are famous to the extent that everyone seems to know that there are 15 and stand on the deck above the garden counting them in a variety of languages – I felt lucky that my Japanese allows me to count up to one hundred so I could feel a bit more authentic about my counting, even if I couldn't feel particularly zen about the arrangement.

The thing with visiting a rock garden this famous is that I had seen so many beautiful photos of it that had been taken on the most perfect days and from the most careful angles that the real garden was actually a bit of a disappointment after the picture perfect lake and moss garden you pass though to get to the temple where the rock garden has been laid out. Mostly it's just a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be. It's still mysterious and stark and an interesting conversation between nature and design in that it's nature perfected, but it's smaller and hotter than I imagined it would be. People remove their shoes in the vestibule then go up a few wooden stairs onto the deck then make their way onto the deck of the garden, part shaded by the roof part exposed to the sun which beats hotly down on the pale gravel brightly. They then seemed to count then sit for a bit contemplating the space and I did the same. This is what I thought about: “Why can I only count 14 stones? I know there are 15. I've read it and I can hear people counting. We all know it's 15...so where's the other stone? Or is that the zen bit? We're the other stone, sedentary, counting stones, watching swirling gravel? That's not really zen though is it... Is this a kind of 'Emperor's New Clothes' bit and I'm missing something? No wait there are other people looking confused too... Oh wait, is that stone over there actually two stones? Yes! Fantastic – it's a trick stone and yo have to look for the other stone! Is that an important metaphor for something – looking but not seeing? Counting but not seeing what's in front of me? Ah ha – that serious woman can't see the other stone either! Neither can that man behind her... Fine, it's ok, I'm no the only one. So do they rake this every day? They must come out and do all the horizontal ones in order working backwards then fill the circles in later... How do they do it without footprints? Wow, that's a pretty cool and time consuming thing... I wonder if they have to do it every day? And do they close if it gets rainy and it gets messed up? Wonder if the monks ever stomp all over it just to mess up the mad order...” etc.

I did actually stop the conversation in my head after a while and just sit there with the garden in front of me, looking at the strange shadows the gravel cast in the grooves but it was the wall of the garden which I found most zen. It's made of a special clay which has been boiled in oil that takes on a totally unique pattern over the years as the oil seeps out of it – how fantastic and original is that! The oil has seeped out leaving a kind of sunset pattern with soft swirls something like clouds.

Walking around the temple grounds I discovered many more places where zen principals had been woven into the landscape so though my review may sound irreverent I actually got a lot out of this garden, just not what I was expecting to take away...and my photos aren't that good either. Make sure you take time to do a full walking circuit of the grounds – there is a lot more to see than the World Heritage listed rock garden.

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