May 27, 2013
by Miki Yamanaka, Yukari Shimono and Saya Ninai
Taizo-in temple is located in the huge Myoshinji temple complex in northwest Kyoto. There are a lot of temples in the Myoshinji complex, part of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism, of which Taizo-in is the oldest. This temple was built in 1404 by Hatano Shigemichi, who came from a powerful family in Echizen (in present-day Fukui prefecture).
What is Zen?
Zen is one of the many sects of Buddhism. It was founded in the 7th century by the Indian priest, Daruma, described in legends as having meditated in a cave for nine years and in doing so having lost the use of his limbs. Zen was then introduced into Japan in the Kamakura era (13th century) by Japanese priests who studied in China. The Chinese character for Zen (禅) is made up of two parts: “ネ” meaning “to show” and “単” meaning “simple”. Therefore, the Zen Buddhist temple is not elaborate, nor decorated with gold fixtures and precious ornaments. It is a humble and tranquil place. In Zen, the practice of zazen meditation is one of the important ascetic practices, as a way to leave worldly and material desires behind, and achieve a state of enlightenment.In zazen, you are not allowed to move, not even to scratch an itch, which can be quite difficult at first! But meditation is proven to have lots of benefits for both your physical and psychological health.
Catching a Catfish with a Gourd
When you enter the temple, you will see the famous image known as “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd,” which is designated a National Treasure. This kind of image is called a koan, a kind of Zen riddle. Above the painting there are 31 poems on the subject written by 31 priests of the Muromachi era (1392~1573), the most famous of which goes: “If I can catch a catfish, I’ll make soup, and if there is no rice, I’ll eat sand instead.” How does one catch a slippery catfish with a small, smooth gourd? You might say it is practically impossible, but actually the answer is not important. Koans are unsolvable through reason, and their purpose is to aid the Zen practitioner in reaching a different level of consciousness as required for meditation. The catfish and gourd is a motif you can find around the temple grounds, including on roof tiles and as sculptures in the gardens — so keep a look out for them!
Taizo-in also has a karesansui dry rock garden, designated as an Important Historical Site and Place of Special Scenic Beauty in Japan. It is said that this garden was built by Motonobu Kano, who hailed from the renowned Kano School that thrived as official painters to the shogunate during the medieval period. The garden is composed entirely of rocks and sand, and it is maintained daily with a rake as part of Zen practice. There are different interpretations of what these two elements represent. Some say it is supposed to represent the sea and the mythical islands on which immortal hermits reside, as described in ancient Chinese legend. Others say the garden is a microcosm of the entire universe — perhaps this is difficult to understand, but achieving simplicity through abstraction is a typical Zen approach.
Taizo-in has a newer garden, Yoko-en, built by Kinsaku Nakane in 1963-1966. This is not a karesansui garden: this garden has plants, including weeping cherry trees, which are especially beautiful in the spring. In the fall, you can also see colored leaves.
There is a stone basin in this garden called the suikinkutsu, and it is used for washing your hands. The water from the basin drips through a hole in the ground and into a small pool inside a buried, upside-down pot. The water makes a refreshing ringing sound, comparable to that of the koto or Japanese 13-string zither. Japanese people might say that this is a good example of wabi sabi: a widely-used aesthetic term which is difficult to define in English. Wabi refers to calm, quiet subtlety that is never gaudy or showy, whereas sabi expresses austere elegance, simplicity and loneliness.
Japanese cultural experiences program
In this temple, there are some Japanese cultural experience programs aimed at foreign visitors, including Zazen and Japanese Calligraphy. The lessons are conducted in English, and the priest is very easy to talk to. You can also try shojin ryōri, special Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Preparing and eating this type of food has been part of Zen spiritual training for centuries, and it is really delicious. We highly recommend it!
Information and Access
Address: 35, Myoshinji-cho, Hanazono, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto
Open: 9:00 am~5:00 pm
Fee: Adults 500 yen
Children 300 yen
Access: From Kyoto Station take the JR Hanazono Line and get off at Hanazono Station and
walk 8 minutes or Take city bus No.26 and get off at Myoshinji kita-mon (north gate)