April 12, 2004

by Yusuke Shimizu


In 1450, feudal lord Hosokawa Katsumoto built Ryoanji, a Zen Buddhist temple. Zen

philosophy emphasizes simplicity, so that we can appreciate simple colors like white or

black. Although the original buildings were burnt down in Japan’s civil wars, they were

rebuilt in 1799, after further damage from natural disasters.

The building pictured here is called a kuri (living quarters) and it is 75 feet high. A

building’s height represents the status of the temple. This is one of the highest buildings

among temples in Japan showing us that Ryoanji enjoys a high status.

Benten Island

There is a small island in the temple’s pond which is called Benten Island. The name

Benten is an abbreviation of Benzaiten, who is a goddess, one of the Seven Deities of

Good Fortune. She is believed to be the deity of wisdom, wealth, courage, eloquence and

music. When you see pictures or sculptures of the seven gods, you can easily find

Benzaiten since she holds a biwa, a four-stringed Japanese lute. It is said that your

wishes, especially related to music, will come true if you place a stone upon the pile on

the torii gate in Benten Island. The higher you place the stone, the better your luck will


Rock Garden

Ryoanji Temple is very famous for its rock garden. This garden is in the style of a dry

landscape, which has neither water nor plants (except for moss) only rocks and raked

white sand. In this garden, 15 rocks are arranged in five groups on white sand. From

the east, groupings of 5, 2, 3, 2 and 3 stones are arranged. The reason why there are 15

stones is that in the Orient, this number represents perfection since it takes 15 days for

a new moon to become full. Moreover, nobody can see all of the rocks from any angle,

meaning that human beings lack perfection.

There are several theories about what this seemingly simple garden represents.

Some people imagine mountains rising above clouds. Others imagine islands in the sea.

One fascinating theory holds that each of the five groups of rocks has a particular

meaning: The easternmost group, beginning from the main hall of worship, represents

Buddha and means ‘perfection’. The next group, seen to its right, is a whale and means

‘biggest’. The center group is a tiger and means ‘strongest’. The next group is a turtle

and means ‘longevity’. And the last group is a water bird and means ‘almighty’, because

such birds can live both on land and water. Nevertheless, it’s up to you to decide what

the rocks at Ryoanji represent. Let your imagination run free! I’ve heard that someone

has said this rock garden represents people’s whole life. Can you see the point?


A tsukubai is a stone basin set in a Japanese garden, in which we wash our hands

before taking part in a tea ceremony. The name tsukubai comes from our motion when

we bend down to ladle up the water.

There are four Chinese characters on the surface of the tsukubai, and in a special

device, each of the characters combines with the central square hole to form yet another

character. The top one becomes a character which means “I”. The left becomes “learn”,

the right now means “only”, and the bottom character changes into “to be content.

” Together, these four Chinese characters mean “I learn only to be content.” This suggests

that people should be satisfied with their present situation. It is one of the concepts of

Zen philosophy, emphasizing the importance of controlling our desires and knowing our

own mind.

A Hiding Place

Near the tsukubai is a pine tree which goes through the roof of a building. At first, there

was not such a tree. But after a tree grew up in the spot, the temple’s priests had to cut

a hole for it (rather than cutting the tree) because this temple is registered as a world

cultural heritage, where the natural features must not be disturbed. Ryoanji’s grounds

have many kinds of trees and moss, which display great natural beauty which always

impress visitors from overseas. The best season to visit this temple is autumn. If you

can, try not to miss the exciting fall colors before the leaves into a wintry landscape.

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