Kare-sansui: The Zen Buddhist Rock Garden

One thing worth bearing in mind if you plan to visit Kyoto in March or April is that it gets pretty busy and you will need to reserve rooms a long way in advance.  Even Mori-san with all his connections and inside knowledge of Japan couldn’t find a room for me this weekend – apparently I’m not the only one wanting to see the cherry blossom! In the end the best we could manage was a hotel for two nights in Hikone, from where I could ‘commute’ into Kyoto via train for a couple of days sightseeing.

While I have seen a large number of gardens so far during my time in Japan almost all of these have been Japanese landscape gardens of one type or another. Saturday, I decided, would be a ‘kare-sansui’ kind of day.

A mixture of Taoism and Indian Mahayana Buddhism, Zen Buddhism is an attempt to understand the meaning of life directly without being swayed by logical thought, words or letters. Followers believe that enlightenment can be achieved simply by looking inside ourselves for the answers. Meditation and contemplation are practiced to free the mind from the constraints of logical thought and the written word. As such, many Zen Buddhist Temples in Japan have kare-sansui (Zen rock gardens), designed to aid contemplation and imbued with hidden meaning.

 

MYOSHIN-JI

My first port of call on my Zen Buddhist tour of Kyoto was to Myoshin-ji, a large temple complex in northwest Kyoto.

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In addition to the main temple buildings pictured above there are around 50 subtemples scattered along the white walled avenues of the Myoshin-ji temple complex; many of these have kare-sansui either open to the public or viewable through open gates, so I spent a pleasant hour or so examining many of these.

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The temple complex was fairly deserted apart from a small Japanese tour group, walking more or less at the same pace as me. This lead to a rather amusing encounter: when I was stood at one of the subtemple gates dutifully ‘contemplating’ the garden within, one of the ladies from the tour group stopped to ask me if I was American. When I replied to say that I was in fact from England her response was ‘Oh, England. Can I take your picture?’  ‘Yes, of course,’ I said (well, there is no Japanese word for no…) and turned around to find 3 Japanese women with cameras at the ready to photograph me standing in front of the gates. Weird. It happens a lot at Kiseki no Hoshi and that’s weird enough, but it’s utterly bizarre to experience it on a street in Kyoto.

 

TAIZO-IN

Anyway, I digress. The most famous and the oldest subtemple at Myoshin-ji is that of Taizō-in. The kare-sansui at Taizō-in was designed and completed by Kano Motonobu during the Muromachi Period. Motonobu was an expert at painting and sepia drawing and his artistic flair is evident in the garden.

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The rest of the garden was pretty special too, especially as the cherries were in full bloom.

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RYOAN-JI

Next stop was Ryoan-ji, which has perhaps the most famous kare-sansui garden in Japan – certainly it was the most crowded of those that I visited today. Ryoan-ji was originally the country house of the Tokudaiji Clan but was acquired by Hosokawa Katsumoto in 1450 for use as a Zen training temple: the famous rock garden is believed to have been created by the renowned Zen monk, Tokuho Zenketsu, in the late Muromachi Period (c. 1500AD). Rectangular in shape the garden features no plants – it is a composition of 15 differently sized and shaped rocks set in raked gravel. I have heard it said that it is not possible to view all 15 rocks at once and that is certainly true in my experience!

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There is more to Ryoan-ji than just the kare-sansui – there is also a beautiful pond and surrounding gardens.

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DAITOKU-JI

Next on my itinerary was Daitoku-ji, which was founded in 1319 (the current buildings are 16th century as the originals were destroyed by fire) and is today the headquarters of the Rinzai Daitoku-ji school of Zen Buddhism. While the main temple buildings were very attractive and interesting to see…

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…the main purpose to my visit was to see the kare-sansui at some of the 24 subtemples. Most closed sometime between 4:30-5:00pm but I managed to visit 4 of them this afternoon.

 

KOHRIN-IN

The garden here is said to express the paradise of ancient Caina, with an azalea bush and stones symbolising Mount Elysiam.

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ZUIHŌ-IN

In 1546 Zuihō-in became the family temple of the feudal lord Ōtomo Sorin who, in later life, converted to Christianity. While Christianity was never practiced at Zuihō-in the garden plays homage to this part in its founding patron’s history. This is namely through the creation of the famous Garden of the Cross, designed by Mirei Shigemori in the 1960s. In this kare-sansui garden rocks symbolising hills form an asymmetrical cross, while a buried statue of the Virgin Mary is symbolic of the days when Christianity was banned in Japan.

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Mirei Shigemori is also responsible for another kare-sansui at Zuihō-in – in this one the sand is raked to resemble ocean waves and pointed and flat stones instil the garden with calmness and energy respectively.

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KOTO-IN

Koto-in was built in 1601 by Hosokawa Tadaoki, a successful military commander. The garden is most famous for the autumn colour in the form of Acers, but it is lime green beautifully lush-looking at this time of year with its carpets of moss and fresh, young Acer leaves.

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DAISEN-IN

The last of the Daitoku-ji subtemples I visited today is probably the most renowned. However, photography was prohibited so the images below come courtesy of other sources. The kare-sansui at Daisen-in was created in 1509 by Kogaku-Zenji at the same time that he founded the temple. Realising that he could not create a miniaturised natural landscape in such a narrow plot Kogaku-Zenji’s instead chose to use rocks and sand to express Nature in a more abstract sense.

"Daisen-in3". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daisen-in3.jpg#/media/File:Daisen-in3.jpg

“Daisen-in3”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daisen-in3.jpg#/media/File:Daisen-in3.jpg

"Daisen-in2". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daisen-in2.jpg#/media/File:Daisen-in2.jpg

“Daisen-in2”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daisen-in2.jpg#/media/File:Daisen-in2.jpg

 

As if the beautiful garden wasn’t treat enough I even got to have my photo taken with a famous Buddhist monk and writer!

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HIKONE-JO

I had hoped to find time to visit Hikone castle whilst I was staying there but there were just too many gardens to visit in Kyoto to make it back in time to visit during the day. I was delighted though, when I returned to Hikone that night to find the castle and surrounding cherry trees spectacularly illuminated. A prettier end to the day I never did see.

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