You’re probably wondering what could be so controversial about a Zen temple, just like I was. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ryoan-ji Temple (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) is home to one of the most famous “Karesansui,” or Zen rock gardens; the origin and meaning of this garden are still contested by historians.
The garden still remains today; the only plant life being the moss around the rocks. Sitting on an estate of the Fujiwara clan during the 11th century, Ryoan-ji still has the pond constructed under Fujiwara Saneyoshi’s order. The temple has been destroyed as major collateral damage of war and rebuilt; today, the temple stands as a mausoleum to seven of Japan’s emperors.
The major controversy about Ryoan-ji is regarding who built the garden, when it was built, and if there is a deeper meaning to this magnificent display of Japanese landscaping. While the majority of sources indicate that the garden was created during the late 15th century, others cite that it was created by Hosokawa Katsumoto, creator of Ryoan-ji’s first temple, or his heir, Hosokawa Matsumoto in the mid to late 1400’s. Some have cited that the rock garden was created by the monk Soami, famous for landscaping. There are other records that indicate the rock garden was created in the 1600’s during the Edo era.
It is uncertain whether the rock garden was the work of landscapers known as “Kawaramono” or monks. While maintained daily by Zen monks, there is no evidence supporting that they contributed to the garden’s creation. There is however, a stone with two Kawaramono names carved into it.
In addition to the controversy of the garden’s origins, there is great controversy behind whether the garden has a meaning or not. A point of study by both artists and scientists, there are many hypotheses behind the meaning of this garden. However, others believe that the garden has no meaning, and is simply a garden maintained by tradition, driven by cultural heritage.
Whether these mysteries will ever be solved or not, the rock gardens of Ryoan-ji can be appreciated by anybody. Ryoan-ji is also home to many great sights to see, such as the temple, the tea house (an often looked over cultural treasure), other traditional Japanese gardens, and of course the pond dating back to the Fujiwara clan. Ryoan-ji’s basin dedicated to remind us of humility and a monk’s vow of poverty, ironically created in the shape of a coin.
Ryoan-ji, Japan’s most controversial Zen temple is a must see for anybody interested in Japanese culture and art. Check it out next time you go to Kyoto.
13 Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho
Kyoto 616-8001, Kyoto Prefecture