Sunday, 22 November 2015


Ryogen-in is one of the Daitoku-ji  sub-temples in Kyoto which contains one of the very oldest surviving karesansui ('dry landscape)  gardens, reputedly by Sōami (相阿弥, ? - 1525), an influential figure in the Ashikaga shougunate, and is also reputed to be the creator of Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) or the noted ‘Silver Pavillion temple’ in Kyoto. It is thought the temple was founded in 1502.  or There are in fact five gardens in total that surround the temple building, every scrap of available ground has a garden.
The 16th C garden to the north side of the temple.
The oldest of the gardens, Ryugin-tei (龍吟庭), (literally, ‘The Dragon Song Garden’), has a tall narrow stone set with a slight lean to the right side which is a representation of Mt Sumeru or Shumisen 須弥山, the sacred mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe, scattered below this dominant stone are a number of ‘lesser’ worlds. The ground is now entirely covered by a carpet of moss, originally, it would have of been at least part surfaced by white gravel, there are a small number of tight clipped azaleas that wrap themselves about the stone arrangements. The stones have been carefully placed to generate a rhythmic movement. Though not particularly large the stone arrangement has a depth and quiet grace to it that rewards careful attention by the viewer. Viewed from the verandah the stone arrangement resembles a landscape scroll painting, as if the viewer were looking down onto a distant landscape from a great height. The foreground of the composition is a sea of moss, that lends a gentle emotional quality to the composition. The garden is on the north side of the main building, which is the side of the temple associated with the living quarters and study of the monks who would have inhabited the temple. The north side of the temple building was also known as the ‘private’ side of the temple, as distinct from the south facing side which was known as the ‘public’ face of the temple. The principal reception rooms and worship hall featured on the south side.
The central portion of the rock arrangement representing Mt Horai.
Other delights at Ryogen-in are the ‘Garden of A-Un’, a wonderful linear composition representing the yin-yang forces , the In breath and the Out breath. It is also a statement regarding the very essence of meditation, which is at the very core of Zen Buddhist practice. The linear strip of garden between the building and the boundary wall is a magical play of defying the very tight physical space in order to create with an engaging narrative. To the right side as viewed is a low flat stone with gravel raked steeply about it. It seems as if the stone representing the in-breath was being gently drawn into the earth. To the extreme left is a foundation stone (originally from Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s Jurakudai palace) that has a pronounced stub showing where a large wooded pillar would have been located. This stone represents the out-breath flowing into the world. Between the representations of the in-breath and out-breath is a small low stone that is the point of equilibrium between the two opposing movements. The linear raking pattern of the gravel holds the entire composition together as well as providing a visual means of connecting the two extremes.
The stone representing the in breath is to the extreme right.

The pillar foundation stone represents the out breath.
The tiny tsubo niwa (or courtyard garden, literally a garden space created in a gap between architectural structures) that is known as the ‘Totekiko’ garden, contains no plants at all. Nothing but seven stones and gravel, it is claimed to be the smallest garden in Japan. It is intended to represent a stone is cast into water and the resulting ripples caused. It may also be likened to the sudden awakening of a Zen adherent suddenly breaking through the limitations of dualistic thought. This tiny ‘garden’ space holds a powerful artistic arrangement that truly belies the apparent limitation of the physical space it occupies.
The stub niwa represents a stone thrown into water.

The modern garden (built 1980) to the south of the main building, is a representation of Mt Sumeru, a Crane isle, and a Tortoise isle, three elements that make up a representation of a Buddhist representation of paradise. The tortoise and crane (see the author’s blog post ‘Symbolism and Reference in the Japanese Garden’ 12/06/2015) are common references to the notion of paradise as is Mt Sumeru or Horai. It is interesting to note the differences between the south and north gardens. The most obvious point is that the north garden has a quiet, detached, quality. Whereas the south garden, though containing less in the way of stones, seems to be striving to make is narrative quality known. The stones representing Horai in the central section of the arrangement are indeed quite tall, and the vertical axis certainly makes a visually very strong statement. It is almost strident compared to the quiet subtlety of the older garden on the north side.

The modern garden on the south side. The stone group in the moss on the left is a turtle, the central group Mt Horai, and the Crane isle is on the right.

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