Tenryū-ji, a Zen Oasis in Kyoto's Rich History

The Buddhist Channel, 14 June 2023

Kyoto, Japan -- This is an abode made in the likeness of heavenly perfection. Welcome to Tenryū-ji, a serene temple nestled in the heart of Kyoto's Arashiyama district, Japan. With a history dating back to the 9th century, this temple has witnessed the rise and fall of emperors, the transition of power, and the enduring spirit of Buddhism. Here the Buddhist Channel explores the fascinating story behind Tenryū-ji. Join us to discover the treasures it holds within its sacred grounds.


A Legacy of Zen and Royalty



In the 9th century, Tenryū-ji's site was home to Danrin-ji, the first Zen temple in Japan. Founded by Tachibana no Kachiko, the wife of Emperor Saga, it became a sanctuary for Buddhist teachings. Kachiko invited a renowned Rinzai Zen monk named Gikū Zenshi from China to join the temple, fostering a strong connection to Zen Buddhism.

In the 13th century, Danrin-ji fell into disrepair, and Emperor Go-Saga repurposed the land for his summer villa, known as the Kameyama Detached Palace. The villa received its name from the rounded shape of Mt. Ogura to the west, resembling a turtle. Generations of emperors, including Emperor Kameyama and Emperor Go-Daigo, found solace within its tranquil surroundings.

During the Muromachi Period in 1339, Shogun Ashikaga Takauji converted the palace into a Zen temple, honoring the late Emperor Go-Daigo. The eminent Zen master, Musō Soseki, served as the founding abbot, establishing the temple's original name as Ryakuō Shisei Zenji. However, due to objections from warrior monks on Mt. Hiei, it was eventually renamed Tenryū-ji.


Challenges and Rebirth

Under the patronage of the Ashikaga family and the Muromachi period government, Tenryū-ji flourished. Expanding to about 244 acres, the temple boasted approximately 150 sub-temples. However, as the power of the Ashikaga waned in the 15th and 16th centuries, the temple's fortunes followed suit. A series of devastating fires and political turmoil culminated in the temple's destruction during the Hamaguri Gomon Incident in 1864.

Despite the hardships, Tenryū-ji began to rebuild in the 20th century. The main temple building, Hōjō, was restored in 1900, followed by other important structures over subsequent decades. While many of the temple's buildings are relatively recent, the captivating landscape garden and the surrounding scenery remain timeless.


The Enchanting Garden



Tenryū-ji's garden, designed by Musō Soseki himself, dates back to the mid-14th century. This masterpiece of landscape architecture centers around the Sōgen Pond and utilizes the technique of shakkei, incorporating the surrounding mountains as borrowed scenery, creating an illusion of depth and harmony. Tenryū-ji garden is the oldest still in existence to use shakkei. Here, two mountains, Arashiyama and Kameyama, appear as part of this garden.

On the far side of the pond, large stones can be seen representing the Ryūmonbaku, commonly referred to as the Garden Gates Fall. Legend tells of a profound narrative, wherein only a resolute carp possesses the ability to swim upstream against a formidable current and surmount the dragon gate perched atop the cascading waterfall. Triumphantly overcoming this arduous feat grants the carp the esteemed status of a mighty dragon. This tale draws an allegorical parallel to the relentless endeavors undertaken by individuals aspiring to pass the rigorous examinations required for admittance into the esteemed Chinese imperial court. As the emperor himself symbolizes the dragon, and the examinations prove incredibly challenging, one must exert extraordinary effort to conquer these tests, thus earning the epithet "the dragon gate." Within the realm of Japanese garden design, the majestic Ryūmonbaku falls serve as a powerful representation of the profound difficulties encountered on the path to enlightenment.

Within Tenryū-ji's Dharma Hall (Hattō), where significant religious ceremonies are held, visitors are greeted by a captivating sight. The hall's ceiling features a striking painting of a cloud dragon with eyes that seemingly follow you from every angle. This unique effect, known as "happo-nirami" or "all-direction gaze," signifies the dragon's watchful protection over Buddhism. Painted by the renowned artist Matazō Kayama in 1997, it commemorates the 650th anniversary of Musō Soseki's passing.


Immersive Zen

Tenryū-ji offers more than just picturesque gardens and stunning artwork. Visitors have the opportunity to engage with the temple's religious practices. On the second Sunday of each month (excluding February and August), a meditation session is open to the public, followed by a Zen sermon delivered by the abbot. For those seeking a hands-on experience, appointments can be made to try shakyō, the art of copying sutras using brush and ink.

Tenryū-ji, as zen as it comes

As we conclude our journey through historic Tenryū-ji Temple, we discover a place of tranquility and enlightenment, full of captivating tales. The temple's rich legacy, rooted in Zen Buddhism and intertwined with royal lineage, offers visitors a profound connection to Japan's spiritual and cultural heritage. Whether you're strolling through the enchanting garden, admiring the celestial dragon above, or participating in meditation and calligraphy, Tenryū-ji promises a deeply immersive experience that lingers in your heart long after your visit.


Getting there

Tenryū-ji is just a short walk from the Keifuku Arashiyama Station, which is connected by the small Keifuku trains (also referred to as Randen) with theRyoanji/Kinkakujiarea and Omiya Station along Shijo-dori Street. The temple can also be reached in a 5-10 minute walk from JR Saga-Arashiyama Station (10-15 minutes, 240 yen one way fromKyoto Station).

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