Tenryu-Ji: Life and Spirit of a Kyoto Garden

Image of Tenryu-ji: Life and Spirit of a Kyoto Garden
Release Date: 
January 1, 2012
Stone Bridge Press
Reviewed by: 

“Whether you experience Tenryu-ji in person or through the pages of the book, you will learn to understand the enduring appeal of Japanese gardens and will take away a lot more than photographic images and quickly fading memories. You will have a connection with the garden that will stay with you until your next visit—or your first.”

There are, amazingly, 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto. If you were to spend a day on each of these sites, it would take you five and a half years to experience them all, and a day is barely enough time to absorb even the slightest appreciation of the sight, sound, touch, smell and spirit of each building and garden.

Professor Norris Brock Johnson has spent 20 years teaching and writing about Japanese temple gardens, much of that time dedicated to an intensive study of the pond garden at Tenryu Shiseizen-ji, The Temple of the Heavenly Dragon. His detailed and affectionate analysis of the garden and surrounding buildings represents a fascinating account of a tiny plot of land and water.

With so many temples and shrines in such a small geographical area, it’s never a certainty that your Kyoto hotel concierge or cab driver will be able to pinpoint the location of any particular temple, especially one like Tenryu-ji that is a little off the beaten path and well off the edge of most maps. But if you persevere, as this reviewer did, you will discover that a ¥200 electric tram ride from the central station to the last stop on the Keifuku Arashiyama line will deposit you virtually at the front door. Walk straight out of the station and cross the road and there you are, face-to-face with 700 years of history.

Here, at the edge of the city, Kyoto assumes the scale of a village. To your left, the Moon-crossing Bridge (Togetsu-kyo) spans the Abundant-flowing River (Oigawa). Beyond loom the densely wooded slopes of Turtle Mountain (Kameyama), the Mountain of Storms (Arashiyama) and the Mountain of Dusk and Shadow (Ogurayama). Before you are the gates of the Temple of the Heavenly Dragon (Tenryu-ji).

Dr. Johnson’s fascination is not at all surprising. It’s impossible not to be slightly shaken by Tenryyu-ji—the splashing of koi in the cool green water, the scent of pine, the aura and texture of the gardens and temple buildings that have been reconstructed eight times due to fires, the impossibly romantic names for everything—these things all have a way of affecting your perception. But, as Professor Johnson makes clear, this is only the beginning of the experience. If you have the patience to listen, the landscape itself has a lot to tell you.

If you never have the opportunity to visit Tenryu-ji, Dr. Johnson’s book provides consolation. Using photographs, sketches, poetry, mythology, and prose, the author covers the geography, physical features, historical context and spiritual significance of the Temple and garden.

Every aspect of the pond garden is explored—from the infinitesimal to the infinite—with an infectious passion. In many ways, Dr. Johnson’s book is really a love story. In the Shinto sense, the book reveals a profound reverence for nature. In the Buddhist sense, it expresses an abundance of jihi, “gentle-heartedness,” consisting of mercy and compassion.

In the Western sense, the book is imbued with an affection that is evident throughout, in the degree of careful attention that has attended the author’s many hours spent in quiet contemplation in the garden, the discussions with the senior priest at the temple and the exhaustive research that fills the book’s 300-plus pages. To write a book like this, you have to really love the garden.

“[F]riends in Japan said I did not notice that the pond garden had captured my heart. . . . Thus even now, I know it down to the smallest rocks. If one really throws oneself into it, with much effort, the garden’s essence suddenly becomes clear. It is essential to devote oneself in this way.”

Dr. Johnson’s deep affection for the garden becomes increasingly clear, the further one reads. He describes the numerous features of the pond garden according to their physical appearance and to their significance in Zen teaching, monastic life, mythology, cosmology, spirituality, numerology, geometry, musicology and theology—a complete biography of the garden from prehistory to the present day.

The study is exhaustive, detailed, fascinating, at times inspired, and contains far too much information for a day-visitor to the garden. But readers are free to take from it what they wish.

A casual visitor to Tenryu-ji can always pick up a brochure at the gate. A serious traveller may want to dwell on Johnson’s chapters dealing with history and culture. More dedicated students of landscape history, religious philosophy and mythology will find enough to keep them engaged for a long time.

For any reader, the explorations of Buddhist teachings and eastern mythology give a firm foundation for an understanding and appreciation of the various parts of the temple and garden, as well as the tradition that created them and has maintained them impeccably for 700 years.

For anyone not planning to visit the garden—armchair travelers, gardeners, landscape architects, and designers—the book reveals the many possibilities of a garden. There are also those who, like the author, seek spiritual guidance, where “spiritual” may also mean those feelings that come from being surrounded by thousands of years of history, where modern reality stands at a distance. A garden may be a place that invites you to pause and contemplate—for a few minutes or an entire lifetime.

Like all gardens, the pond garden is an artifact, molded from nature. But unlike the gardens that most of us know, it is designed to stimulate all the senses.

Whether you experience Tenryu-ji in person or through the pages of the book, you will learn to understand the enduring appeal of Japanese gardens and will take away a lot more than photographic images and quickly fading memories. You will have a connection with the garden that will stay with you until your next visit—or your first.

“I share these personal memory/feelings to encourage the reader to be aware of one’s own memories and feelings attached to the word “garden” that, along the way in the experience of this book, perhaps will appear to consciousness. Such memories and feelings are a vital aspect of that which the reader brings to vicarious aspects of the Temple of the Heavenly Dragon and through which any understanding of the pond garden will come to life.”

NOTE: In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Tenryu-ji is ranked number one among the Five Mountain temples of Kyoto and is the head temple of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.