The temples, shrines and gardens of Kyoto constitute a unique cultural and religious tradition. There simply is no other place on earth quite like Kyoto, and it is far too difficult for a Western tourist to truly comprehend this environment even after many visits. Most tourists take in the visual aspect of Kyoto without paying very much attention to the deep cultural and religious roots which are the foundation upon which modern Japanese society functions, and this is taking into account the fact that modern Japan is largely secular with what appears to be a superficial observance of religious rituals and belief. Yet this superficiality can also be explained by the fact that neither of the two major religions of Japan – Buddhism and Shintoism – places undue expectations on the believer. There are no fixed religious services or obligatory attendance at religious ceremonies. Religion is there for the Japanese to follow if they choose. Buddhism provides the religious seeker a means of accepting the vicissitudes of life with equanimity, and each Buddhist sect has a different road to such enlightenment. Shintoism is even older than Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan around the 6th century CE. Shintoism is that which gives the Japanese a spiritual connection to their land, to nature, to things of beauty, to the importance of one’s ancestors, and to the individual’s role in society.
The Japanese sensitivity to natural surroundings is the most sophisticated of any culture in the world. The recreation of nature, in the form of exquisitely designed and nurtured gardens, is just one aspect of this cultural emphasis on one’s surroundings. Other aspects include the tea ceremony, the arrangement of flowers, the proper role of the geisha, the reverence for material objects of great beauty (swords, silk kimonos, wooden bowls, and so many other crafts), and the delight in food. Throughout all this, there is an appreciation for the delicate, the simple, the rare, the ephemeral, that which is slightly imperfect (perfection can only be a trait of God), and the reliance on artifice for an aesthetic purpose.
Japanese gardens are masterworks of artifice, sculpted out of nature, and designed purposely to trick the eye. A Westerner can absorb all of this, yet miss the fundamental fact that the garden is meaningless to a Japanese without the religious context in which it was created. The monks who tend to the garden have more than just an aesthetic goal in mind; often the act of pruning, arranging, and cleaning a garden is a religious act first and foremost. It does not help that the temple or shrine authorities provide very little signage to allow an outsider to comprehend what has been built, and what role nature plays in creating opportunities, fostering change, and sometimes bringing about tragedy for an entire temple or shrine complex. Some of this reluctance to explain can be perceived as arrogance. The Japanese have thrived for over 2,000 years in a highly-organized but very isolated society, in which the introduction of Buddhism, and the abrupt opening to the West during the Meiji Era, constituted the only two significant times Japan moved outside of its island boundaries to embrace something different. It can also be that the Japanese do not like to clutter their gardens with signs; if the tourist wishes to know the deeper meaning to what they are experiencing, let them buy a book.
Let us take as an example Daigo-ji Temple, an expansive complex of buildings founded in 874 by the monk Rigin-daishi. The complex covers one side of a mountain and overlooks Kyoto. At the base of the mountain, and most easily accessible for the visitor, lies a small temple reached by an arched bridge over a pond of water. There are at least fifteen other temple buildings in the grounds, each with an historic and religious meaning, but this temple is favored because of the surrounding maple trees, which as you can see from the picture, complement the vermilion bridge and temple. This is the ephemeral beauty so prized by the Japanese, who listen to reports of the advancing autumnal coloration as if they were monitoring a weather station. At just the right moment, they flock to Daigo-ji for the viewing experience.
Daigo-ji lower temple with bridge
Two maiko girls on the Vermilion Bridge of Daigo-ji gardens
In one aspect, though, Daigo-ji has always been aloof, as it is the headquarters of the Buddhist Shingon sect in Japan. Shingon is known as secret, or esoteric Buddhism. Brought to Japan from Xian in China, the sect originated in India, the source of Buddhism’s most ancient practices, such as preparation of mandalas, which are pictorial representations of doctrine as expressed in writing through tantras. Tantras are as ancient as Buddhism gets, and in the Shingon tradition, they are old enough to be derived from Hinduism in India. These tantras, such as the Three Mysteries, reflect the Shingon belief that Enlightenment is achievable by men in their present life, and not in some remote other life or afterlife. But to obtain Enlightenment, the novice must learn mental discipline through meditation, through care of one’s body, and through correct expression of thought. No one can simply come to Enlightenment on their own; one requires a teacher and many years of preparation and education, culminating in the revelation of true doctrine. This is the esoteric aspect of Shingon Buddhism, and in all of the centuries that have transpired since its introduction to Japan, the secrets have never been written down. Shingonism remains a deep secret even to the Japanese, which makes those monks who shine with “Buddha nature” reverenced all the more.
You can meet or come across such monks at Daigo-ji, but Westerners won’t appreciate their true nature. Even when the guide books tell us that many of the buildings are national treasures, as are the ancient mantras and tantras, the many statues of Buddha or Bodhisattvas, the elaborate iron censors, and of course the gardens, we usually have to be hit over the head to appreciate the extraordinary significance of Daigo-ji. Here is one example: the oldest pagoda in Japan, the Five-Storey Pagoda, is inescapable. Few people of any culture can resist having their picture taken in front of this edifice.
The Five-Storey Pagoda at Daigo-ji temple complex, Kyoto (Japan's oldest pagoda)
If Daigo-ji is the epitome of Hindu and Chinese influence on Buddhism, Ryoan-ji is utterly Japanese, a manifestation of the complete transformation that imported Buddhism often underwent when the Japanese adopted the religion. Ryoan-ji is the essence of zen Buddhism, famous worldwide for its sand and stone garden, pictured here.
Ryoan-ji Zen Garden, Kyoto
Surely, therefore, the sand represents the ocean. But what about that large stone near the wall? Doesn’t that look like a ship? Or maybe it is a mountain peak, and the sand represents the mist and fog which covers the landscape. Clearly then, we are viewing the garden from atop another mountain, and we can see only the peaks of these mountains as they break through the heavy clouds. Ryoan-ji thus becomes something altogether different. In fact, it is much more than a typical Japanese garden can be, where the lily pond and waterfall and blooming cherry trees are very real and non-symbolic. Ryoan-ji teaches us that our perception of a garden is ultimately more important than the garden itself. We can create beauty in our mind alone, even though it took monks of acute perception to locate the rocks for this garden and place them “just so,” in such a way that the human imagination can take control and create whatever scene it desires.
As with any temple, occasionally you see monks within the grounds of Ryoan-ji, practitioners of Rinzai-zen Buddhism, so different from the many other forms of Buddhism on the islands. Rinzai-zen is, as can be imagined, as rigorous as the harsh surface of the stones and sand in the garden. It is a religion of discipline, the teacher poised with his bamboo stick, ready to whack any acolyte who nods off when he should be meditating. No wonder it appeals to the military-minded Japanese. Rinzai-zen is also a religion of mysteries, expressed in the famous zen koans, pithy statements that make sense on the surface, but on reflection reveal many subtle layers of interpretation, none of which ever completely serves as the answer to the koan’s observation.
In answer to the obvious question many people raise as to how the sand is raked, we have a picture of a monk involved in his daily chore of cleaning and arranging the garden. His work is not work at all, but a form of discipline with a religious purpose in mind. An opportunity to meditate, for one, and to practice the elusive art of perfection in the designs in the sand, knowing full well such a thing can never be achieved.
Monk Raking the Zen Garden at Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto
However much Rinzai-zen differs from other forms of Buddhism in Japan, it has one thing in common with them all: it is yet another path to Enlightenment.
Saiho-ji Moss Garden, Kyoto
Neither Shingonism nor Rinzai-sen Buddhism is the prominent form of Buddhism practiced in Japan. That honor falls to Jodo-shu Buddhism, the Pure Land Buddhism. How to reach the Pure Land? First, pray to the manifestation of the Buddha known as Buddha Amitabha, and then repeat his name consecutively in a practice known as nembutsu. The practice is deliberately simple, because Jodo-shu Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the late 12th century, and was intended to appeal to ordinary Japanese farmers and tradesmen disgusted with the corruption in Japanese society, and the wayward habits of Buddhist monks too enamored of real-world pleasures. The everyday worker could avoid the monks altogether, pray on their own, intone the nembutsu, and in the next life reach the Pure Land. Jodo-shu was, and is, open to women and freely shared with them as equals at worship services at the temple, which explains the religion’s popularity. Even criminals, prostitutes, and those rejected by society have always been welcome within Jodo-shu. It is probably no coincidence that Jodo-shu sounds very much like Franciscan or Dominican religious doctrine within Christianity, since these sects also rebelled against a poisonously vile popular culture. There must come a time within any organized religion when its holy men lose their sanctity and create the conditions necessary for a purifying religion to arise, though offshoots can occur for mundane reasons. Within the Jodo-shu tradition, a worshiper can join a sect that practices ten nembutsu at a time, drawing out the last one in a long drone. If that is too much trouble, there is a sect which chants the nembutsu but once at each sitting. Yet another version of Jodo-shu forgets the nembutsu and instead prays with the help of beads. The diversity of belief and practice within Japanese Buddhism is not much different from the many denominations of Christian churches which have arisen over two millennia.
As can be imagined, Jodo-shu Buddhism organizes its garden practices around Pure Land concepts. If one is to ask what the Pure Land must be like, a typical Japanese garden provides the answer. Nature is orderly, the better to suit man and to bring out nature’s inherent, exquisite beauty. Thus, azalea bushes are kept trimmed into perfect domes, pine trees are forced to grow into imaginative twisted shapes, lake water is provided with just enough algae to give it a pleasing green color, walkways are composed of square or round stepping-stones, gates are made of entwined bamboo shafts, waterfalls burble at the most pleasing of tones, and rocks of unusual shapes are positioned just so within the garden and around water. Everything is made of natural materials, but nothing is truly natural. The garden is the representation of a heavenly abode – an illusion. Do you see that stone pagoda across the lake, far into the distance? It is not really far away at all. The path leading up the mountainside to the pagoda is deliberately tapered to give the illusion it is receding into the distance. The actual stone pagoda is diminutive in size. The walkway leading around the lake and then up to the pagoda is ultimately blocked by a discreet bamboo pole. The gardener does not allow you to take that road off into the distance, lest you discover the illusion.
One of the best representations of the Pure Land is the Silver Pavilion garden, meant to be visited on a moonlit night.
The Zen Garden of Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion, Kyoto. The garden is famous for its white sand representation of Mount Fuji, said to be shimmeringly beautiful on a moonlit night.
Myoshin-ji Garden, Kyoto
It is a convenience for Westerners that we describe Buddhist buildings as temples and Shinto buildings as shrines, though the Japanese use different words as well for the two religions. Normally, it becomes immediately apparent what is a temple and what is a shrine. Shinto shrines are exuberant architecture, the buildings often painted in bright vermilion, long banners and ribbons hanging from the roof, and white zigzag papers festooned everywhere, on which are written prayer or wish requests for health, prosperity, happiness, or a job. Shintoism is intrinsically Japanese and has been influenced somewhat by the introduction of Buddhism into Japan through China. The main influence has been in the architecture, that is the shape and structure of buildings, not their decoration or their contents. Shinto also reveres nature, but in a somewhat different way. Fundamentally, a Shinto shrine is not a place of worship. Buddhism has many versions of the Buddha and his Bodhisattvas created as sculpture, to which the devout can kneel in prayer, offer up incense, and ask for a blessing. Within Shinto, the object within the shrine is often not a statue at all. It may be an unusual stone, or a bowl, and the shrine is kept locked up. No one sees the object, known as a kami, except perhaps once a year when it is paraded about the village or town in riotous celebrations, as with the Shrine of the Phallus.
You do not get on your knees in front of the kami and ask for a blessing. Instead, you write your blessing down and post it on the building, or more typically, you buy a pre-printed blessing devoted to the kami’s particular symbolism and power. There are tens of thousands of Shinto shrines across Japan, and all of them have a particular desire embedded in their kami. Some of the more famous shrines may promise business success, or they represent respect for the emperor, or veneration for the very mountain on which the shrine resides. The connection to nature is very important to Shintoism, and dates back to the earliest days of Japanese culture, when people were animists worshiping the gods of the forest, sea, sky, and harvest. Indeed, it is sometimes said that Shintoism is the only great world religion that is visibly animistic, in that modern man still begs the indulgence of nature, or praises nature for its bounty of food and the majesty of its countenance.
If the symbol of Buddhism is the wheel mandala, the symbol of Shinto is the torii, that construction of two pillars on which stands one crossbeam which curves upward at the ends, and a second below it which traverses straight across the pillars. Torii are almost always painted in vermilion. The torii is embedded in all Shinto buildings, and it serves as a colonnade for walkways. A famous torii stands alone in a Japanese bay, invoking the kami of the waters. Wealthy benefactors can donate a torii to a shrine. While the shape of the torii is always the same, a torii can come in gigantic or diminutive size.
It should also be noted that religious practice in Japan is very laissez-faire. There are no penalties for non-observance, though respect for religion is an ingrained Japanese cultural trait that non-believers practice naturally. Few people have cause to denigrate religion, because religion does not demand worship or aggressively proselytize. The Japanese can be said to be only loosely religious, and it is often the case than an individual or a family will visit a temple on one occasion, and a shrine on another. Shrine festivities, which are public celebrations of dance, food, drink, and perhaps other vices, are attended by anyone who likes a good party.
You can see the joyous architecture present in the famous Yasaka Shrine. Founded in the seventh century, this shrine has received imperial support almost from its inception. It remains on the list of the dai-ichi, or number one shrines worthy of attendance by the Emperor. It’s kami, housed in a gilded miniature shrine, is paraded once a year outside of the shrine precincts, and it has been said in the past to have warded off plague. Beyond the main gate lies several buildings, including the catbird pavilion, and the pavilion of lanterns, which is visited at nighttime when all the lanterns are lit.
Yasaka Shrine Main Gate, Kyoto
Capturing the Moment
There is a sense among the Japanese that life is precarious, and one should carry oneself with dignity masking an underlying anxiety about the dangerous nature of the world. Some of this sense of foreboding is a feature of Buddhism, but Buddhism sprouted quickly in Japan because the people found it congenial with their cultural make-up of uncertainty. It is hard not to be uncertain living on an island archipelago where very little of the land can be cultivated for food, where a tsunami can arise from nowhere and wash away entire coastlines, and where earthquakes are a common danger, felt almost daily. Buddhism fit the Japanese well, and so it is no surprise that the love of nature comes with a respect for nature’s caprice.
This requires the Japanese to seize the moment. Drop what you are doing, if you can, to see the cherry blossoms in the park; their beauty will last only a day or two. Autumn leaves can be especially fickle when it comes to their coloration. The date of maximum coloration cannot be certain, and the vibrancy of the color depends on the previous summer and winter temperature extremes. Leave your schedule open if you can for a half-day trip, and hope that it falls on a weekend and the weather is accommodating. Nor is winter to be forgotten; winter often provides the most spectacular viewing, but the snowfall must be light enough to cover the temple or shrine grounds, but easy to navigate. Such days don’t come too often, so prepare to ask the boss for that rare privilege of a day off for personal reasons. Japanese are so devoted to their companies that it has to be an extremely important occasion to cause an absence that is not health related. But as you can see in this photo of Japan’s most famous temple, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, it can be worth an absence just once in your life if the weather is clear, the snowfall has been just right the night before, and the lake waters are perfectly still, providing that much-prized reflection.
Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, on a winter's morning