The presence of Zen temples and various Zen sect headquarters throughout much of Kyoto is almost enough to warrant labelling Kyoto the city of Zen. Amongst these numerous temples of national fame and great historical and cultural importance, two Zen temple complexes, that of Daitokuji and Myoshinji, provide the city with mini-Zen villages. Both of these temple complexes and their car-free maze-like cobbled paths and beautifully manicured gardens, are well worth spending a few hours. Here I will introduce Myoshinji, and one of the 46 temples in its compound, Taizo-in.
Myoshinji was established on the grounds of the Imperial Villa of the 14th century emperor, emperor Hanazono. This became the headquarters of the Myoshinji Rinzai Zen, one of the fourteen branches of Rinzai Zen. Along with Soto and Obaku Zen, Rinzai Zen is one of the three major Zen denominations in Japan, with Soto and Rinzai being the most influential in the west. It is difficult to pinpoint the essential differences between these schools, other than to say that they were formed under the influence of different priests, with Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) being of particular importance for Rinzai. Also, broadly speaking, Rinzai focuses more on koan than Soto Zen.
In the middle of the Myoshinji temple complex is the main temple itself, including a renowned painting of a dragon, which stares down on visitors from the ceiling. If this dragon looks menacing, remember that dragons are often used in Zen-Buddhist art, and amongst other things, are symbols of the self and of enlightenment.
To the south-west of the main temple is Taizo-in, a temple with over 600 years of history. Motonobu-no-niwa is a well-known karesansui garden (dry-landscape rock garden) and is named after its creator, one of the most renowned painters of the Muromachi period (1392-1573). This garden provides an excellent opportunity to experience this most characteristic of Zen gardens, with rocks representing things from running rivers, seas and water falls, to holy mountains and sacred animals, and the garden-space itself designed to represent the universe as a whole. This garden contrasts greatly to the other major garden of the temple, Yoko-en, which features a great pond and is an excellent example of a more contemporary Japanese garden.
Nearby in another of Myoshinji’s sub-temples, Shunko-in, visitors can experience shukubo traditional Zen lodgings, as well as participating in zazen meditation, all in English. Check their Internet site for more information.
Access: Get off at JR Hanazono station, which is about 10 min on the JR Sanin line from Kyoto station. From the station it is a short walk to the south gate of the temple complex. There are also buses from Sanjo Keihan station (bus 61, 62, 63, 65), as well as from Kyoto station (bus 26).
Costs: Myoshinji main temple 500Y. Taizo-in 500Y.
Taizo-in (also on Facebook)