Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 14, 2013

Quietude of Zen - Myoshinji Temple (Temples, Kyoto)

Myoshinji ("Temple of the Wondrous Mind") is one Kyoto's major Zen temples. Its 13.5 hectare large grounds lie in the northern part of the city, and like those of Daitokuji, are always open to residents who want to take a pleasant shortcut home. The area is called Hanazono or "Flower Garden," and was the country residence of the abdicated Emperor of the same name. In 1337 the Emperor wanted to turn his villa into a temple and asked his teacher, the Zen master Shuho Myocho (1282-1337), to suggest a suitable first abbot. Shuho recommended his disciple Kanzan Egen (1277–1360). After Shuho's death, the Emperor continued his Zen practice under Kanzan.

Colors of Buddhism
[Curtains under the roof of the Hojo - colors of Buddhism]

After Kanzan's death, the temple went into decline, and in 1467, during the Onin Wars, nearly all buildings were destroyed. The temple was rebuilt by the 6th head, Sekko-Soshin Zenji (1408-86) and received the patronage of the powerful Hosokawa family and later also from the Toyotomi and Tokugawa, ensuring its continued prosperity. Most buildings we see today were built from the late 15th through early 17th centuries. The temple expanded over the centuries into a labyrinth of sub temples, of which there are now 47, concealed behind their earthen walls.

Quietude of Zen
[The quiet precincts]

The first abbot Kanzan was renowned for the simplicity and austerity of his lifestyle, and that is perhaps the reason that unlike Daitokuji, Myoshinji does not recognize worldly pursuits as the tea ceremony. It also stood outside the Gozan system. As a consequence, it does not possess the many exquisite tea houses and roji gardens found at Daitokuji. All the same, there are many paintings, hanging scrolls, sliding screens and other art treasures in the possession of Myoshinji and its sub temples. Myoshinji belongs to the Rinzai Zen school, of which it is the largest branch, as big as all others together - nationwide it has more than 3,000 affiliated temples and 19 monasteries. It also operates Hanazono University, set up in 1872.

Making waves
[Zen in the sand (from the dry garden of Taizoin)]

The garan with its formal array of seven buildings on a north-south axis is found at the southern end of the precincts. Starting from the south, these are the Sanmon (Mountain Gate), Butsuden (Buddha Hall), Hatto (Dharma Hall), and Hojo (Abbot’s Quarters); to the east of this axis stand the Yokushitsu (Bath House) and the Kyozo (Sutra Library) and to the west the Sodo (Monk's Hall). Many of the buildings in Myoshin-ji are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Near the main temple one also finds some gorgeous black pines (kuromatsu).

The ceiling of the Lecture Hall (Hatto) boasts a painting of a dragon by Kano Tan'yu, whose eyes follow you all around the hall. It is one of the best dragon paintings in the country, made around 1661. The dragon is not only a symbol of the life force of nature, but also as a water animal a magical protection against fire. The temple bell preserved here dates from 698, making it the oldest documented one in Japan and a National Treasure. Obviously, originally it belonged to another temple. It won't ring anymore - it has been fatally cracked, but it possessed a beautiful tone, as old records tell us, the sound of impermanence itself. Of interest is also the Bath House (Yokushitsu), a steam bath built in 1656 by the uncle of Nobunaga's assassin Akechi Mitsuhide. It was not so bad to be a monk here!

Bathing for Satori
[Myoshinji's bath house]

Visitors find the sub temples by venturing into the warren of winding paths. The major one is Taizoin (founded in 1404), standing conveniently west of the Sanmon Gate, famous for its two gardens: a traditional dry garden attributed to the painter Kano Motonobu, who once lived here, depicting a stream flowing between cliffs, and a modern garden with a pond, rocks and luxurious plantings such as azaleas blooming gorgeously in May, designed by renowned garden architect Nakane Kinsaku in the mid-1960s.

[The modern garden of Taizoin]

Keishunin was founded in 1632 and contains three small gardens, including a rare tea arbor; Daishinin (1492) has a modern garden again designed by Nakane Kinsaku. This finishes the list of sub temples that are normally open to visitors. Three more are of interest, but usually closed - you have to wait for a special opening around Culture Day etc. These are: Shunkoin, which owns the church bell of a Jesuit church built in the 16th c. in Kyoto and a garden of boulders based on the Ise Shrine (Shunkoin also hosts meditation classes); Reiunin featuring the oldest shoin structure in Japan, an Imperial Visit Room (Goko no Ma) dating from around 1543, as well as a fine dry garden; and Tenkyuin possessing rooms decorated with gorgeous screens by Kano Sanraku and Sansetsu.
Where: Myoshinji's South Gate (Sanmon) is a short walk north of Hanazono Station on the JR Sagano line; the North Gate is a short walk from Myoshinji Station on the Keifuku Dentetsu Kitano line. 
When: From 9:00 to 15:40 there are tours of the Garan (Hatto and Yokushitsu) with 20 min intervals, except around lunch time. Closed April 1 and April 8-12. 500 yen. 
Taizoin: 9:00-17:00, 500 yen. 
Daishinin: 9:00-17:00, 300 yen. 
Keishunin: 9:00-16:30, 400 yen.