Zen Rock Garden

Ryoan-ji Temple
Kyoto, Japan

The "dry" garden of Ryoan-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple, was constructed in the late fifteenth century. Now an icon of Japan, the garden became popular only in modern times. Authorities differ about whether it was designed by Soami (1455-1525), or by some other designer.

The earthen wall that surrounds the garden dates from the seventeenth century. Before enclosure, the garden gave an unobstructed view to the pond and temple grounds below. The garden consists of fifteen stones, arranged on a bed of raked white sand in such a way that – it is said – no more than fourteen of the stones can be seen from any one angle. Contemporary visitors, however, remark that all fifteen can be seen from a standing position, but that from some angles a sitting meditator can only see fourteen.

Much has been written about the interpretation of this garden. It certainly evokes a feeling of islands in the sea. Every Chinese or Japanese garden must have the three elements of water, rocks, and plants; here, the plants are moss, and water is represented by raked sand. Fifteen, the number of stones in the garden, symbolizes "completeness" in Buddhist numerology. Another interpretation is that reality can never be known completely. Like the proverbial blind men examining an elephant, each of us at best sees only part of the whole.