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Temples of Kyoto: Tenryu-ji

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While many Buddhist temples in Japan sport bright decor in primary colors and fierce equally colorful guardian statues, the white, grey and black temples of the Zen sect have an austere beauty of their own. At Tenryu-ji that stateliness is surrounded by color--the Sogenchi Garden, one of the oldest in Japan, with footpaths threading between Japanese maples lining a small lake where golden coi feed.

Tenryu-ji means temple of the heavenly dragon. The legend says a priest dreamed of a dragon rising from the nearby river. The recently deceased Emperor Go-Daigo had built a villa on this site, and the dream was interpreted to mean that his spirit was uneasy, so a temple was built here to appease his spirit. Thus, the name "heavenly dragon." But the history of this site stretches back even farther. There was an earlier temple here in the ninth century, the first Zen temple in Japan.

Tenryu-ji was established in 1339, and like many Japanese temples was often the victim of fires, the last one in 1864. Most of the present buildings date from that period. The garden, however, kept surviving and retains the same form as when it was designed in the 14th century.

I was delighted to discover that the designer of the garden--and also the temple's first abbot--was the Zen master Muso Soseki, who is also one of my favorite Zen poets. Sheltered under my umbrella in the gentle rain, I stood before the temple hall and recited lines from "The Bridge Where the Moon Crosses": "horses cross, donkeys cross/but there's more/ in the middle of the night/the moon is crossing/pushing a cart." I like to imagine the moon as a bag lady with her shopping cart.

The temple and the nearby stunning walk through a bamboo grove are located in a district known as Arashiyama. Once you've flown the long miles from Seattle to Kyoto, make your way to the central Kyoto Station where you can catch bus 28 to Arashiyama or the JR San-in rail line to the Saga Arashiyama station (local train, not the express). Remember to take your umbrella.


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