Daitoku-ji is a complex of 24 sub-temples in Kyoto. I visited in the morning of December 31 and it was wonderfully empty. The three sub-temples that were open that day were Ryogen-in, Zuiho-in, Daisin-in.
Daisen-in explicitly illustrates the story of life. There are gardens all around the central building and the story starts (although the entrance is not at the beginning of the story) with water. There are many rocks in this section, with a turtle signifying “disappointment” and a crane signifying “joy”. The journey continues on the river of life and one rock signals the existential questions that everyone asks themselves: “Who am I? What is life? How did the world come into being?”. Then, the river comes against a wall of doubt and one must accept the passage of time to pass under it. Hopefully you are climbing on to the treasure boat. One turtle is facing towards the current, and a sleeping cow is looking back at the past. You then carry on towards the “great sea”, the main garden. This great sea is a large area of sand with no large rocks, signifying heaven and the lack of physical obstacles. Two mounts of sand represent greed and desire, but they are pointless in this great sea. At the back of the garden in the right corner, there is a “sal tree” on an island of moss, a North Indian species that symbolizes how short lie is because of it carries flowers for a brief period in June, each of which lasts only one day. It is a bright, white flower that springs out in morning and falls off at night. Buddha also passed away under such a tree at the age of 80 as he was meditating. The name Daisen-in means “great hermit’s place”. Inside the building, there are calligraphy scrolls made by the current abbot of Daisen-in. One of them says “ichi go ichi e” (this meeting, once in a lifetime). My favorite says: “Your way must be long, your heart round (or kind), don’t get angry (the kanji for stomach is placed on its side, as if you are angry your stomach is standing up), let other people be great, keep yourself small.” Another one says: "Even the sharpest swords needs to be polished". I had water in my eyes looking at the wide expanse of sand, the two mountains for greed and desire, and the trees whose flowers blossom for only one day, once a year.
Ryogen-in has four gardens. The smallest one in Japan, “Totekiko”, is meant to show the importance of one single drop. One drop becomes bigger as the circles grow, become a river, and eventually the ocean. There are also big rocks that have no wave around them. It made me think that the ocean is made of drops. The biggest things in the world are made of the smallest ones.
Another garden, “Ryogintei”, has moss and several rocks. I found it more difficult to interpret this one. It said that the largest rock stands for something that we cannot measure, and that each of us have. It made me think of our dignity: it is something that has physical implications in our life, but it cannot be measured. It remains puzzling to me.
Another garden at Ryogen, “Kodatei”, is meant to show the inhalation and expiration, in particular its duality, like man and woman, ying and yang. My own interpretation is about perspective: the waves end without explanation on the side facing us, yet we do not first question our own perspective, which is also abruptly limited. We always try to question if the world makes sense, but we do not question our own perspective (I note that this is merely my interpretation). I thought about perspective because when you move on from this garden, you see that just behind you, you could not see the source of water that was right next to you.
The main garden at Ryogen is “Isshidan”. It has an oval moss island of immortality and wisdom, which shows an ideal world.
I highly recommend going to the shojin (Buddhist cuisine) restaurant within the grounds of Daitoku-ji temple called Izusen. It is quite hidden (do not follow Google maps), but if you enter from the main entrance, go left at the second opportunity and keep walking, you will eventually find it. Was it a metaphor?
I spent four hours at the three sub-temples and I had the same overwhelming feeling at Daitoku-ji as I first had at Ryoanji. Daitoku-ji is wonderfully empty in the morning. I had water in my eyes at Daisen-in, pondering the story of life and looking at this tree whose flowers bloom for one day, or looking at the ridiculous mountains of greed and desire. Daisen-in is different from Ryoanji, but it is equally perfect. A more instructive and less abstract garden, a non-verbal lesson in Zen philosophy that you can never forget.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
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