Tenryu-ji (Heavenly Dragon Temple) was listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1994. The temple contains one of the oldest gardens in Kyoto. It may originally have been designed and constructed by the priest Rankei Doryu (1213-78) at the request of Emperor Go-Saga. The Emperor (along with many of the nobility of the time) had used the area as a retreat, and Go-Saga had a residential palace here. Before Go-Saga, the site contained a garden, palace, a shrine dating to the Heian era (794-1185) that is believed to have been commissioned by Prince Kaneaki.

In 1339, Ashikaga Takauji (1305-58), founder of the Ashikaga shogunate, converted the former imperial residence into a Buddhist temple in memory of the late Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339). He did so after having a vision/nightmare of a dragon rising from the nearby river and the temple was meant to placate the restless spirit of the emperor. Takauji may also have had a guilty conscience as he had betrayed Go-Daigo and forced him into exile in Yoshino, where he died just before Takauji’s vision.

A famous landscaper, Muso Soseki (1275-1351), also known as Kokushi, was placed in charge of opening the new Tenryu-ji Temple and garden. To raise money for the temple Takauji resumed trade with China. Today it is the main temple of the Rinzai-shu sect of Zen Buddhism.

The garden uses both the Arashiyama and Kameyama ranges as borrowed scenery to create a spectacular view. This expansive view is further enhanced by the large area of white sand that reaches from the Dai-hojo to the pond named Sogen-chi. This garden was originally designed as a Heian-style garden, but was later renovated to the Zen style. The main attraction is the dry waterfall that some think was originally a true waterfall flowing into the pond. The flat, three-stone bridge you see in front of the waterfall is the first of this particular design and became very popular in Zen rock gardens.

Sadly the temple, like most of Kyoto, was destroyed during the Onin War. Reconstructed with the help of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the temple was yet again ravaged in the civil war at the end of the Edo period. Once again the temple was rebuilt and the buildings that grace the grounds today were constructed in the late 1880s.

Located within the Abbot’s chambers is a statue of the Buddha and and an image of the Bodhisattva Nikko Hensho. The Taihoden or Main Hall is in the center of the temple grounds and contains a memorial tablet to the emperor Godaigo. To the right of the Taihoden is a Lecture Hall housing statues of Monju, Fugen, and Sakyamuni.

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