Skip to main content
Issac with friends in a temple

Exploring a Temple of Zen Buddhism

August 7, 2019

By: Issac Weston

After over a week of planned activities, we finally had some free time upon arriving in Kyoto. Our only obligation was to explore a temple complex in the city. This was fine with me, as I had wanted to do this anyway. So, my classmates and I rented bikes from our hostel, and set off to find a temple. We decided on the Nanzen-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple. I have always been interested in Zen Buddhism, so I was excited to learn more about it. On our way, we passed a couple other temples, in only ten minutes of biking. We arrived at ten in the morning, on a hot, sunny day, so we rehydrated at one of the vending machines found every hundred yards or so in the city. After that, we decided to begin by exploring the Sanmon Gate.

"Issac with friends outside of a temple gate"


Standing in front of the gate, one can hardly take the whole sight in all at once. It towers above the surrounding area, but it does not impose. It gives a sense of solidity and immovability. We paid a 500-yen entrance fee (around five US dollars) and climbed up the massive wooden structure. The gate itself was fairly simple, being made from large, dark wooden beams, with some light ornamentation. Inside the gate, however, there was bright ornamentation, a number of tables, and a large golden statue of the Buddha. I don’t have a picture of this, because photography was forbidden on the inside of the gate. According to information on our tickets, the gate is the third largest in Japan, which makes sense for its massive size. I was in awe not only at the size, but also at the feeling of quiet strength. As I stood up there, I felt as though the whole world was moving except for me. After admiring the view and taking some pictures, we headed back down.

The second place we visited was the Zen garden known as Tenjuan. There was a tour going through the garden, but even with the noise, the place emanated peace. It was not a large place. It contained a rock garden, a koi pond, and a house with many windows. Around the pond went a path, which crossed the pond twice, once with stepping stones, and once with a wooden bridge, built intentionally crooked. The pond also had a very small waterfall which filled the area with the sound of running water. I could easily imagine meditating in a place like that. This place was the image I had in my mind when I thought of Zen. The koi fish swimming through the water, the drops hitting the surface of the pond, the wind blowing gently through the rock garden, all these things calmed me and focused my attention on my surroundings. I left that place feeling more in tune with the world around me.

The last notable place in the complex that we visited was a graveyard behind another temple. After following an aqueduct, we saw a number of graves, more elaborate than headstones. One grave in particular had a large metal monument on it, a plaque with Japanese and English describing the life of the person buried there, and a bench to read it from. The graveyard was similar to a Western one, but slightly different. There were images of the Buddha on some of the graves, and they were generally more elaborate than a simple headstone. Despite the differences, my overall impression of the place was that even in a different culture with different values, it is still important to people that their loved ones be remembered. Especially after being in a foreign country for a while, it was comforting to me that some things are universal. There was more of the temple complex to see, but by that point we were all ready to see more of the city. Though we said goodbye to the temple, the experience stuck with me.