Yakushiji and Ryoanji: A History of Two Japanese Buddhist Temples

Buddhism in Japan has been practiced since its official introduction by monks in 552 CE.

By Mark Cartwright



The East Pagoda of Yakushiji temple, Nara, Japan. The three-story pagoda is original and dates to the 8th century CE and rises to a height of 33 metres (108 ft). / Photo by Frank Gualtieri, Wikimedia Commons

The Yakushiji temple, located in Nara, Japan, is the headquarters of the Buddhist Hosso sect and one of the most important temples in the country. Originally founded in 680 CE at Fujiwara-kyo but then relocated to Nara in 718 CE, its famous three-storey East Pagoda is original. Most of the other structures at the complex, although they follow traditional designs, were reconstructed in the 20th century CE following a destructive fire in the 16th century CE. The complex boasts many fine examples of early Buddhist art, notably the bronze Yakushi Triad which dates to 690-718 CE. Yakushiji is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.


Yakushiji temple was founded in 680 CE in Fujiwara-kyo, then the capital of Japan. The idea came from Emperor Tenmu (r. 672-686 CE) who, after his wife fell seriously ill with an eye affliction, wanted a temple built in honour of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing (of both the body and soul). In a strange twist of fate, Tenmu died before his wife, but the latter, now reigning as Empress Jito (r. 686-697 CE), continued to support the temple project and construction was completed in 698 CE.

Relocation to Nara

Nara, 30 km south of modern Kyoto, was made the new capital of Japan in 710 CE, a position it held until 784 CE. Capitals moved relatively frequently in ancient Japan prior to the 9th century CE because, when an emperor died, it was considered inauspicious for his or her successor to remain in the same city. Nara, then known as Heijokyo or Heijo, was selected because of its central location and proximity to important waterways. Another peculiarity of Japanese emperors was to move entire buildings to their new capital and this was the case with the Yakushiji temple in 718 CE. The distance between Fujiwara and Nara is 20 km (13 miles), but this did not deter Empress Gensho (r. 715-724 CE) who not only had the temple moved but also enlarged so that it became one of the ‘Seven Great Temples of Nara.’

Yakushiji, in what is today the southwest suburbs of Nara, is the head temple of the Hosso Buddhist sect which was founded according to the principles of Ganjo Sanzo, a Chinese monk who lived in the 7th century CE and who travelled widely across East and Central Asia and India. Of the six major sects of Buddhism in ancient Japan, Hosso is the only one still in existence today.


The Hondo or Main Hall, sometimes referred to as the Golden Hall, has a wooden flooring but the original was probably of clay. The exterior, a 20th-century CE reconstruction, is typical of the great halls in many other Buddhist temples. The Hondo has an impressive pagoda on each side of it in a symmetrical architectural plan known as the Yakushi style; the temple was the first to have such a layout. Each pagoda has three storeys, although, because of the addition of extra roofs (mokoshi) for decorative purposes, they appear to have six storeys from the outside. The East Pagoda (To-to), which dates to the 8th century CE, is considered one of the finest examples in Japan, stands on a stone platform, and rises to a height of 33 metres (108 ft). Each floor has a balustraded verandah, and the pagoda’s bronze spire or filial is 10 metres (33 ft) high.

The Main or Golden Hall (Hondo) of Yakushiji temple, Nara, Japan. The temple complex dates to the 8th century CE but was largely destroyed by a fire in 1528 CE. In the 20th century CE many of the buildings were restored in their original architectural style. / Photo by 663highland, Wikimedia Commons

Other structures include the Toindo (East Hall) which was first built in the 13th century CE, the Hozoden (Treasury) and the Daikodo (Lecture Hall) where up to 100 monks once studied. The octagonal Genjo-Sanzion (Mausoleum) was built in 1981 CE and contains the remains of the Hosso sect’s spiritual founder, while next to it there is a hall containing paintings which show the life of Ganjo Sanzo by the celebrated artist Ikuo Hirayama (1930-2009 CE) who is most famous for his depictions of Silk Road landscapes.

Sculptures and Art

Yakushiji boasts some of the finest Buddhist sculptures in all of Japan. Amongst the star pieces are the Yakushi Triad inside the Main Hall. These bronze figures were cast sometime from 680 CE to 718 CE when they were moved to Nara along with the original temple. Miraculously, the figures survived the terrible fire of the 16th century CE, although they did lose much of their gilding and so now appear black. The central figure of Yakushi Nyorai is seated on a medicine chest in a departure from the more usual allusion to the Buddha’s healing skills by having him hold a medicine bottle in one hand. The reliefs on the bronze box, which show sacred animals representing the cardinal directions and various demons, show a marked influence from Chinese and Indian Buddhist art while the vine and grapes border is typical of the Japanese art of the period. The figure of Yakushi is 4.3 metres (14 ft) in height while the attendant bodhisattvas standing either side are just a little shorter, measuring 4 metres (13 ft). All three figures are backed by large gold halos which are intricately carved and include the customary high-relief figures of seated Buddhas.

The Yakushi Triad in the Main Hall of Yakushiji temple, Nara, Japan. Bronze, 680-718 CE. Yakushi Nyorai is the Buddha of healing and the seated figure is flanked by two bodhisattvas. The Yakushi figure is 4.3 metres (14 ft.) in height. / Photo by Ogawa Seiyou, Wikimedia Commons

The art historian and former Commissioner of Fine Arts to the Japanese government Ernest F. Fenollosa ascribes the Yakushi Triad to the great Japanese sculptor known as Giogi. On the statues themselves, Fenollosa boldly states:

They are, perhaps, the finest standing bronze figures of the whole world…Taking the Yakushiji group as a whole, it does not seem extravagant to say that its aesthetic value would alone repay a student the whole time and expense of a trip from America to Japan. (136)

Set behind the figure of Yakushi is a stone relief, depicting the footprints of Buddha, which was consecrated in 749 CE. Measuring 47 cm in length (18.5 inches) and including auspicious Buddhist symbols, such footprints were often shown at shrines in medieval Japan. They are here accompanied by an inscription of 21 verses which sing the Buddha’s praises and which were chanted by believers visiting the shrine.   

The East Hall contains a fine bronze figure of Sho-kannon (aka Kwannon or Guanyin), the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. Believed to have been a gift from the king of the Korean kingdom of Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE) which had close relations with Japan, it dates to the late 7th century CE or early Nara Period (710-794 CE). Standing on a three-tiered base and 1.9 metres (6.3 ft) tall, the curvaceous figure with clinging robes is a typical example of the style of East Asian sculpture adopted from Tang Dynasty China (618-907 CE). The statue stands amidst sculptures of the four Shitenno guardians, the Buddhist deities of the cardinal directions.

A painting on hemp which shows Kichijoten, a Buddhist deity of fertility and good fortune, but thought to be modelled on Empress Komyo (l. 701-760 CE). Yakushiji temple, Nara, Japan. / Wikimedia Commons

One figure that has not managed to stay in its original home is another statue of Kwannon, this one carved from wood. Now on display in the Nara Imperial Household Museum, the figure dates to the 8th century CE and is typical of Nara Period sculpture. The figure has ten small heads arranged around the crown of the main head and stands 1.9 m (6.3 ft) tall. The left hand holds a small bulbous jar, while the clothing hugs the sensuous but solid-looking figure.

Finally, the Treasury building of Yakushiji contains a great number of Buddhist artworks which include sculptures, paintings, and examples of calligraphy. As is common in Japan, some of the most precious artworks are only displayed on special occasions, and this applies to perhaps the most significant work, an 8th-century CE painting on hemp which shows Kichijoten, a Buddhist deity of fertility and good fortune, but thought to be modelled on Empress Komyo (l. 701-760 CE).

Later History

The West Pagoda and other buildings, including, as mentioned, the Main Hall, Daikodo, and Toindo were all reconstructed on their original sites after a devastating fire had destroyed the originals in 1528 CE. This work was not carried out until the 20th century CE, though, as Yakushiji struggled to regain its former prominence in the intervening centuries. A large-scale restoration project of the whole site began in 1971 CE and is still continuing today.



A detail of the Zen rock garden of Ryoanji temple, Kyoto, Japan. The garden dates to c. 1500 CE but the exact significance of its 15 stones is unknown except that they are designed to promote meditation. / Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Flickr, Creative Commons

Ryoanji (Ryōan-ji) is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan which is today most famous for its Zen rock garden with its enigmatic arrangement of stones. Founded in the 15th century CE, the temple is one of the most visited tourist spots in Japan and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.


The site of Ryoanji, located in the northern hills of Kyoto (Heiankyo) in the district of Ukyo-ku, was converted into a Buddhist temple in 1473 CE. Before that, it was a private estate, created in 1450 CE and owned by the influential Hosokawa family. The gardens were modelled during the ownership of Hosokawa Katsumoto (1430-1473 CE), who retired there, and when the famous general and one of the deputies to the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (r. 1449-1473 CE) died, the buildings were converted for use as a Zen Buddhist temple site.

Zen was introduced to Japan from China in the 12th-13th century CE, and it became especially popular from the mid-15th century CE. Zen thought reduces the significance of studying sacred texts and instead emphasises the importance of contemplation (son) in order to reach enlightenment. Certain things may assist an individual in their process of contemplation and one of these, as we shall see, is the use of minimalist rock gardens.

The Hojo Hall in the complex was once the abbot’s residence and its interior is today divided into six rooms by painted sliding screens (fusuma) which include several fine depictions of dragons. There is another building next to the Hojo Hall which is today used as living quarters by the monks of Ryoanji.

Zen Rock Garden

The Zen rock garden of Ryoanji is perhaps the most renowned dry landscape garden (karesansui) in the world and certainly the most visited such garden in Japan. Added to the temple site in the late 15th century CE, its design is usually credited to Soami (aka Shinso, c. 1455-1525 CE), the celebrated landscape garden designer and artist. Soami also designed the famous rock and sand garden at Ginkakuji (‘the Silver Pavilion’), also in Kyoto and a mere 15 minutes walk away.

The Zen rock garden of Ryoanji temple, Kyoto, Japan. The garden dates to c. 1500 CE but the exact significance of its 15 stones is unknown except that they are designed to promote meditation. / Photo by Al Case, Flickr, Creative Commons

The object of Zen rock gardens is to provide a calm and harmonious environment for contemplation (and so one is not, of course, permitted to actually walk on it and ‘disturb’ the effect for other onlookers). Just as Japanese landscape paintings often depict subjects that exist only in the imagination so, in reverse, Zen landscapes are real places only in the sense that they exist to promote the imagination.     

The rock garden of Ryoanji is of the hira-niwa type, that is, it is completely level and without any trees or plants. It is a rectangular space measuring 31 x 15 metres (102 x 49 ft)  and is bordered by a low yellow clay wall on three sides and the wooden verandah of the Hojo Hall on the fourth. The wall, which has a height of 2 metres (6.5 ft), is stained because it is made from clay boiled in natural oils, a particular feature known as wabi-sabi. The walled enclosure, typical of Zen gardens, is designed to remove any distractions away from the garden itself. The garden, however, was likely not enclosed when it was originally made. Within the enclosure, set amongst the always immaculately-raked grey gravel or sand – which is re-formed anew each day – there are 15 stones of various shapes and sizes. Each stone is set on its own small patch of moss and they are so arranged that at no point in the garden can all 15 stones be seen at the same time.

The pond garden of Ryoanji, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, founded in 1473 CE / Photo by Alex Brown, Flickr, Creative Commons

The precise significance of the stones is not known; they may represent mountain peaks protruding from the clouds or islands in the sea or they may merely have been selected and arranged simply for aesthetic reasons. The obvious difference in the size of the rocks may represent the principle of yin and yang. More outlandish theories suggest the stones are laid out in such a way as to promote a specific response in the onlooker’s brain as one looks from one rock to another or that the whole thing is a code which refers to a riddle about tiger cubs.

The enigma of the Zen garden may well be intentional – the spot was, after all, designed to provoke meditative reflection. There are some clues, though. The stones are set in groups of three, five and seven, all numbers of significance in Taoism. The trio of stones, with one being larger than the others, may represent the Zen Buddhist triad of the historical  Buddha  (Shakyamuni) and his two attendants, the bodhisattvas Fugen and Monju. The total number of 15 stones may represent the same day in the lunar calendar which signifies the full moon and which traditionally symbolises both enlightenment and completion in Buddhist thought. The fact that all the stones cannot be seen from a single vantage point consequently carries an extra religious and philosophical significance: one can never see the “complete picture” (Dougill, 2014, p. 54). The garden, then, whatever its meaning, fulfils the three principles of Zen thought in art and architecture: simplicity, suggestion, and irregularity, and certainly achieves the desired symbolism of yugen or ‘elegant mystery.’

Additional Garden Features

A water basin in the form of a Chinese coin, Ryoanji temple, Kyoto, Japan. The Zen Buddhist temple was first built in the 15th century CE. The basin’s inscription translates as ‘Learn only satisfaction’, meaning learning should have its own ends and not be done for profit. / Photo by Andrew, Flickr, Creative Commons

In addition to the rock garden, there are ponds, moss and landscape gardens reached via pathways which wind through patches of trees of cherry, pine, and camellia. The largest pond garden (actually more like a small lake in dimension), which dates to the 12th century CE, has two islands and on one of these is a small shrine which is considered auspicious as it honours Benten, the spirit of music and creativity. As is typical of Japanese landscape gardens, the pathway around the pond deliberately takes the walker out of sight of the water except at specific viewpoints of which there are seven in this case.

The temple grounds are full of features which remind the visitor of some of the key principles of Buddhism. For example, a small water basin in the north garden, given to the temple in the 17th century CE, takes the form of a Chinese coin and an inscription on it, which can be read both horizontally and vertically, states: ‘Learn only satisfaction’, i.e. learning should be pursued for its own end and not for money. The water rests in the hole at the centre of the coin and, as the purpose of such basins at temples is to allow visitors to purify themselves, it also has the double-meaning of washing away one’s material concerns.

Later History

Once established, the temple gained the patronage of such luminary figures as the daimyo general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598 CE) and the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616 CE). Unfortunately, disaster struck in 1797 CE when a devastating fire destroyed all the buildings at the site. Fortunately, the gardens were largely spared and, in 1800 CE, the temple buildings were rebuilt. Nevertheless, Ryoanji had to wait until the 1930s CE before its popularity really took off and visitors started to flock to see the Zen rock garden. Still a working temple, it is affiliated to the Myoshin-ji School of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Recently, a traditional tofu restaurant has been added to the site, and Ryoanji continues to attract more visitors and more discussion than any other garden in Japan.


Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 05.29.2019, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.