Posts Tagged ‘ Ryoanji ’

Photo Technique Inspirations: Zen & Shingon Buddhism.

= I admit that the “Zen and Shingon Buddhism” angle on this didn’t occur to me until after-the-fact =

I like to take pictures.  Often I try to take an atypical approach to photographing this or that scene or moment or thing or person or group of people.  Actually, I hope to take atypical pictures most of the time, but only succeed occasionally.  I thought I’d post a few photos here — posted elsewhere on this site, either in one of the galleries or in a previous front page post — that illustrate this attitude and outlook of mine.

Street in Mirrors. Kinosaki, Japan. 2001.

Now I know that I’m not the first one to take a photo of a mirror, but it’s not something that’s commonly done by people snapping pics in Japan.  And, yet, it’s a common thing to see in Japan but which is rarely shared by those who live in or travel to Japan when they’re showing friends and family and colleagues “what I saw” when in Japan.

Perspective and Zen Buddhism.

Here’s a post I did several months ago on Josetsu’s “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd,” a 600 year old riddle and lesson in often-whimsical Zen philosophy and practices.  There’s no single answer to the riddle, but as I mention in that post, to me the most compelling — and sort of obvious — answer is bound-up in perspective.    When the moment’s right, or when I can make the moment, with a photo, I try to give a different or slightly off-center perspective on and with my photos.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that a photo will literally be “off-center” (though that’s often the case), as I like taking “straight-on” shots, too.  But I like a photo, like a good painting or film scene, to be balanced, even if asymmetric.

Sometimes I rotate or flip the photo to — literally — put a “spin” on it that was not there when the shutter clicked.  I like taking “Group Pictures” from the side, where the subjects are not looking at the camera (or, at least not my camera), either just before or just after the “primary” photo’s been taken.  Many times this perspective shift this is not overly dramatic or obvious or overt to the casual viewer . . . just a little off-beat.  See if you catch that in these.  Like a catfish.  Catching one.  With a gourd…

From the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. Tokyo. 2010.


Squid. Tsukiji Market. Tokyo. 2010.


Students. Ryoanji Temple. 2010.


Gallery. Kyoto. 2009.


Astro Boy ("Tetsuwan Atomu"). Kyoto Station. 2009.


A different perspective of and on the Taj Mahal. Agra, India. 2007.


Note:  I took this photo from about 15-20 feet away.  The mask laid in a box which itself sat on a table of brick-a-brack.  I just cropped the photo and enhanced and softened the color a bit to make this into a photo entirely different from a piece of cast-off theater-ware at a flea market.


Yamanote Line. Station. Tokyo. 2010.


One remove's one's shoes before entering. Ryoanji. Kyoto. 2010.

Note:  more traditional photos of Ryoanji Temple tend to look more like this.  Here’s my more comprehensive post on Ryoanji Temple.

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Depth of Field/Focus (and my twist on it) & Shingon Buddism.

In the commentary track to his 1998 film Ronin (a favorite film which, ironically enough, was shot in France, not Japan), late, great director John Frankenheimer talks about his use of and love for “Depth of Field,” (generally, keeping things in both the foreground and background in focus).  Quoting Frankenheimer:

[I use] a lot of wide angle  lenses that give you a great depth of focus. . . It’s particularly effective [in film] when you’re working with groups. . .  I’ve always been an advocate of depth of field.  I love what depth of field gives you.  Which is the fact that you have something going on in the shot at all times….

This also, perhaps especially, works well for still photography, providing the photo’s viewer various ways and options to see the shot.  Different little micro-stories can often be told in such a shot, various interpretations can be made in and of the photo.  Thus the viewer’s invited to be more engaged with the photo and makes a static thing —  a 2-D photo  — into a “world” in which the viewer can enter.  In Tantric/Shingon Buddhism it’s called “Entering the World of the Mandala,” to wit:  “This mandala, like the painted mandalas found on the walls of all Shingon temples, is a symbolic representation of reality. Just as a priest in meditation may “enter” a visualized mandala to venerate the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas depicted on it, priests and laypeople can visit Koyasan and enter the mandala.”

Often, though, I do a slight twist on, a variation on the theme of, Depth of Field in that I’ll leave the background (and sometimes foreground) out of focus, yet will have that scene be just as interesting or engaging to the eye, and sometimes more intriguing, as the presumptively “More Interesting Thing” in focus and in the foreground of the shot.  Again, this compels the viewer to be more engaged, which is what I’m looking and hoping for.  See what you think about “various stories” and how Depth of Field (or variations on it) is used in the following photos:

Tiennamen Square, Beijing 2006. Photo of former Ala Gov Bob Riley (being briefed by our guide, "Charlie"), or Steve in background?


Mumbai, India. 2007. Mixing foreground and background...


Priests at Kurodani Temple. Kyoto. 2009.


From the Taj Hotel Business Center. Mumbai. 2008.


Middle School Student. Hiroshima Peace Park Museum. 2008.


My homage to both dualing points of focus and to a oft-used technique of John Frankenheimer’s:

Dan Rather. Denver. August 2008.

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Ryoanji (竜安寺): Kyoto’s Iconic Rock Garden Temple.

Tokuho Zenketsu designed and laid-out this garden around 1500. Photo: 2010.

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p h o t o s   b y   m e

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Like Shinmonzen dori, I first visited Kyoto’s Ryoanji Temple in the autumn of 1984.  Unlike Shinmonzen dori, I remember my first trip to Ryoanji quite well.  Since that initial trip, I’ve been back to Ryoanji countless times, sometimes alone, sometimes with just one person, sometimes with groups.  I’ve never not enjoyed being at Ryoanji.

Ryoanji — a color brochure, actually; I thought the b/w looked cool and ancient.

A Brief History of Ryoanji

Ryoanji (ryoh・ahn・jee) 竜安寺  is a Buddhist temple situated at the foot of Kyoto’s western mountains (Kyoto’s ringed on three sides — east, north and west by mountains – map).  Its  grounds cover some 120 acres (~48.5 hectares).  Its founding goes back to the mid-Heian Era (794 to 1185), yet was all but destroyed during the Onin Wars (1467-77), then rebuilt during the last decade of the 15th Century.  Ryoanji is a  Rinzai-MyoshinjiSect Temple.  In contrast to many other famous Kyoto and other Japan temples, Ryoanji’s iconographic set-piece is not a massive or elaborately-constructed building.   Rather, it’s Ryoanji’s contemplative, almost otherworldly, rock garden that draws-in visitors from around Japan and around the globe.  That and its quiet, forested, grounds, which include a large lake and scenery “borrowed” from the mountains that rise up behind it.

Kyoyo-chi Pond. Ryoani temple grounds. Kyoto. 2010.


Part of Ryoanji’s Iconic Dry Landscape Garden. 2010.

A Couple Terms Worth Knowing

+ Karesansui (Garden Without Water):

“The main elements of karesansui are rocks and sand, with the sea symbolized not by water but by sand raked in patterns that suggest rippling water. Representative examples are the gardens of Ryoanji Temple and Daitokuji Temple, both in Kyoto. Plants are much less important (and sometimes nonexistent) in many karesansui gardens. Karesansui gardens are often, but not always, meant to be viewed from a single, seated perspective, and the rocks are often associated with and named after various Chinese mountains. . . .”  Please click here for the entire article/website.

Here’s a photo of mine from Daitokuji temple, mentioned above, which I snapped in 2003 (one of the smaller of many Daitokuji gardens):

One of Daitokuji’s small, “courtyard” gardens. Kyoto. 2003.

+ Shakkei (Borrowed Scenery):

“When the builder of a Japanese garden takes into consideration nearby or distant landmarks that could be seen from the garden [such as a mountain], he is essentially using ‘borrowed scenery’ [shakkei].   Although the practice was originally associated with certain Buddhist beliefs related to geomancy, it later became a purely aesthetic concept related to the spatial arrangements of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting.   Because Kyoto is bordered on the west, north, and east by low but very visible mountains, borrowed scenery was easily incorporated into garden designs.”  Please click here for the entire article/website.

Ryoanji uses a great deal of borrowed scenery in the larger context (beyond the karesansui / dry landscape garden).  Here’s a photo I took way back in 1984, a perfect example of Ryoanji’s use of shakkei:

“Borrowed Scenery” at Ryoanji’s Kyoyo-chi pond. Autumn 1984.

And here’s another photo from several years ago, also from Kyoto and also using the Western Mountains as an element of the immediate, foreground, garden design — this time in Heian Jingu (Shrine).  Heian Jingu is actually on the eastern side of Kyoto, but reaches across the city’s expanse to “borrow” and incorporate a mountain from the western side of town for its walking garden:

Heian Shrine’s “Borrowed Scenery.” From either a ’90 or ’91 visit.


More images from Ryoanji .  .  .

Roofline. Eastern (long) wall of Ryoanji’s Rock Garden.


Gate. Ryoanji. 2010.


Fence Detail. I like bamboo fences. Ryoanji. 2010.


Border surrounding Ryoanji’s Dry Landscape Garden. 2010.


Lantern ・ 赤提灯. Ryoanji. 2010.


Field Trip — Elementary School Students at Ryoanji. 2010.

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Note on Getting There:  when I visit Ryoanji, I usually (in fact, maybe always) visit Kinkakuji first, then take the easy 30-minute walk along Kinkaku-no-Michi (Road) from Kinkakuji to Ryoanji.  This 30 minute walk ends up taking an hour if I stop in at Masao Ido‘s Gallery (on the right as you walk from Kinkakuji to Ryoanji, about half-way to Ryoanji).  You can take the #101 or #205 Bus to Kinkakuji for just ¥220, but depending on where you’re starting from within Kyoto, that can take 30-50 minutes.  I recommend biting the bullet and taking a taxi.  The price may be triple, but the time will be cut by 50-75%.  And unless you live in Kyoto or have weeks to enjoy Kyoto, or are on an extremely tight budget (I know about that), I advise against having hours in the day chewed-up on buses.  You should experience bus-riding in Kyoto, certainly, but not for Kinkakuji and Ryoanji.  One other option:  if you’re starting point in Kyoto Station, you can take the Karasuma Line (Subway ) to Kitaoji Station, which is about 15 minutes away, then take a quick taxi or bus to Kinkakuji.


Addendum:  3 Signs at Ryoanji.

     *  A nice Explainer as one enters the complex . . .

Ryoanji Explainer. 2010.

     *  A hundred or so feet from the entrance (to the parking lot in front) . . .

Res ipsa loquitur… sort of. Sign near Ryoanji entrance. 2010.

     *  As one enters the Main Hall (to which the Dry Landscape Garden is attached) . . .

As one enters the Main Hall. An invitation, not a requirement. 2010.


Featured Gallery: Shapes & Shadows

One of several Virtual Galleries here at (please click on the link): Shapes & Shadows.  Earlier today – 2 May 2010 – I added another photo to it, one I took several years ago in Kyoto.  It’s not quite what it may appear to be at first glance.  Nothing particularly tricky to it; it may require a double-take, though.  Please enjoy the entire Gallery, too.

Gion Festival. Kyoto. 2003.