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The Christian Zen garden at Zuihō-in

Did you know that there's a famous Zen garden in Kyoto that incorporates a Christian cross into its design?

I'll tell you about it, but first … why this now?

It's rainy season, that's why, and earlier today, as I stood on my balcony enjoying a thunderstorm, I remembered that I visited Kyoto in June 2010. It was one of my best trips ever, because it was raining incessantly and the city's temples and moss gardens were deserted. I sat at the famous Ryōan-ji, Ryōan-ji!, for two hours without any company.

There is nothing – I swear nothing in this universe – as tranquil as a Zen moss garden in rain.


That Christian Zen garden? It's at a temple called Zuihō-in (瑞峯院) in the Daitoku-ji complex (大徳寺). Zuihō-in means "blissful mountain", and it refers to the legendary Mount Penglai, home of the Eight ImmortalsThe temple was founded in 1546 by the feudal lord Ōtomo Sōrin (大友 宗麟) from Kyūshū, who was baptized as a Christian at the age of 46.

The quietly sleeping garden

Zuihō-in has several gardens, but let's focus on the one in the northern corner, officially named "the quietly sleeping garden" (Kanmintei 閑眠庭), but nicknamed "the garden of the cross".

It was designed in 1961 by Shigemori Mirei (重森三玲), an artist who also studied the tea ceremony, flower arranging and painting. He designed 240 gardens, mostly dry landscape gardens (karesansui 枯山水), the most famous being the garden at Tōfuku-ji (東福寺).

Kendall Brown, in his preface to Mirei Shigemori: Rebel in the Garden notes that "Shigemori embodies the central artistic quest of his era – a new direction in Japanese creativity founded on the desire to overcome a fundamental tension between the perceived polarities of dynamic Western Culture and the relative stasis attributed to the Asian tradition".

Shigemori turned that tension on its head when he incorporated Buddhism and Christianity at Zuihō-in, and he did it so beautifully that you want to weep when you look at it.

The shorter line of the cross is towards the far end of the garden, seen from this angle.

I don't know enough about gardening to talk knowledgeably, so I'm going to quote directly from Christian Tschumi's books Mirei Shigemori - Rebel in the Garden: Modern Japanese Landscape Architecture and Mirei Shigemori: Modernizing the Japanese Garden. 
The name "the garden of the cross" hints at the fact that with regard to Christianity things (in the 1600s) were only quiet and peaceful on the surface in Japan. The government had forbidden Christianity and attempted to stamp out all visible signs of its practice. Over the next 250 years, Christianity flourished undercover and in secret in Japan. One could only recognize it if one knew it was there. The same is now true for Shigemori's stone setting in the form of a cross; you can only see it if you know it is there.
The longer line of the cross

The longer line of the cross is closest to the viewer in this photo.

I found this sketch on the internet four years ago, and saved it without writing down its source.
I hope the artist won't mind that I'm using it to illustrate the shape of the cross.

When Shigemori was asked to design a modern garden at the famous Daitoku-ji, he was fully aware of the concomitant responsibility and high expectations.
"There are many famous and old gardens at Daitoku-ji," he said, "so this one couldn't possibly be just an ordinary classic style. If it were, the Kyoto Garden Association (who had commissioned him) would lose face. I had to build the absolutely best garden I could, even though it was all volunteer work for me and was also on a very tight construction budget. To be able to make a garden at Daitoku-ji was a milestone in my life, so I did my best to leave something interesting behind."
You did, Shigemori-sensei, oh, you did. Your garden is … I wanted to say it takes your breath away, but actually it takes your heart away and stills your thoughts.

I wish all belligerent religious leaders could spend a week together in this garden. There might be less killing and more quiet sleeping.


1) I took these photos four years ago with a small Canon IXY camera. I need to go back with the big gun to try again.

2) If you're interested in Japanese gardens, I recommend Robert Ketchell's blog, which I discovered while researching Zuihō-in.

The entrance to the temple

Smaller garden detail

Smaller garden detail

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