Tenryuji: the Waterfall Without Water

During my recent trip to Japan, I visited Tenryuji, a Zen temple and monastery in the mountains northwest of Kyoto.

The temple is famous not only for the “heavenly dragon” (Tenryu) painted on the ceiling of its worship hall, but also for its lovely botanical gardens and Zen landscape.

The primary garden at Tenryuji was designed by Muso Soseki (1275-1351, also called Muso Kokushi), a follower of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. His major contributions to Zen garden design and landscaping include the “dry waterfall”–a stone arrangement designed to mimic the appearance of water without the use of any actual water in the element.

0613 Dry Waterfall


Dry waterfalls often appear in “dry gardens”–Zen landscapes consisting entirely of rocks and sand or incorporating rocks and sand with plants and floral elements. However, at Tenryuji, the dry waterfall sits adjacent to a pond, creating a contrast between the illusion of water, represented by stones, and actual water. 

One part of Zen meditation involves “seeing” negative spaces–the things that are not present in the landscape. Observing the dry waterfall enables the viewer to contemplate the sound and movement of a waterfall in the mind, without the distraction of “real” water moving in the field of view.

Placing a dry waterfall near a pool of clear, unmoving water also creates a contrast between the two “forms” of non-moving water (the stones, representing water, and the real water in the pond beneath them). 

1613 Tenryuji Waterfall

Although I’m not a practitioner, I appreciate the meditative elements of Zen Buddhist culture, and love the beautiful, peaceful landscaping elements found in Zen gardens. They’re lovely to look at, and splendid places to sit and meditate, pray, or think, regardless of a person’s personal beliefs. Zen gardens offer a unique, relaxing, and lovely opportunity to see and connect with nature–and in that, Tenryuji did not disappoint!

Have you ever seen a dry waterfall? What you enjoy most about Zen gardens?