Tenryu-ji, located in the Sagano district in the western outskirts of Kyoto, is the head temple of the Tenryu-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.
It was established in 1339 by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji (1305–58) in memory of Emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339), who died in the mountains of Yoshino following the civil war that brought the Ashikaga family to power. The eminent Zen master Muso Soseki (1275–1351) was appointed the temple’s founding abbot.
The site of Tenryu-ji had earlier been occupied by the temple Danrin-ji, established in the ninth century and historically significant as the first Zen temple in Japan. In the thirtheenth century Emperor Kameyama (1249–1305) built a villa on the property, and it was here that Go-Daigo, his grandson, was raised and educated. With Go-Daigo’s passing in 1339 the villa’s conversion to a Zen temple was ordered by Ashikaga. The temple received the name Tenryu-ji, “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon,” because after Emperor Go-Daigo’s death a priest friend of his dreamed of a dragon rising from the river just south of the temple.
In order to finance the temple’s construction, Takauji’s younger brother Tadayoshi (1306–1352) and Muso Soseki commissioned a vessel, known as the “Tenryu-ji Ship,” on a trade mission to Yuan-dynasty China. In 1342 the new temple was designated number two of the Kyoto Five Mountain monasteries. By 1345 the major buildings of the temple were complete, and the temple was opened in a great ceremony combined with a memorial service for Emperor Go-Daigo. A year later Soseki constructed a Sodo (Monk’s Hall) capable of accommodating a thousand monks.
Although Tenryu-ji was at first designated number two in the Five Mountains system, in 1386 it was accorded the top position, only to lose it in 1401 to Shokoku-ji. In 1410, however, it recovered its number one ranking and has remained in that position ever since.
Soseki’s lineage prospered, and came to play a leading role in the flourishing Zen literary culture known as gozan bungaku.
In the centuries since its founding Tenryu-ji has been ravaged by fires a total of eight times, first in 1358 and again in 1367; on both occasions the Zen master Shun’oku Myoha (1311–1388), Muso Soseki’s disciple, helped restore the temple. Fires occurred again in 1373, 1380, 1447, and 1468 (when it was torched during the Onin Wars). Some reconstruction occurred, but it was not until after 1585, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) lent his support to the temple, that full scale restorative works could begin. Further fires occurred in 1815 and 1864 (when Tenryu-ji was again torched during disturbances surrounding the end of the Tokugawa shogunate). Most of the present buildings thus date only to the Meiji period (1868–1912). However, the landscape garden behind the Hojo (Main Hall) is one of the oldest in Japan, retaining the same form as when it was designed by Muso Soseki in the fourteenth century. Known as the Sogenchi Garden, it was the first Special Historical Scenic Area named by the Japanese government, and in 1994 it was designated by the United Nations as a World Cultural Heritage site.