Tsukubai in Ryoan-ji

Last month I had the opportunity to revisit the Ryoan-ji temple, widely known for its dry garden. What many people don’t know is that in the back part of the temple there is a tsukubai, a stone fountain that can usually be found in Buddhist temples where water is poured from a bamboo cane. It works in a simpler way than suikinkutsu or shishiodoshi fountains.
The water represents the nonstop flow of life and the impermanence of everything in this world.

Tsukubai

The funny thing about the tsukubai in Ryoan-ji is that it has four characters chiseled that mean nothing on their own but if they are combined with the big square in the middle (a square is the kanji for mouth) all of them mean something; and all of them together can be read as a poem! This is the diagram of the fountain; the characters don’t mean anything on their own unless you combine them with the square, which is the hole where the water is poured.

Tsukubai

The meaning of the four characters when combined with the square (notice that all of them are placed in the correct way to fit properly) is:

  • 吾 (ware): I
  • 唯 (tada): only
  • 足 (taru): enough, satisfied, a lot, plenty
  • 知 (shiru): know

The poem translation would be something like “Only with what someone knows it is enough”. One of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is that the material possessions are worthless, with what someone knows it is enough, nothing else is needed to be happy.

Tsukubai

Tsukubai
In this picture the characters can be seen clearer with less water.

I have a small coin collection of Edo Era coins and I think that they are probably designed with the same pattern as the tsukubai fountain, four kanji characters and the square in the middle but the meaning is completely different.

Tsukubai
Coins used in Japan since the Muromachi Era until the beginning of the Meiji Era.
Their design is similar to the tsukubai design in Ryoan-ji .

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