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  • John Barr

The Golden Temple (Zen and the Theory of Everything)

The Golden Temple, as it is popularly known, is one of the most famous buildings in Japan and one of the most popular tourist attractions. Really it should be called the Golden Pavilion as it is only one building within a wider Zen-Buddhist temple, popularly known as Kinkaku-ji (literally the Temple of the Golden Pavilion) but which should more properly be called Rokuon-ji and which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Aside from being famous for its beauty the Golden Pavilion is also known for an infamous incident that occurred in 1950, when it was intentionally burned to the ground by a young student priest who was studying at the temple. It was rebuilt in 1955 and again refurbished in 1987, including replacement of the gold leaf. The arson incident forms the basis for Yukio Mishima’s novel, Kinkaku-ji (translated into English as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion)…

The Psychopath's View

Mishima’s work can be difficult and opaque; personally I find his style at times tiresome, self-important and self-indulgent, but he was a major figure in 20th century Japanese literature and his insights can be fascinating and instructive. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, like Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, is of particular interest in that it introduces a different perspective on architecture, its place in the world and in our consciousness, albeit the perspective of its psychopathic main character Mizoguchi, who believes the pavilion to be the most beautiful thing that exists and is driven to destroy that beauty. At the trial of the real-life arsonist the psychiatrist who had been called to assess him described him as “a psychopath of the schizoid type.”

For me the pivotal character in the book is Kashiwagi, a fellow student who adopts rather than befriends Mizoguchi and who is a damaged and malignant presence. Mizoguchi has no respect whatsoever for his Zen master at the temple but is highly influenced by Kashiwagi’s pronouncements, almost as if he has adopted Kashiwagi as his mentor. Perhaps Kashiwagi represents modern Japan, the Japan of the second world war and imperialism; the master of the temple almost certainly represents an older Japan that Mizoguchi feels has become self-satisfied and ritual-based and that he has come to despise:

It became my secret dream that all Kyoto should be wrapped in flames. This city was too anxious to preserve its old things just as they were1

Kashiwagi dislikes lasting beauty, especially architecture and literature, preferring such arts as music, which vanished instantly, or flower arrangement, which faded in a matter of days. Perhaps the pivotal scene in the book as regards placing the Golden Pavilion in the wider context of Japanese, and particularly Zen, thought, is when Mizoguchi visits Kashiwagi’s room and watches him create a flower arrangement. This scene occurs halfway through the book and I believe it is a centralising armature for ideas that are expressed both before and after it in the narrative.

The Golden Pavilion was not designed as a stand-alone building, nor as part of an ensemble of buildings; it was designed as an integral element in a garden, and should be seen as such. Its shape and placement are as much a part of the overall composition of the garden as are the rocks, water and trees and, in this respect, it is like a carefully chosen element in the construction of a flower arrangement.

The Golden Pavilion: an integral element in the overall design of the garden.

Mizoguchi says, of Kashiwagi’s flower arrangement:

Nature’s plants were brought together vividly under the sway of an artificial order and made to conform to an established melody. The flowers and leaves, which had formerly existed as they were, had now been transformed into flowers and leaves as they ought to be. The cattails and the irises were no longer individual, anonymous plants belonging to their respective species, but had become terse, direct manifestations of what might be called the essence of the irises and cattails.1

In a similar way, when the Golden Pavilion is seen as an element within the greater composition that is the garden, it is transformed from an individual piece of architecture into a representative manifestation of the essence of architecture, performing a specific function within a greater context. Kashiwagi’s flower arrangement is specifically noted as being in the Kansui style and this is significant for two reasons: Kansui arrangements represent a greater universe and Kansui itself means Water-reflecting.

On the first point, Mishima returns several times to the theme of worlds within worlds and of the part echoing the whole or, put another way, of the whole being comprehensible from the part. When applied specifically to works of architecture it introduces the idea that their potential is only fully realised when they are designed to play their part in a wider context, to fulfil their role in a wider universe.

The minutest part of the temple was in perfect accord with the entire complex structure. It was like hearing a few notes of music and having the entire composition flow through your mind...1

On the second point, the Golden Pavilion is placed at the edge of a pond in which it is reflected, and these two elements form an inseparable pair, each part of which is equally vital to the other as well as to the overall composition of the garden. Both the pavilion and the pond would be diminished by the absence of the other.

Both the pavilion and the pond would be diminished by the absence of the other.

When the Golden Temple reflected the evening sun or shone in the moon, it was the light of the water that made the entire structure look as if it were mysteriously floating along and flapping its wings. The strong bonds of the temple’s form were loosened by the reflection of the quivering water, and at such moments the Golden Temple seemed to be constructed of materials like wind and water and flame that are constantly in motion.1

The strong bonds of the temple's form were loosened by the reflection in the quivering water...

The second theme that emerges from the flower-arranging scene is based on the revelation that Kashiwagi’s flower-arrangement teacher is a woman that Mizoguchi has seen before, at a distance but under circumstances that have stayed vividly in his memory. When she finally appears right in front of him it is the third time she has featured in the narrative, each time coming more sharply into focus. As Nancy Wilson Ross has put it in her introduction to the novel: The story unwinds as a slowly moving spiral in which figures originally glimpsed from a distance suddenly, with the passing of time, appear in the immediate foreground.2 This is similar to the way that the Japanese 'stroll garden' reveals itself; a slow perambulation that reveals a series of viewpoints from which elements first viewed obliquely and from a distance re-appear at intervals, getting closer and more clearly defined.

The building, originally glimpsed from a distance, with the passing of time, appears in the immediate foreground.

Finally, Mishima offers an interesting take on the design of the pavilion itself. Built in the 14th century by the shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga when he retired from public life, it features a variety of styles: the bottom floor is Shinden-zukuri (Palace style); the middle floor Buke-zukuri (Samurai house style); the top floor Karayō (Zen temple style). The mixture of styles, combined with the bling factor of the gold leaf, might lead many purists to dismiss it as kitsch. Indeed, during the period in which the novel is set, the very fact that it had been built by a shogun and that it was a Buddhist temple would have led to it being dismissed by many. This is the period examined in my earlier post, In Search of Japan-ness Part 1, when the prevailing view was that ‘true’ Japanese culture is homogenous, un-changing (and un-changed) since the beginning of time and irrevocably linked to Shinto-ism and Tenno-ism (Emperor worship). Mishima offers a refreshingly generous view in which he sees the Golden Pavilion as reflecting the zeitgeist of the times in which it was built, a period of civil war, unrest and power struggles:

The uncoordinated design of its three storeys, in which the art historian could only see a blend of styles, had surely evolved naturally from the search for a style that would crystalise all the surrounding unrest.1


What can we take from Mishima’s novel that might offer a deeper and more nuanced understanding, or at least an alternative view, of the Golden Pavilion and what lessons it might offer.

First is the architecture itself. Purists might see its mixture of styles as unsophisticated, even vulgar. This is a criticism often made of the occasions when the shoguns tried to dabble in the arts, the shoguns being seen as vulgar where the aristocracy are seen as refined. Mishima offers a different view, suggesting that the mixture of styles comes from a desire to reflect and embody the conflict and unrest that defined the times in which it was built. Nonetheless, even Mishima refers to the uncoordinated design of its three storeys and I would dispute that. Each floor represents a different style, but it seems to me that they have been brought together to produce a balanced whole. Who knows, perhaps the shogun Yoshimitsu, having given up a life of factionalism, intrigue and warfare in favour of a more spiritual one, was seeking to suggest that different elements in Japanese society could, after all, be reconciled. We might, at least, give him the benefit of the doubt, just as we might give the benefit of serious consideration to all those aspects of Japanese culture that do not fit the over-simplified, homogenous narrative that has been promoted and of which I have written in some of my previous posts (Bullshit from the Barbican and In Search of Japan-ness).

Then there is the idea of an architecture that is completely embedded in its environment. I have written before of the relaxed, informal, horizontal plan in Japanese architecture, where building and landscape are closely intertwined. The Golden Pavilion itself is not planned in this way; it is tight and formal in both plan and three-dimensional shape. However, it could be said that it is totally embedded within its environment at an even deeper level, as an integral element in the composition of the garden itself, no different to the rocks, trees and water that have been chosen and placed with such care. Although the specific environment here is that of the garden, the same principles could be applied to architecture in any environment.

Finally, there is the idea of scale, of worlds within worlds, like fractals, where the same patterns recur ad infinitum both when zooming in and when zooming out.

On finding a perfect miniature model of the Golden Pavilion on display within the pavilion itself, Mizoguchi says:

Observing this perfect little image of the Golden Temple within the great temple itself, I was reminded of the endless series of correspondences that arise when a small universe is placed in a large universe and a smaller one in turn placed inside the small universe.1

This is the essence of Japanese garden design, where the entire garden is a representation of a greater universe and where smaller universes exist within the details.

Universes within universes.

The Golden Pavilion, taken as a building in isolation, is not a piece of great architecture but, viewed through a wider lens, it is remarkable. It is iconic, it is showy, it breaks the rules, it is not for purists. But unlike modern examples that display these same features and feel like empty gestures it remains deeply rooted within its tradition and culture. It both derives meaning from its context and imparts meaning to it. There are a number of reasons for this: it is not conceived as a stand-alone ‘statement’ but as one element within a larger and harmonious composition; whilst it ‘breaks’ some stylistic rules it holds fast to other, deeper considerations of context; it is sure of its place within the wider context of the garden, the wider context of Japanese culture, and the wider context of the universe. Put simply, the Golden Pavilion, for all its glitz and show, subordinates itself to a greater narrative. The growing tendency in recent years is for designs that subordinate everything else to their own self-aggrandisement, a trend that, if continued, must inevitably lead to meaningless environments populated by meaningless architecture. These seem like useful lessons to be learned from the Golden Pavilion, even if it takes the thoughts of a fictional psychopath to alert us to them.

1. The temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima, translated by Ivan Morris, published

by Charles E Tuttle.

2. Introduction to The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Nancy Wilson Ross, published by

Charles E Tuttle.

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