My Favourite Dragons

2024 is the Year of the Dragon in Japan (all over Asia, actually), and dragons are a popular motif in Japanese art. They have a special connection to Zen temples, where dragons are often depicted on the ceilings of their main halls. Since they are considered to live in water, placing their image there is a prayer for protection from fires (not very successfully, as history shows). Dragons are also thought to protect the Buddhist Dharma and to keep a watchful eye over the priests and congregation below them.

My favourite dragon painting is that of Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, founded in 1202. In contrast, the painting was only created in 2000, so it has a very vibrant and modern feel to it and provides a stark contrast to the old temple hall. Here it is:

It’s actually two dragons intertwined instead of only one; one of them with mouth closed, the other one with mouth open, reminiscent of the guardian lions that can be found at many temple and even shrine entrances. They seem to fight over one single ball of treasure, which one of them holds proudly in a 5-clawed paw, something that is rare in Japan. Most dragon paintings here have only 4 or even just 3 claws, the use of the 5-clawed dragon was reserved for the Chinese emperor.

Anyway, the painting is stunning and whenever I go there, I spend some time sitting down and following the bodies of the dragons, trying to find all the parts and figuring out to which dragon they belong. Sadly, Kennin-ji has become very touristy (I remember when I first visited it, there was nobody there), so it’s less peaceful than it once was 10 years ago.

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