Daitoku-ji originated as a small monastery founded in 1315 or 1319 by the monk Shūhō Myōchō (宗峰妙超?) (also pronounced Sōhō Myōchō) (1282–1337), who is known by the title Daitō Kokushi, or "National Teacher of the Great Lamp," that he was given by Emperor Go-Daigo. In 1325, the monastery was converted into a supplication hall for the imperial court at the request of the retired Emperor Hanazono. The dedication ceremony for the imperial supplication hall, with its newly added dharma hall and abbot's living quarters, was held in 1326, and this is generally recognized as the true founding of the temple.
Like many other temples in Kyoto during that time, the temple's buildings were destroyed by fire. In 1474, which was when Kyoto was the scene of the Onin War, Emperor Go-Tsuchimikado designated Ikkyū Sōjun as the head priest. With the help of merchants of the city of Sakai, Ikkyū contributed significantly to the temple's rehabilitation.
From its earliest days, the temple experienced alternating periods of fortune and decline. This can be attributed to the rivalries and conflicts between Daitoku-ji and other well-known Zen temples, as well as between Daitoku-ji and the political authorities.
Daitoku-ji became particularly important from the sixteenth century, when it was predominantly supported by members of the military establishment, who sponsored the building of subsidiary temples as prayers for their ancestors or in preparation for their own demise. In 1582, Toyotomi Hideyoshi buried his predecessor, Oda Nobunaga, at Daitoku-ji. He also contributed land and built the Sōken-in.
Around this period in history, Daitoku-ji became closely linked to the master of the Japanese tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyū, and consequently to the realm of the Japanese tea ceremony. After the era of Sen no Rikyū, another famous figure in the history of the Japanese tea ceremony who left his mark at this temple was Kobori Enshū. The Daitoku-ji temple complex today covers more than 23 hectares (57 acres).
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