Located in Japan, Ryōanji is a complex affiliated with Zen Buddhism. Back in the day, it served as a center for activities of the elite, containing temples, shrines, and places for meditation. To fully grasp Ryoanji, you have to understand the beliefs of Zen Buddhists. They sought enlightenment through self-introspection and personal experience in everyday life. Ryōanji was created to fulfill the beliefs of Zen Buddhists by provoking introspection and meditation.
Ryōan-ji. Kyoto, Japan. Muromachi Period, Japan. 1480 CE; current design most likely dates to the 18th century. Rock garden.
Dry gardens consisting of rocks and pebbles rather than vegetation became prevalent during the Muromachi Period. Ryoan-ji is arguably the most famous for its rock garden. Like the rest of the complex, the garden was meant to solicit meditation from the viewer. It consists of 15 rocks placed in small groups surrounded by moss and then gravel. The gravel is circularly raked around the moss, but is parallel everywhere else. To give you an idea of scale, the entire garden is about the size of a tennis court. The garden has many different interpretations depending on the viewer. For instance, myself and others imagine it as many islands engulfed by an ocean, where the moss patches are the islands and the gravel is the sea. Another interpretation includes a mother tiger carrying her cubs over the sea. Or, recent studies suggest that it may just be a pure form of abstraction meant to provoke meditation. In addition, the stones are arranged so that only fourteen of the fifteen are visible at once from any angle.
Do not forget that the AP requires you to recognize the photos of Ryōanji's plan and wet garden because I made that mistake. I have included links to those photos for your reference. I could be totally wrong but the AP might ask to compare and contrast the wet garden and rock garden. I have no idea but it seems plausible.
Two words: Zen Buddhism. If you know the beliefs of Zen Buddhists (they pursued enlightenment through meditation and self-introspection) and how Ryōanji was a center to fulfill these beliefs, then you are in good shape. Also, it is an example of Zen art and a symbol of Zen Buddhism.
Imagine yourself gazing at the rock garden. At first, you might wonder why you are looking at stones and pebbles. But then, everything will come together and you will start to form different interpretations of what the stones mean. The garden provokes you and requires you to think. It allows for self-introspection as there are endless interpretations for what the garden is.
If you are anything like me, you have a hard time understanding works like Ryōanji that are big complexes and contain many different buildings. I highly encourage you to watch the video linked below. It takes you all over Ryōanji, and it really helped me with learning about the site and how it was able to provoke self-introspection.