Zen Garden Design: Shunmyo Masuno

I attended a lecture last night given by Shunmyo Masuno, hosted by the University of Utah’s College of Architecture + Planning. Shunmyo Masuno is one of the world’s preeminent Japanese garden designers, and is also an eighteenth generation Zen Buddhist priest.  As a designer, his spiritual code guides all his works. His overriding philosophy is that “the garden is a special spiritual place in which the mind dwells.”

Masuno began his lecture identifying the differences between western ideals of beauty and the Japanese concept of beauty.  Western beauty, for the most part, is focused on symmetry and perfection. This “completion” prevents the viewer from imagining anything else but what they see. The Japanese concept of beauty focuses on asymmetry, and imperfection/incompletion. The imperfection is where the soul of the artist is expressed and identifiable.

The zen garden is intended to be viewed from specific viewpoints, to calm the mind and soul. As Masuno says, “You gaze upon the garden as though it is a picture.” It is a tool of concentration. Basic elements can be found in all zen gardens: water, stone, wood, plant material. Even in seemingly bare zen rock gardens, these elements are expressed, such as patterns raked into the sand representing ocean waves or rivers flowing, or an upright stone representing a tree. The intention is to create “natural scenery,” a miniaturized version of the world, where one contemplates your place in the earth. Zen gardens often use the concept of the “borrowed garden” by connecting in some way to elements outside of the garden, such as the plant material on the other side of the fence in the garden above.

Stone placement is a key element of zen garden design.  The basic features of the stone’s surface, texture, shape, weight, and size are considered during placement.  In ancient zen garden design, stone placement was seen as the primary activity of garden designers.  Garden stones should “look like a calf playing near a seated cow or a pack of dogs crouching near the ground.”  Concerning tree placement, Masuno says “The crooked tree leans at the top of the cliff. You might think it will fall but it will not and in the garden we can create visual and physical balance.”

Contrasts are ever-present in zen garden design: light/shadow; balance/imbalance, old/new; geometric/natural; smooth/rough; calm/violent; stone/wood; hard/soft; manicured/wild; cut/jagged; straight/winding.  The garden is designed to contain “emptiness” and its that emptiness that gives the garden its meaning, and allows the mind to dwell in the space. With that emptiness, an element of tension is introduced, and that tension focuses the mind.

Below are a few examples of zen gardens, some created by Masuno. More of his works can be found here: http://www.kenkohji.jp/s/english/majojwork_e/japanese_g.html