Landscaping the doors of perception in Japan

by Stephen Mansfield

ZEN GARDENS: The Complete Works of Shunmyo Masuno, Japan’s Leading Garden Designer, by Mira Locher. Tuttle Publishing, 2012, 224 pp., $39.95 (hardcover)

Although the term zen-tei (Zen garden) exists in Japanese, its usage is a largely Western one, first coined by the American garden scholar Lorraine Kuck in the 1930s. In the work of designer Shunmyo Masuno, a fully ordained Buddhist priest, we encounter landscapes that endorse Daisetz T. Suzuki’s view that the stone garden embodies “the spirit of Zen.”

Masuno, who practices meditation as a first step toward design, may conceivably, be the last of Japan’s ishitate-so, or “stone-setting priests,” a body of semiprofessionals once tasked with assembling gardens, although his responsibilities for creating design and overseeing the construction of his ideas far exceed the brief of those humble ecclesiastical gardeners.

Things are never quite what they seem in the Zen garden. Emptiness might best be described as empowered space, an energized vacuum; what the writer Donald Richie referred to as the “nourishing void.” Masuno emphasizes the need to familiarize himself with the project site, to “listen” to the request of stones and to sensitize himself to the forces flowing through the landscape.

In his work, compositions are never imposed on space, the sites to some degree dictating design and stone placement. Design of this transcendent quality is rare, issuing from a combination of kankaku (sensitivity) and kunren (practice and discipline). When the two are fused, as they manifestly are in Masuno’s work, spatial design ascends to the level of art.

Masuno’s work bears some comparison with the gardens of iconoclastic landscape designer Shigemori Mirei, whose highly original concepts and use of materials split the garden establishment into detractors and devotees. Like Mirei, Masuno is a traditionalist with a modernist vision, possessed of an extraordinary wellspring of ideas and design approaches that are evident in the diversity of his projects and the pliability required to adjust to each commission. The book accordingly showcases designs for temples, a retreat house, science research center, prefectural library, private residence, golf club, hotel, crematorium and more.

Like finely crafted musical instruments, gardens can improve immeasurably with age. The risks, of course, of creating gardens for commercial entities rather than time immemorial temples or villas protected by their Important Cultural Property rankings, is that they are subject to market fluctuations that can force radical land transformation.

Mira Locher’s concisely organized text and painstaking research into her subject steers the layman through a potentially Byzantine web of principals and design concepts. Given the close relationship between Japanese gardens and structural forms, Locher, a practicing architect of high repute, is well placed to comment on the subject of landscape design.

Unlike ancient gardens, with their embedded meanings, contemporary designers are generally quite comfortable spelling out the meaning of their work. Thus, we know unequivocally that Masuno’s ryumonbaku (“dragon’s gate waterfall”) at Gion-ji Temple, represents the idea of Zen training toward enlightenment, or that the name of its courtyard garden invokes the theme of water, analogous to knowledge and teachings trickling down through the ages. Locher doesn’t give away too much, however, leaving enough concealed to stimulate reader inquiry.

This finely illustrated and written work reminds us that the Japanese garden is an organic form that is constantly evolving. So much so that the garden writer Yang Hongxun has opined, “China could make use of many of these Japanese standards to modernize her own garden construction, which has fallen behind in recent times.”

The book includes a number of landscapes created for foreign clients. Examining these overseas creations, we realize that with careful consideration to climate and plant environments, the Japanese garden is a truly transcultural art.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photojournalist based in Japan and the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subjects.