June 16, 2024
The meaning behind the Japanese Zen garden

Another key concept in Zen gardens is the abundance of empty space – pristine and uncluttered – a reflection of how your mind should be when you’re meditating. In the West, we are uncomfortable with an empty space, just as we are with silence. We feel compelled to fill both. In Zen, space is important, beautiful even, as demonstrated by the two concepts of ma (interval or space) and yohaku no bi (the beauty of emptiness).

According to Mira Locher, architect, educator and author of two books about Shunmyō Masuno (Zen Garden Design, 2020,and Zen Gardens – The Complete Works Of Shunmyō Masuno,2012): “The concept of ma, implies the existence of a boundary, something that defines the interval or space (for example, two columns). In the West, we tend to consider the boundary object(s) ‘positive’ and the space ‘negative’. However, in a Zen garden, the space (ma) is understood as a positive element, and the garden designer uses the boundary objects to shape it… it is an important element within the garden.”

Locher continues: “Yohaku no bi is a device that allows the viewer’s mind to settle down. Unlike ma, which is intangible space, yohaku no bi typically is represented by something tangible, such as a bed of raked white pea gravel. The contrast of the whiteness and uniformity of the gravel juxtaposed against rough rocks or variegated greenery produces the sense of emptiness, which in turn allows the viewer to ’empty’ their mind.” So uncluttered spaces help unclutter the mind, invoking a kind of meditative state. 

Shunmyō Masuno is one of a vanishing breed,  a 21st-Century ishitate-so (literally “rock-setting priests”), a term of respect given to Zen priests who design gardens reflecting Zen ideals as part of their ascetic practice, with great importance given to rock placement. Centuries ago, many such priests existed. Today only a handful remain. Masuno’s interest in rock gardens began when, as a boy, his parents took him to the garden at Kyoto’s Ryoanji Temple. “It was a kind of culture shock,” he wrote, “as if my head had been split open with a hatchet”. Today his award-winning designs can be found in office blocks, apartment complexes and private residences from New York to Norway.

Masuno believes Zen gardens – even a small one – can play a vital role in today’s cities, not only in brightening up the urban environment, but also in helping to “restore people’s humanity”. For those who spend their days working inside buildings, bombarded by information and divorced from nature, garden spaces can help them find balance in their lives by “creating space, both physical and mental, for meditation and contemplation within the chaos of daily life,” writes Locher in Zen Garden Design.