The what and how of Zen design
What does “Zen” + “design” really mean?
What is “Zen design” and how do you execute it? Install a mini-sized Zen rock garden? Grow a pot of bonsai? Or buy MUJI? If you were feeling that you couldn’t find good answers, it’s because there aren’t good answers to begin with. Japanese do not use such a phrase, nor call MUJI “commercial Zen,” because they don’t usually link design with Zen, which is the name of specific Japanese branches of the Mahayana Buddhism (mainly Rinzai-shu and Soto-shu) that put emphasis on “zazen (sitting meditation).”
Through interesting twists, the word “Zen” came to represent much broader concepts than its original definition outside Japan, and “Zen design” emerged to describe tranquil, meditative, mindful, simple and minimalistic aesthetics influenced by traditional Japanese “wabi-sabi” culture.
But it shouldn’t be considered a misconception, because the expansion of Zen definition outside Japan actually reveals its essence – a genuine belief in conscious behaviors (called “修行 (shugyo)”, which differentiated Zen from other schools of Buddhism and functioned as a critical glue to integrate Buddhism, meditation/mindfulness and traditional Japanese aesthetics. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, one of the most still and calm beauty was achieved through relentless training focused on humans’ body and behaviors. Toshiaki Masuno, Zen priest and Zen garden designer at Kenko-ji Soto-shu Temple in Yokohama City, Kanagawa, who has been designing gardens throughout the world, sums up the role of Zen in Japanese design/aesthetics:
For thousands of years, Japanese have fostered unique worldview and values to appreciate every subtle moment of natural phenomena that constantly changed its status. Rather than sticking to permanent forms or physical presence, they cherished intangible ambience/atmosphere that ambiguously embraced and enveloped transient natural beauty. And Zen played decisive roles in elevating those traditional Japanese values into crystallized forms of art/aesthetics, as it sincerely pursued the question of “how do you live your day-to-day life?” through “修行 (shugyo)” – physical/mental training that required high level of consciousness and self-discipline.
Syunmei Masuno. 共生のデザイン (meaning ‘Design for living in harmony. Film Art Inc. 2011.
But how does an attitude to appreciate elusive nature as is have to do behavioral training? This requires a little more explanation and the review of Buddhism 101. Buddhism is a highly philosophical religion. It digs our own existence unbelievably deep until it reaches the state of pure, ultimate nothingness (called “kuu” in Japanese) where everything, including yourself, becomes completely neutral, relative and temporary part of the boundless whole. When you reach that state, you become embraced by vast and eternal peace – devoid of any sorrow or pain whatsoever – and join Buddha. As it sounds like a supreme journey, it’s almost a mission impossible because you need to extinguish the flames of every single desire and ego. How do you do that? Over the course of thousands of years, Buddhism priests have written tens of thousands of important textbooks through their struggles to reach the truth (Note: Buddha himself chose not to leave anything in writing). Buddhism has been a highly academic religion.
Zen emerged to counter such a textbook-centric trend. It insisted that your own body and mind were the only vehicle to take you to the eternal truth/peace, and every act of living – from walking, talking, eating to cleaning, not only “zazen (sitting meditation)”, was important part of your religious training. Every act/behavior was your opportunity to interact with your surroundings, into which you tried to completely dissolve/integrate. Knowing ultimate nothingness was about knowing your body and mind, and your surroundings. Knowing yourself and surroundings was about behaving very, very consciously.
But this is a daunting task because humans are highly subjective, self-centric animals. But Zen priests persisted. After relentless “修行(shugyo)” – efforts to train each part of your body and senses so that it’s not affected by any kind of distraction and completely become natural/neutral, they finally saw boundless nothingness/beauty, which could only be expressed by elevated abstract form of art. Prominent “wabi-sabi” arts such as Zen rock garden, tea ceremony, calligraphy, ink paintings or ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) were all cemented by those Zen priests during the Middle Ages, and exhibit high level of subtraction and simplification. It was not a coincident that Zen priests were also great artists: you had to transcendent/crystallize your own body and mind first in order to express such high level of abstract beauty that was devoid of any excess frills. This is how Zen and Zen priests became the foundation of minimalistic Japanese aesthetics.
Ink painting by Zen priest Sesshu (1420-1506)
DIY tips for Zen design
So the gist of “Zen design” is not just simple, minimal, mindful style. It has to be the design that catalyzes conscious behavior, which, in return, will define the aesthetics of your place. How do you do that? The best thing is to ask a Zen designer. Here are some tips from the above-mentioned book “共生のデザイン (meaning ‘Design for living in harmony)” by Syunmyo Masuno on what it takes/means to design Zen gardens, that can be used as a guideline to design your house/room. He has been designing gardens throughout the world, while serving as a chief priest at Kenko-ji temple (of Soto-shu) in Kanagawa, Japan.
Let’s start from the setting – rooms. According to Masuno, Japanese traditionally designed buildings or rooms to become “empty,” or flexible vessels that accommodate objects/phenomenon that reflected seasonality or transient nature. You’d want to change pictures on the wall, flower vases, as seasons change, or change the layout of your room to best enjoy the sunlight or breeze that comes into your room through the windows. In that regard, you won’t want to place too much furniture that could permanently define/fix your room. But if you leave the place vacant, it may look boring, nothing much to enjoy. How do you determine how empty is aesthetically correct?
As Zen and traditional Japanese culture prioritized staying connected with nature, Japanese houses were very open to outside. The relationship of the room with outside environment decided how the interior should be designed. You could gauge the level of “emptiness” by observing to what extent you could leverage the surroundings.
But it’s often difficult in modern houses which shield the interior with sturdy walls, and the only connections you have with outside are small windows. Only thing you can see from your windows are the walls of your neighbors, so you keep them closed all the time and run air conditioner. In such an isolated place, “emptiness” can easily become boring kind of vacant space.
So what to do? Masuno says that the first thing he does in designing a garden is finding “clues” left by the natural environment that determine its character. “Which angles has better views? What are geographical advantages/disadvantages? Can I also elevate disadvantages to make the garden more interesting without erasing them?” He observes and listen to the environment very carefully. Once he finds those clues, it’s just a matter of following the stories they tell him: “this window should be overlooking that garden area, but that window needs to be installed low so that only the sunlight, not the view, is emphasized…”
Even when your room looks just a closed, reluctant box, carefully examine to see if there are any hints that suggest connection to nature. The angle of the house/room (hence the relationship with the sunlight or winds)? The positions of the windows? Connections with other rooms? The materials used for walls or floors? Can you use them as leads to formulate a consistent story?
Once you know the theme of the room, it’s time to furnish it. One of the characteristics of traditional Japanese design is to use low height furniture. It leaves abundant space upward and makes the room look larger. It also allows you go live at lower height, which allows you to look “up” the sky through the windows, or focus on natural phenomenon happening on the ground. Japanese traditionally used “tatami” mattress made of special grass with subtle scent for flooring, and it was a nice feeling to lay on it. Living low makes you stay closer to nature.
When you install furniture or ornaments, what kind of rules should you follow? As Zen focuses on dissolving into nature, design rules also should follow the characteristics of nature and humans, which is, in a simplified way, could be expressed as asymmetry vs. lines. There are not many things in nature that are perfectly symmetric, because it’s a chaos system. Humans try to bring in order, which is what lines represent, in order to increase stability and predictability. Those two are always in conflict, but Japanese traditionally tried to marry them instead of controlling the chaotic side of nature. Zen aesthetics elevated such an attitude and found beauty in uneven things that are in transition. You typically find Zen beauty when asymmetric, uneven elements are used in balance with fine vertical lines such as pillars, shoji screen doors.
Other wisdom passed on by Zen and traditional Japanese culture is to cherish seemingly inferior attributes such as old, decaying, frail, small or raw. Instead of getting rid of them immediately, look at them and think what they signify. Since everything is part of transient natural phenomenon that move between life and death, it is real and significant. Japanese also used the technique called “見立て (mitate),” which meant leverage whatever you already have and use them to represent natural beauty.
At the end of the day, Zen design is not about designing objects, whether it’s houses, rooms or gardens. What it’s designing is our attitude and behaviors toward the surrounding environment which are demonstrated through daily acts such as eating or cleaning, Zen especially emphasizes on cleaning, because it’s really knowing yourself and what’s are around you: What do you have to leave as leftovers? What does nature leave as leftovers? How do you deal with them? The reason why Zen gardens look so serene is because they are cleaned very carefully by Zen priests as part of their “修行 (shugyo).” If Zen gardens are not just looking, but also for awakening your senses to stay deeply engaged with the surroundings, your Zen room has to be the place that inspire you to behave unconscious to enjoy every bit of your life as an opportunity to interact with nature.