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Landscape Design NYBG Lecture Review of Japan’s leading Garden Designer & Zen priest: Shunmyo Masuno

The Adult Education program at The New York Botanical Garden
(NYBG) kicked off its celebrated Landscape Design Portfolios
Lecture Series
with featured speaker, Shunmyo Masuno; hailed as Japan’s leading
garden designer according to his bio.

Now in its 16th year, it was the first of The Garden’s three
lectures: part of this season’s theme: “A Dialogue with the Elements.”
Just prior to the Design Portfolio’s premiere event, attendees
received an email noting it was a “Sell Out,” suggesting we come early (and
presumably to not bring an extra guest hoping to attend.)
Needless to say, anticipation for the presentation shot up a
notch to a very happy, landscape-design pollinated-pitch.
On the night of the event, the attendees registered rapidly,
(foregoing much of the hearty hello’s and network
chatting that is a key part of attending NYBG’s talks), and scooted to get a
good seat.  The room soon darkened; the
audience hushed as Barbara Corcoran, NYBG’s vice president for Continuing and
Public Education welcomed the audience.  
Then, Gregory Long, CEO and the William C. Steere Sr.
President NYBG, thanked the guests, Mr. Masuno, and Susan Cohen, coordinator for NYBG’s Landscape Design Certificate program, noting Susan
has successfully shepherded the NYBG Landscape Design Portfolios Lecture Series
since she inaugurated the program. 
Clearly the guests/attendees were already familiar with
Masuno. His reputation certainly must have predicated the over-subscribed
Masuno-san is a Zen priest and a world-renowned landscape
Or should I say a world-renowned landscape designer and a
Zen priest?  His art and his religion are
so inextricably linked it’s of no consequence ordering his titles.
Masuno-san is the only garden designer I have ever
encountered who is also an eighteenth-generation Zen Buddhist priest; “presiding
over daily ceremonies at the Kenkohji Temple in Yokohama,” he notes in his

While most everyone might say there is a spiritual practice
with regard to creating gardens – Masuno elevates the spiritual discipline to
another dimension – creating spaces “that are inseparable from his Buddhist
practice so that each Zen garden becomes “a special spiritual place where the mind
dwells.” His book, ZEN Gardens The Complete
works of Shunmyo Masuno Japan’s Leading Garden Designer
published in 2012, is
a coffee table work of curated art: a compilation of the master’s landscape
designs, featuring 37 completed gardens’ imagery and more than 400 landscape
design schematics and drawings, as well as an exploration of his design
principles.  It is sure to be used as a reference
and as inspiration. It is the “first complete retrospective of Masuno’s work to
be published in English.  

Masuno-san took to the podium in his monk’s vestment robe, fan
in tow, bowed, and asked the guests – in a measured, soft-spoken voice — to “Please
excuse me” for his language deficiency. 

Susan Cohen, Coordinator NYBG Landscape Design Certificate program, Portfolio Series creator & Shunmyo  Masuno  

He read most of the talk but honestly, his English language skills on display
were more than accomplished.  No worries.

Masuno-san’s demeanor and delivery offered an aura of
otherworldliness and no small amount of transporting mysticism.   
His oeuvre is at once traditional and contemporary;
residential and commercial; urban and rural; modern and traditional. 
recognized in Japan for his landscape art, he is now increasingly hailed
internationally, with clients from all over the world commissioning his
signature designs.  In 2011 he completed
his first commission in the United States: a private residence in NYC. 
Key to my interest in this lecture is that I’ve had the good
fortune to possess a sort of Japanese garden portfolio of my own — with
on-sight, first-hand experience, too.  I’ve
had the pleasure and honor to have visited Japan on numerous occasions – and am
privileged to have seen a variety garden design disciplines there.  In addition, I studied and researched
Japanese gardens as part of NYBG’s Certificate of Landscape Design program; I’ve
worked in the area’s botanical gardens noted for Japanese garden installations,
not to mention utilizing inspired elements in my garden design work (especially
the rocks and stones) and in my own Gotham garden.  So you see, I have a fairly good
understanding of the Japanese garden aesthetic. 
However, taking no chances on the level of his audience’s
familiarity with Japanese Zen gardens, Masuno took the time to present a backdrop
of various art genres – from painting to pottery to calligraphy and sculpture;
comparing and contrasting an Asian art aesthetic to a Western one.
You might think of it as a sort of elevated “Pinterest
Cultural Context” prior to presenting his opus of garden art.
Perhaps he assumed that Americans don’t really know what
Japanese garden design is at its essence. (I’m kinda’ with him on this.)
On the other hand this was — safe to say — a pretty sophisticated
audience. And willing to meet him halfway with an overview in the cultural
arts, we could all better understand and appreciate his garden designs – in other
words, to have a reference point. 
It was a good presentation strategy.  However, the general consensus after the talk
was that Masuno could have condensed this portion and featured more of his noteworthy
After all, that is what the audience came out to see.
He did reference his personal narrative somewhat in relation
to his art and that was insightful. For example, he referenced that while his family
is rooted in Zen Buddhism, he said,  “After
World War II, the government took over our lives and for the first time, we
experienced the very idea of separation of church and state.”  Prior to that religion was part of the fabric
of their culture and their more homogeneous cultural identity.
He continued: “Perhaps this change is responsible in some
way for why, even today, the Japanese feel a loss – of something missing.”  (Yet) This sense of loss is rooted in a foundation
of love,” he continued.
I was so fascinated by his references that I did further
research on this sense of loss and nothingness. 
I learned that Shinto Buddhism places an emphasis on wholeness of nature
and its celebration of the landscape. In the Buddhist tradition, “all things
are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness.  However, this nothing is not empty
space.  It is rather – a space of
potentiality. “
When it comes to garden structure, Masuno’s main point of
distinction is that Japanese design is asymmetrical and not just focused on the
scenery whereas beauty in the West is all about the symmetry…
I dare overlay a concept from a recent talk at The Horticultural Society
of New York Art & Nature Symposium
where, alongside some very
provocative and compelling new garden-inspired art installations were – it can
be readily argued – some American-based Zen garden concepts for the new century
and beyond that embrace this sense of nothingness and space of potentiality.  One in particular is a good example of this
emerging yet Zen-like garden art: the organically created one featuring “just”
soil laid out in a sinuous display. 
Masuno showed trees and water while he described how thinking
organically, creating harmony and unity, was not just as a reflection of nature
but a freedom of the mind.
He said these elements deepen our understanding of Japanese
Zen gardens and that to share the secret of beauty is linked to the
understanding of Zen.
If I understand this – then sharing via social media –
especially the beauty of garden design – is the essence of Zen.  Ahhhh…
Follow the path of truth found in each one of us, urged
And I urge you to “Follow” me @GardenGlamour
and @ChefsGardens  Ha! )
One element of his cultural art comparatives that I found enlightening
was in the realm of pottery and ceramics. 
This art form, along with the tea ceremony especially, directly informs
Zen garden designs, he said.  Masuno
showed side-by-side images of a Western Meissen teacup and a Japanese teacup.  He went on to explain that a western
aesthetic embraces the concept of a “perfection” whereas a Japanese perspective
reflects a sense of “unfinished” or “incompleteness.”  The difference in the pottery is profound. 
my Western eye the Meissen teacup did look
finished and elegant in contrast to the simple, made-in-ceramic-class look of
the Japanese cup.  

I learned with later
research that this part of the Wabi-sabi Japanese aesthetic describes a mindful
approach to everyday life and defines the true beauty of things as “imperfect,
impermanent, and incomplete.”  Whether in
bud or in decay, the object is more beautiful because it suggests the
transience of things.  The difference in
the perception of art and the reverence for arts’ meaning, expression, value,
and contribution the culture is key to understanding the purpose of Zen and to
finding a true self – to that search for spiritual stability – and to Zen
garden making: both design and construction. 
And its path of truth is found in each one of us, Masuno explained.

Masuno Garden Designs
In terms of his own portfolio, we learned he launched his
commissioned work with two gardens, using sand and stone in the Karesansui style,
supervising the entire construction project all the while thinking how to marry
inside and outside and how to use the garden to entertain guests.  

To better understand Masuno’s moss garden reference, I
researched Japanese Roji gardens and found it is the garden – – a transporting
path  — through which one passes to the
tea ceremony.  It is a place for quiet
reflection.  Roji means “dewy ground.” Masuno
described his garden design using “Moss as water. “ The maple trees there are peaceful
in appearance in what looked like a misty dream garden.
In contrast, a landscape he created for a hotel conference
courtyard used material of metal and concrete and glass between artificial
foundations he had constructed.

He designed another hotel lobby – in Tokyo – creating the
garden along with it as “one entity.”  He
designed everything in this wood and stone textured lobby project including
furniture, fabrics, and cutlery. He described how he “Controlled the scenery in
order to view the garden from behind it.” 
He showed the lobby from a second floor coffee lounge – and remarked
that he designed it to be lower by a measure of 45 centimeters.
The walls were created to offer a feeling of a water pattern,
and included a large boulder. 

The banquet hall was made lighter – with its center cut out,
bordering one side of the tiered garden. 
He created serenity via his composition of tall walls of water and stone
backed with layers of green plant material.

In terms of a residential home garden he explained the need
for silence in a busy city, so he created a “controlled scenery” viewing
garden, using light rocks and a running waterfall effect. He created the
waterfall using an exhaust duct and then making it green on top. Masuno talked about
how applying a slight adjustment to the rocks, he can produce shadows – an extremely
important element.
In Germany he recreated a tea garden that at the same time
hewed to the genius loci principle, giving homage to the historical
significance of both the “Brandenburg Gate and the true sense of unity of the German
people, “ he explained.
“You wouldn’t know it wasn’t in Japan,” he said
A spectacular design was the one he did for the Canadian
Embassy in Tokyo – it floats four stories above the street and uses backlit cut
stone pavers!  Very dramatic.
He also showed the work he did for the Japanese embassy in
Singapore featuring a courtyard and the use of select stones as art, placed around
the circle. 
But it was the work on the Guard House that drew awe.  

First Impressions: Guard House: extraordinary design greets visitors 

He noted he wanted to make this First Impression
a beautiful and memorable one.  It is indeed
a far cry from the typical, institutional and scary first greeting found at
most embassy complexes.  He designed the
windows in the wall – and used black wall lumber and national, natural stone,
achieving a modern classic and enduring look.
He showed a spectacular roof garden the he said was an
ongoing vacation space for the client, as well as a Zen garden resort in
Singapore located along a golf course.   Some
might argue that is a double Zen (vs. a double bogie!)
Masuno-san doesn’t create “just” gardens but entire
There is so much quiet dignity in his gardens and – true to
the lecture’s theme: “A Dialogue with the Elements” – he utilizes a great variety
of elements: water, rocks, plants, sand, and wood, for example, and yet the
look is complete, intrinsic integration – as in nature.  
This is one of my favorite designs: small space/big looks

Some are quiet gardens in repose – the dry landscape (sand)
Karesansui gardens in particular and the garden type most closely associated
with Zen Buddhism. 

Others pose with an organic dynamic with waterfalls, streams,
and ponds.  My observation looking
through the book is his extraordinary use of the “borrowed landscape.”  
The viewing gardens incorporate many elements:
power, calmness, tranquility, and elegance – and all change depending on the rock
arrangements.  He believes designers must
stand at the scene and “Converse” with the space in the garden.   He said, “Japanese gardens never can be formed
by drawing up a plan alone. “ The garden must be experienced.”  

Masuno on-site in a garden design installation

So he visits the garden site and waits until
the rock seems to speak and say where it wants to be put.  Masuno oversees all the selection and the placement
of the large rocks in his garden rock groupings. 

The overarching impression of these garden art installations
is serenity; stability and they are shaped like boats and mountains…  Talking
with us…
Zen rock
Zen garden rock

Gazing at
them, one feels they are alive.

He said the same is true for tree placement. The trees tell
him where they should be planted.   “Don’t plant trees just for their beauty in
the landscape design,” he noted.  “Trees
should be used to create shadows and express contrast or elegance especially in
the ways they are trained and pruned to bring out their distinguishing characteristics.”
Masuno writes, “The idea of garden design as a dialogue
between the designer and the elements in the garden is clearly stated in the
first known Japanese garden manual, the eleventh-century Garden Making… implies the requirements to have a dialogue with the
elements in the garden in order to have a complete understanding of the unique
character of each element.”
Masuno-san autographing my Zen book
I don’t know what it says, but it sure looks special!
Masuno-san and me 


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