The author of a new book about Zen gardens talks about the master designer and the master plan
Mira “Mimi” Locher, author of “Zen Gardens” from Tuttle Publishing, calls the sites she
visited in Japan and elsewhere “special spiritual places where the mind dwells”, culminating in those
created by Shunmyo Masuno, the supreme master of the art.
Locher, an architect for 22 years, is currently an associate professor at the University
of Utah. She spent seven years designing buildings in Japan in the 1980s.
Masuno, abbot of Yokohama’s Kenkohji Temple, is Japan’s most acclaimed landscape
architect, hailing from a family that has raised 18 generations of Zen Buddhists. In fact
Locher says he’s Japan’s only practising Zen Buddhist priest, as well as its only practising
designer of Zen gardens. Designing these meditative spots is otherwise left to lay people.
Locher’s book represents the first complete retrospective of Masuno’s work, covering 37
major gardens around the world in both traditional and contemporary styles.
She’s come to believe that Zen gardens exude energy that’s more essential than ever in modern
life and wants to share the wisdom they entail.
While still in the US, Locher was almost mystically summoned to the world of Zen
gardens upon seeing a photo of one.
“As soon as I saw it I thought I had to go to Japan. I don’t know why, but I was drawn to
it. When I was able to go in 1987 as a graduate I visited the gardens, and I was surprised by
such simplicity on one hand and complexity on the other. They are simple and straightfor
ward, but with many layers of things going on if you take the time to look at them.”
Locher ended up spending seven years in Japan, working as an architect for the famed
Team Zoo Artelier Mobile. Since joining the University of Utah she’s returned to Japan
every year, taking her students on multiple visits to the gardens.
“You can’t avoid gardens in Japan – there are beautiful gardens in every city,” she says.
Zen gardens, traditional or contemporary, are built on Buddhist values and concepts such
as transience, change, emptiness and silence.
The classical ones date to the 14th century, when Zen Buddhism became popular amid a
national shift toward austerity. The first garden designers were Zen priests, intent on cre
ating places where monks could meditate and train their minds.
“The original Zen gardens were adapted from Chinese-style gardens, but they tended
to be simpler, more graphic and often much smaller. Many of them are tiny,” says Locher.
“When you go into a Zen garden and you see a rock, you don’t know how big the rock is. You
might just be seeing 10 per cent of it. In Zen Buddhism you need to take time to observe
and think, and then you’ll understand how big the rock truly is. That’s why the garden was
integral to Zen Buddhist temples.”
The gardens were shared over time beyond monastic grounds, eventually becoming popu
lar in urban spaces overseas as well, particularly in big cities where quiet places were scarce.
Masuno still travels overseas to lecture and design gardens for public spaces and private
residences. While abroad he’s seen many gardens labelled “Zen” or “Zen style”, but he insists
that only those created by disciplined practitioners of Zen Buddhism can be rightfully
called Zen gardens.
In the West, a scrupulously copied simplicity and nod toward tranquillity is often thought
sufficient to qualify a garden as “Zen”, but the quality of Zen goes beyond mere appearance,
Masuno explains in Locher’s book.
Zen aims to teach one how to live, and does so without taking any form, he says. The key is
to reconnect with nature.
Locher explains that the primary components include rocks, trees and pea gravel. Zen
Buddhism teaches that each material has its own character, personality and spirit and should
be revered as such. Rocks, for instance, are believed to be the medium of divine connection.
“The garden is designed so that the concept of emptiness and transience is always
present,” Locher says. “Emptiness is important because you need emptiness in order to
understand yourself. For Masuno, the garden is the place for people to come face to face
with themselves, to think, and to be introverted. Without emptiness, there’s no place for
that to happen.
“But the garden itself changes over emptiness. At certain times in a year some flowers
may be blooming and the leaves on the tree changing colours. In the passage of two minutes, the wind blows, the shadow changes.
The plantings help add to that sense of changeability.”
You don’t need to be a Buddhist monk in order to sit for long hours meditating in a Zen
garden and reconnect with nature, Locher notes. The whole point is to retain your relationship with nature.
“The Zen garden is a place where the mind can dwell in peace. It’s the place to move away
from the craziness of everyday life and everyday cares. We can spend just 10 minutes there
and maybe it helps calm us, helps us relax and helps us think through some issues in our
“You need to make the effort to observe the garden, and that effort allows you to change
your mind, flip the switch and reconnect with nature.”