Shunmyo Masuno isn’t just a great landscape designer – he is a living legend in Japan. His creations artfully channel the quintessence of Japanese tradition through intricate gardens that subtly but accurately reflect the very soul of his culture. Shunmyo has always seen creation of his landscapes as an expression of his inner world. Typically known for their serenity and appreciated for their distinctively charming life philosophy, Shunmyo’s gardens are havens of peace. VANTAGE talks to the master about his life on the path of Zen.
By Cecilia Chan
Dressed head to toe in Japanese monk robes, the first impression one has when meeting Shunmyo Masuno is one of awe. Every morning, Shunmyo gets up at 4 and begins his routine of meditation, chanting scriptures, and cleaning his living environment. For the rest of the day, he spends his time in his studio, designing, before getting together with his family and going to bed at 11 at night. His calm and ordered daily routine is a reflection of his peaceful philosophies. Shunmyo Masuno was born into a Zen priest family and started down the road of artful living early in his life, studying arts before turning to Zen in his postgraduate education. It was during this time that he became fascinated with the intricacies of Zen garden design, and decided to devote his entire life to this endeavour. Shunmyo creates his gardens primarily for spiritual enlightenment, and thus even the work process is a spiritual one.
To understand the seed from which this fascination with landscape design sprouted, one must look to an experience early in the master’s childhood. “My keen interest was kindled that one time I visited Kyoto Ryoanji Garden in the fifth grade,” Shunmyo recounts, “Even though I had grown up in a temple, it was incredibly different compared to the temple at Ryoanji. After seeing it, I was gripped with the desire to make my home more beautiful and this is how I first started to care about landscape design. It wasn’t until sophomore year of university that I really started learning about it. The timing coincided with a period of renovation of the temple gardens and the arrival of landscape master Kazuo Saito who would oversee the progress. He would later become my mentor and from him I learned the importance of a hands-on approach, and to pay attention to the process.” To this day, Shunmyo takes great pains in order to maintain the impeccably high quality of each project; despite 30 years of experience, he still only takes on two or three projects a year.
The landscape master has more than one identity; he is also the chief priest of Kenko-ji Temple and a professor at Tama Art University, lecturing around the world. He has his own theory about Japan’s much-revered Wabi-Sabi, or “the beauty of imperfection”. This deep cultural thread that runs through Japanese society is one that concerns itself with the transience of life, the embracing of the melancholy associated with markers of passing time and decay… it is finding beauty in something that may initially appear ugly.” Wabi-Sabi is an imperfect beauty,” he explains, “It is the kind of beauty that does not conform to balance and symmetry. Take, for example, a Japanese garden, or some other forms of Japanese art, and you will find that we like to incorporate odd numbers. Even numbers can be divided neatly in two, but that is never the case for odd numbers… but in this way they give you greater space for imagination. I often use this design principle in my works. Wabi-Sabi breaks from the norms of design conventions, rather than focusing on face-value, it looks to the spirituality behind each object.”
Clearly, Shunmyo’s philosophy resonates deeply across the world; his works are acclaimed both in Japan and beyond… in fact, one might argue that it is due to his relentless efforts that rock gardening has developed into a mainstream landscape in Japan and has entered into industry discourse around the world. Recently, Shunmyo made his first visit to China to attend an event to open dialogue on landscape design, as well as bringing with him three rock sculptures from Japan to be displayed at the SWFC in Shanghai.
Shunmyo has been an ardent student of Musuo Soseki, a famous 13th century ishidate-so who said “There is nothing special in water and mountain, what is special lies only in the minds of people.” As such, Shunmyo believes that Zen has no fixed forms. Whether it is calligraphy, painting, poetry, ikebana, or gardening… it does no matter what avenue you choose, it is the spirit of seeking truth that holds far more importance than the act you channel it through.