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A Garden for Enlightenment

An Interview with Martin Mosko

Enlightened Buddha by Vicki Rawlins

The art of “synchronizing yourself to the natural flow of the energy that surrounds you”

Martin Mosko is the abbot of the Buddhist Hakubai Temple in Boulder, Colorado, and founder of Marpa, a landscape architecture and building firm that has built award-winning gardens throughout the United States and abroad. Together with his wife, Alxe Noden, he is the author of Landscape as Spirit: Creating a Contemplative Garden and, most recently, The Sound of Cherry Blossoms: Zen Lessons from the Garden on Contemplative Design. S&H spoke with Mosko about the relationship between our inner and outer worlds, the importance of using metaphorical systems to guide garden design, and the challenge of creating gardens with a Japanese aesthetic on an American scale.

Author Martin Mosko and his latest book, The Sound of Cherry Blossoms: Zen Lessons from the Garden on Contemplative Design

S&H: What is contemplative garden design? 

Mosko: Well, let’s start with design in general. Any good design is an elegant solution to a specific set of problems. Contemplative or Zen design can also provide solutions to problems, but it depends on a different kind of thinking that is outside the framework of solutions and problems. Zen gardens can allow you to just be. 

You have written, “To create a true garden, we have to see clearly, without judgment, exactly what is going on in ourselves and the space we are working in.” Can you talk about the intimate relationship between our inner and outer worlds?

Let’s start with the inner world. As a Buddhist, it is my belief that we all have the nature of enlightenment at our very core. It’s not something that we have to earn or achieve, but rather the fact that, fundamentally in our deepest hearts, we are pure, wonderful, inspired, and fully alive human beings. 

But a question remains: If it is true that we have the nature of enlightenment at our core, what stops us from knowing this and acting in harmony with it? One answer to that question is that our habitual patterns—of thought, speech, and mind—isolate us from our true nature. Habitual patterns lead to emotional twists and turns, which filter our experiences and separate us from our understanding, caring, and loving of others. When we begin to dismantle and unwind habitual patterns, we can see ourselves and everything else more clearly. For me, this is the process of religious training.

Contemplative environments can be part of that process by allowing a person to work through destructive habitual patterns. Because a garden is in a constant, dynamic evolution—where there is a spark going on between each thing all the time—it can awaken us to our real interconnected nature. When you enter an integrated space, it’s very difficult not to feel integrated yourself. You become the flowers around you. You become the pond. You become the light. When your sense of self drops away, you begin to see things clearly. This provides the opportunity to see where you’ve gone wrong in your life and how you can get it right. 

Can people become enlightened by putting themselves in the right place? 

Well, it always happens in a place. Old stories about enlightenment depict it as usually happening in the natural world—perhaps under a tree or next to a waterfall. This is not so much putting yourself in the right place as it is synchronizing yourself with the natural flow of the energy that surrounds you.

We’ve been talking about the garden as a bridge between our inner and outer worlds, and, in a similar way, your work seeks to unite the ordinary and the sacred. Can you talk about how you approach doing that?

The simple answer is that the ordinary and the sacred are already indivisible. They are inextricably linked, like nirvana and samsara or emptiness and form. The essential practice, then, is to be completely present with what we are doing or what is happening this very moment. This requires the cultivation of a soft and flexible mind and body, together with concentration.

In the design process, you can unite the ordinary and the sacred by beginning with the poetry of the garden. What is the poetry that you’re trying to express through this space? Then you begin to shape things to reveal that poetry by using the ordinary elements around you. 

When you talk about the poetry of the garden, it points to the importance of having a metaphorical system in place to guide the design process. Can you talk about this?

Allegory and metaphor bring us to a place of universality and commonality with other human beings. One garden that I built was based on the origin story of our universe. In this myth, Mount Sumeru is the center of the original universe. In the center of the garden I created a 28-foot-high mountain out of boulders and compacted soils and lots of plants. Mount Sumeru is surrounded by eight smaller mountains, each with a particular personality expressed through the shapes and colors of the plants.

When most people look at the garden, they probably don’t see Mount Sumeru. But they also probably have the sense of a pattern, a feeling that something deeply organized is going on. And even if you can’t find it by looking at the garden, you can find it in yourself. In this way, metaphors are another way of unifying the ordinary and the spiritual. 

Can you describe some of the most common metaphorical systems that you work with when designing contemplative gardens? 

Yes, and while doing so it will be helpful for me to describe my process when starting to design a garden. I always begin with the mandala principle. A mandala is a bounded complex system, organized to generate a specific energy. Most of us are familiar with Tibetan and Indian mandalas depicting the worlds and organization of various deities. One deity might signify wisdom, another might signify compassion. We also find mandalas in rose windows of medieval cathedrals as well as in Native American sand mandalas. 

Once you figure out the boundaries of the garden, you can situate the mandala. Everything within the boundaries of the garden is interrelated and interdependent. It’s one unified, highly complex integrated system. Mandalas always have entrances and exits, and they usually have something important in the middle at their central point. 

The second step is to assess the elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space. Earth represents structure. It is about the topography, how high or low the ground is, how big the rocks are, and so on. Water is the element of change and transformation. Fire is the plant element because everything grows in relationship to the sun. Flowers and trees follow the sun. Air is in the pathways that lead you through the garden, the places we move and the places we stop. Air is motion. Space is the ineffable part of the garden. It’s the infinite that we see within the finite space. It’s the magic we see within the material. That is a very brief explanation of the five elements. 

The third step is to assess the relationships in the garden among heaven, earth, and man, which touches on the metaphorical systems that you asked about. As I conceive of it, Zen design unifies heaven and earth through man. For the designer, heaven and earth are joined by man as the designer. For the one experiencing the garden, he or she—depending on his or her availability and openness—experiences the unity of heaven and earth by resonating with the environment.

Finding metaphors that are personally meaningful seems like an essential part of the process when designing a garden. How are you able to find the right metaphors for your clients when designing their gardens?

I begin with deep listening. I listen to the words, of course, but I also listen to what’s behind the words. Most male clients, for example, start off by talking about drainage, irrigation, topography, or something else like this. But often that’s not what they’re really wanting to find in their garden. Perhaps they are looking for a memory they’ve lost, something that happened in their childhood that awakened them. If you listen closely—not to the words, but to their hearts—you can relate to what they’re feeling and work from there. 

You do that same kind of listening to the environment. You listen to every living thing that is there, including the spirits. Wherever you go, there’s more happening than you can initially see or expect. You have to listen for it.

Keeping an eye on the birds can help you know if you’re on the right track. When you are building a garden, there’s often a lot of noise because you’re tearing things out, moving them around, rearranging space, and this causes the birds to go away. When you work correctly, the birds come back. 

You become the flowers around you. 

You become the pond. You become the light. 

Earlier we were talking about the integration of some seemingly opposite things: inner and outer, ordinary and sacred. Another set of opposites that come together in your work is East and West. You have written that it was the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche who first suggested that you share the Japanese aesthetic on an American scale. Can you talk about what you’ve learned by taking on this challenge? 

First of all, a garden is a cultural phenomenon. A real Japanese garden is a Japanese experience. Yet, we can visit a Kyoto temple garden and be moved, even transformed by the experience. So what is universal in the design of the Japanese garden? What human commonality does it touch?

The techniques are wonderfully explained by people like David Slawson, Marc Keane, Kendall Brown, and others. Design and construction techniques can be translated precisely from one culture to another. David Slawson’s garden in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the Garvan Gardens, seamlessly blends the techniques of Japanese gardens with the native landscape of Arkansas.

Though technique is important, my interest has been more in the mind that makes ordinary magic happen. This comes from the Zen mind. From here, techniques are tools and craft.

From the technique point of view, scale relates to one’s own body size. If a five-foot woman sees a 10-foot tree, she perceives the tree as twice as tall as she is. Ancient Japanese were much smaller than today’s Americans, and they often sat on the floor and quietly gazed at their gardens. We sit on chairs, raising our eye level by three feet or so. A boulder in a garden in Japan that is five feet high—to do the same job in America the boulder must be eight feet high. There is also a big difference in volume and mass between a five-foot boulder and an eight-foot one.

The underlying philosophy and aesthetic is much more difficult to translate from one culture to another, especially in the United States, which has no culture and is all cultures. This is what my wife and I try to address with our workshops: to lead people to the Zen mind for design and show the way for them to cultivate a practice that joins their spiritual life with their daily life. This is the path to happiness.

How do you create a quiet space on a larger scale? 

The relationship between the garden and the garden-wanderer is quite private. A Zen garden is not meant for meeting others, but instead for meeting oneself and nature. The only way to influence the way people move through the garden is to control the pathway width and direction of flow. The way I’ve dealt with this in the past is to create a large, heavily treed gathering area that can elegantly seat 200 people, and that accesses the narrow-gated entrance to the garden which allows for only one person at a time, and also by designing a path that slows you down.

Zen Design in Four Steps

1. We start with a proper motivation and develop a vision based on meditative awareness and visualization. The idea isn’t just to get a job done or make money or decorate the architecture; it’s to create a space, infused with spirit, where transformation is possible.

2. We design the garden to be at peace with its environment. We wouldn’t build a garden in Tucson that looks like it should be in Kyoto. The Phoenix Japanese Garden, for example, looks like it should be in Phoenix—with succulents and a spacious use of plants. But it still has the sense of quietness that you find in Japanese gardens.

3. We awaken people through their senses. Because garden pathways are often meandering, your view of things changes with each step. After one step, a little flower blooms. After the next step, the little flower is gone, but perhaps you see a captivating waterfall. Gently, moment by moment, you’re awakened to a heightened awareness. It is a kind of relaxed awareness that manifests in the garden.

4. When we measure, or evaluate, the outcome of the design, the question is not simply whether the garden is beautiful or functional—although both of those are important—but whether it offers those who enjoy it a way to transcend their small minds and enter into something larger than themselves.

—Martin Hakubai Mosko & Alxe Noden

Working with the Four Forces

These forces exist and act upon us whether we are aware of them or not. It makes sense for the designer to use them in a conscious way to enhance their properties and the power of the garden.

Magnetizing

In the garden all of our senses become fully alive and alert. Sounds, sights, textures, smells, and tastes beckon to us from every direction. They call out for our attention, one after the other, so that we are continually drawn out of our self-absorption. The dew on the purple petal, the light flickering through the branches of the tree, the reflection of the heron in the sunlight of the pond—all serve to trap our wandering minds and bring them to the present moment. The garden presents us with views and experiences that capture our attention. 

Enriching

The sensual feast of the garden is enriching. The display of texture, color, form, smell, sound, and light feeds our senses the way a six-course meal feeds our palate. Contrast and variety awaken our sensitivity and stimulate our awareness. Form and color feed our souls and enrich our sense of being fully alive. The beauty of the garden reveals the inherent elegance of reality and lifts our mood.

Pacifying

The garden pacifies our worries and anxieties. Because it is a safe, coherent space with clear boundaries, it allows us to relax deeply. We are not confronted with conflict and unbalanced relationships. Everything is in a dynamic process of refined integration. The tendency of human consciousness is to meld with its surroundings. Sensory input and consequent perception allow the garden to pacify our conflicting emotions and self-doubt. Disruptive environments pit one force against another; in the garden, everything is integrated and interdependent. Our anger and aggression are transformed. 

Destroying

And last, the garden destroys our self-clinging. We are continuously presented with something that engages us, and as a result we are unable to hold on to the image we have of ourselves. The garden destroys the continuity of our mental story line by interrupting its flow and bringing us to an awareness of the world that is larger than the ego and to which we are intimately connected.

—Martin Hakubai Mosko & Alxe Noden

Wherever you go, there’s more happening than you can initially see or expect. 

 You have to listen for it.

From The Sound of Cherry Blossoms, by Martin Hakubai Mosko and Alxe Noden, © 2018 by Martin Hakubai Mosko and Alxe Noden. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Boulder, Colorado.