Above: The Banryutei rock garden (the largest in Japan) at Kongobuji Temple in Koyasan, Japan, constructed in 1593 by the daimyo Hideyoshi.
Zen Buddhism is the direct insight into the nature of the mind and truth of emptiness: When we let go of our ingrained concepts of a fixed self, the belief goes, there is “no thing” to be found. Since the 12th century, Japanese designers have conveyed this understanding through sparse temples and abstract sand gardens, elements which continue to influence design (in Japan and around the world) today.
Japan’s Zen aesthetic has made a tremendous impact worldwide, particularly on the modern minimalist movement that began in the mid 20th century and continues to flourish. In the words of Joseph Yuen, an architect from Hong Kong who has specialized in the style since the 1970s, “Zen is marked by simplicity and equilibrium, yet the effect is profound. The visual ‘nothingness’ brings about a self-realization that cannot be put into words.”
Origins of Japanese Zen Design
Legend has it that the Indian monk Bodhidharma transmitted Chan Buddhist teachings to China in 500 CE, which spread to Japan and became known as Zen. During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), Zen gained influence under the ruling shogunate as it fit with the way of the samurai: acting with intuition, and facing death without fear.
Zen’s influence in Kamakura society extended to domestic architecture. Taking inspiration from the temples, Japanese homes started to incorporate a tokonoma (alcove), shoin (study or drawing room), and tana (built-in shelving, often with shoji sliding doors). In contrast to the ornamented style of other sects, Zen nurtured an appreciation for the beauty of natural, humble materials such as irregular wood beams and tatami mats. Spaces were kept open and uncluttered, putting the focus on carefully selected objects such as a scroll or Buddha statue.
In the Muromachi era (1336–1573), the Ashikaga shoguns spearheaded an artistic resurgence that supported the Zen priesthood. The capital, Kyoto, became the center of impressive temples such as Kinkaku-ji, a three-story pavilion partly covered in gold leaf that glistens under the sun. Karesansui, or rock and sand gardens, reached their zenith in the late 15thcentury with Ryoan-ji. This Zen garden sets 15 stones in groups over coarse white sand, in a purely abstract composition. The effect is deceptively simple, yet invokes a deep meditation in the viewer.
Modern Minimalist Zen
Zen aesthetics strongly influenced the minimalist architecture movement that emerged in the mid 20th century. Pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe summed up the philosophy in his famous 1947 dictum: “Less is more.” While these modern structures typically lacked the elements of a traditional Japanese home, they captured the same sense of austere emptiness with materials such as concrete, steel, and glass. Contemporary architects like Britain’s John Pawson—who once aspired to be a Zen monk in Japan before turning to design—communicate this “experience of oneness” through well-lit open spaces and stark lines.
Today, three of Japan’s most revered architects carry on the Zen legacy through their futuristic visions. Shigeru Ban’s bare-bones experiments—he has built a home out of paper, and another without walls—are what Yuen calls “a process of dismantling and rebuilding.” Kengo Kuma described his 2014 “Sensing Spaces” exhibition like a koan, or Zen riddle: “The nothing is not really nothing; I wanted to show the richness of nothing through the pavilion.” Tadao Ando uses colossal concrete planes to play with light and space, while harmonizing with the natural surroundings. Ando’s architecture evokes the Buddha’s words in the Heart Sutra: “Form is no other than emptiness; emptiness no other than form.”
Bringing Zen Into Your Home
Yuen says cultivating a Zen-like living space is about more than stripping away color and ornamentation. “In my works, I explore the connection between spaces and the objects within them. The placement of a single bonsai tree, for example, can change the entire balance of a room,” he explains.
Yuen emphasizes yohaku-no-bi, the artistic concept that finds beauty in empty space, such as the white paper in a sumi-e ink painting. “I pay attention to how both positive and negative spaces flow through each other,” he says. Rather than seeming bare, a void can create the feeling of tranquility, and may even be considered the focus of a room.
Yuen also incorporates wabi-sabi, or the appreciation of imperfection and transience. Zen tea masters prized cracked and uneven bowls, as they are a reminder that everything changes—so we should cherish what is in front of us at the moment. Yuen sources raw natural materials like bamboo and stone, which age gracefully with the passing of time. He suggests adding a small indoor sand garden as both a decorative element and a contemplative ritual.
In the words of Dōgen, 13th century founder of the Sōtō school, Zen is a dynamic practice that lets us engage with life in a way that “expects nothing, seeks nothing, and grasps nothing.” Adding elements of this insight to our homes can help us be more mindful of the present, and make peace with change as it arises.
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La Carmina is an award-winning journalist who specializes in alternative travel, subcultures, Japan and design. She writes for publications including Architectural Digest and Time Magazine, and appears as an expert on TV networks such as NBC, ABC and NHK Japan. Her mid-century minimalist modern apartment, which she decorated with skull watercolors and Miffy the bunny, was featured in several magazines. See La Carmina’s adventures in more than 70 countries on her popular blog, Instagram, and Twitter.
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