Japanese Zen Concept in Design

Early in March we discussed the ideas of minimalism and some of the principles and practices of Japanese culture and concepts like the Ma and Śūnyatā in Mahayana Buddhism in the The Great Void article. Later on, we expanded on Mahayana Buddhism and analyzed the traditional Japanese interior design and the key elements and principles of Japanese architecture like Zen, Ken and Moya.


In this article we will share more insights into what exactly Zen means in terms of Japanese Buddhism and Mahayana and what can Zen mean in the interior and design of an architectural space.



What Is Zen?


Zen (Chánzong) is a school of Mahayana Buddhism originated in China and around the 12th Century extended to the East to Japan which marked the foundation of Chan Zen in Japan or as it is known, the Japanese Zen. The word "ZEN" carries the core principles and concepts of Mahayana Buddhism in its meaning which is driven from Indian and Chinese concepts and words of Dhyāna and Chánzong or the Chan- act of practicing meditation.

By Sophia Moreno-Bunge

Zen emphasizes the practices and thoughts like fasting, mindfulness breathing, tea ceremonies and meditation that point us to "the true nature of the mind" and lead the way to enlightenment and a heightened sense of freedom to bring us closer to peace and awareness. Painting and flower arrangements (Ikebana) and other artistic expressions are considered therapeutic practices in Mahayana Buddhism because they can nourish our life, health and mind and enforce "buddha-nature".

Ikebana, the traditional Japanese way of arranging flowers plays an important role in the Japanese practices including Zen and Buddhism and it goes way back to around 6th or 7th Centuries when flowers were arranged seasonally and the arrangements were appreciated as part of spiritual and religious beliefs.



Zen, Design, Wabi-Sabi


Ceramics by Yasha Butler

The art of Zen is creating an environment that enables a liberated way of living, an emptiness of existence, a Śūnyatā experience. It's not about a particular color, style or form but rather an atmosphere or a mood the architectural place evinces.

One of the core practices of Japanese Buddhism is the nature and human mind and body connection. The natural beauty and imperfections of nature are celebrated in Japanese Zen as well as in the design of Japanese interior places, a concept called Wabi-Sabi.



By Sophia Moreno-Bunge

Nature plays a very important role in Japanese Zen and culture. One of the most beautiful Zen gardens in Japan, the Moss Garden in the Saiho-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto displays the importance and the strong relationship between the human and nature which is at the core of Japanese Zen. We definitely recommend a visit to this very private garden when in Japan.

This connection to nature is present in the interior and exterior design of Japanese architectural spaces in several ways like the indoor/outdoor design that we discussed previously, the earthy tones and free-form objects and rough/soft texture contrast to bring the natural and imperfect senses of the nature inside. The rough-soft texture contrast is done in a way that not one element is superior to the other in terms of visual weight and mental perception. The use of negative space, the textural and shape contrasts and the interior color palettes of Japanese designs are deeply rooted and connected to the Zen gardens as a form of living a more enlightened and awakened life. Elements of a space work together beyond the modern beloved principles of "practicality" but rather to lead a lifestyle that is taught and practiced by spiritual and religious beliefs of Zen.


As in nature, all the elements of a space, the positive and negative, the mass, the texture and colors exist in an equilibrium to the whole, the balance- a concept called Notan.


Interior by bluebeige designs

One of the key perspectives of nature is its imperfection and the natural being of all the elements, without assumption, modification or processing which leads us to the concept of Wabi-Sabi. In a Wabi-Sabi design, we don't dare to see perfect and arranged symmetry and defined and refined characteristics of perfection but rather a more natural form, asymmetrical balance of shapes and forms and the elements of pure simplicity.


Not the enforced and artificial simplicity of modern design but the real simplicity that can only come from following the rules of the nature and letting elements and objects of the space to be truly themselves with no modification or pretentious arranged aesthetic. A rough textured wood table against a smooth plaster wall... This natural state of being evokes a sense of serene and calmness in the mind and the heart which is an essential state of existence in Japanese Zen and Mahayana Buddhism and the path to enlightenment - Satori.




"Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished and nothing is perfect." Richard Powell
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