Finding Happiness through Contemplative Design

Bringing the Ordinary and Divine Together

By Martin Mosko and Alxe Noden

Perhaps if we want to find happiness, we should design for it.

We’ve met many sincere practitioners of many faiths who follow a path or practice but still feel as though their lives are not fulfilled or transformed. They have a deep division in their lives between their “ordinary” lives of work, school, and family and their “faith” lives. We believe that the key is to bring these two aspects of ourselves together, to realize that the stuff of daily life is the marrow of practice.

In our new book, The Sound of Cherry Blossoms: Zen Lessons from the Garden on Contemplative Design, we explore the path to this unity between the ordinary and and the divine, between Earth and Heaven, through the lens of design, specifically garden design. Design is the means of developing a vision—for life, or a business, or a product—and bringing that vision to life.

Of course, there are existing methods of design that aim toward more traditional ends: utility or beauty, or a marriage of both. What makes Zen, or contemplative design different is in the intention, the view, the process, and the end result.

Zen design starts with carefully defining our intention and motivation. We want to create a space, object, relationship, or experience that is positive for all who experience it, not a projection of our own egos. We must also carefully define how we intend to positively affect all beings with our work.

This intention influences the next step, our meditation. We can’t create a vision of anything if our minds are jumbled and distracted, or taken up with small concerns. Instead we start with a straight back and a calm mind focused on the breath. This helps to clear away the underbrush of our chattering minds, and open space for our innate creativity and sense of play to blossom.

Next in the process of contemplative design is research. The practice requires deep listening: the kind of awareness and openness that comes when we stop our projections and expectations and hopes, and try to perceive what really exists, what is present before us. We research every aspect of the project we can identify and every part of the context and environment of the project.

After we have gathered all possible information, factual, emotional, and intuitive about the project, we consider who will be affected by the project and how they will experience the project.

After research, we can begin visualization of what we want as our end result. How will our space look? What is its poetry? How will it feel to be there? This vision can be of a garden, or a home, or a project at work. We are formulating a clear vision of where to go. And when we look into our deepest consciousness, we can rely on the insight that appears. It is the map of the narrow road to “Big Mind.”

Implementing contemplative design is a development of our practice. We have to face and overcome our fears—maybe our design is unworthy or we will not be capable or executing its realization; we have to learn patience in working with others (by understanding how we are all interconnected); we must learn flexibility in adapting to change or surprises that might stymie our progress if we didn’t keep a soft mind and a big vision.

The result of all this work is what we call uniting Heaven and Earth. We create a space of elegance and peace that encourages and allows us to drop away the silliness of petty things. In the garden, we have used Big Mind open a path toward transcending our small minds. We see how the ordinary materials of life are also the things that enable us to live fully and clearly. Finally, we can feel whole.

Martin Mosko is principal teacher at Hakubai Zen Center. He was the founder of Marpa Design Studio, a landscape design and construction company that builds gardens throughout the U.S. and abroad. Alxe Noden, a writer, photographer, and filmmaker, has been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for over 25 years. Their books include Landscape As Spirit and The Sound of Cherry Blossoms. Together they give workshops around the country in Zen design. More about training in Zen Design is available at:

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