Dear fellow travellers
Shunmyo Masuno is not a man with whom you would want to argue. You get a sense that he most definitely has God on his side. The 66-year-old monk is one of Japan's great multitaskers. He is chief priest at a celebrated Zen temple. He also holds a professorship of environmental design at one of Japan's leading private universities and is president of a major international landscape design company.
Shunmyo Masuno would not expect any of us to design Zen gardens. For him, it's all a matter of belief and there's not a lot of scope for compromise. If you are not a really dedicated practitioner of Zen, if the philosophy is not something which permeates every fibre of your being, every aspect of your thinking, then there is no way you'll ever create a proper Zen garden.
"Don't tread on the stones. Respect the Zen garden," reads the sign as we walk through a Japanese garden in a far-flung suburb of east Berlin. Marzahn is not on the regular tourist trail. Unless, that is, you are interested in garden design. For tucked away in the corner of a park in Marzahn is a rare European example of one of Shunmyo Masuno's gardens.
Thirty years ago this spring, eastern Germany was deep in the throes of a peaceful revolution. That led to the relaxation of border formalities on that famous night in November 1989 and, less than a year later, to the unification of the two German States. That event was the starting point for Masuno's garden in Marzahn.
Marzahn is uncompromising. Its powerful and authoritarian architecture is definitely interesting, but does not find favour with all. Not everyone likes the relentless spread of apartment blocks which sprung up in the ten years after 1977.
"Do something that speaks to the themes of mutual understanding and unification," urged the Berlin Senate as they contracted the priest and garden designer to transform a small corner of Marzahn. Masuno works in the Japanese tradition of ishidateso - or the priest who designs gardens. A more literal translation is a 'priest who raises stones'.
Masuno's brief for this extraordinary garden was to communicate a strong sense of Japanese culture while at the same time creating a nurturing space which embodied a sense of harmony.
So Masuno came to Marzahn and did some gardening for the soul. A lot of his work over the years has been in cultivating special spaces for densely settled urban environments. An example is Masuno's much-acclaimed landscaping at Hong Kong's Pavilia Hill development. What's exceptional about the Marzahn garden is the overwhelming sense of it being a sacred space. Here in the heart of Berlin's most densely settled suburb is a place which invites quiet reflection.
Shunmyo Masuno is fond of attributing almost human qualities to his creations. "A Zen garden is very calm and very strong," he said in an interview just after the Marzahn garden opened. The garden is not merely an exotic implant, for in its arrangements and landscape elements there are echoes of the forests in Berlin's hinterland.
Masuno's garden, with its focus on coming together in harmony, is a remarkable achievement. It is a sacred enclave in a secular city. And the Zen garden idea has proved infectious. Now there are, in different areas of the same Marzahn park, an Arabic garden based on the prescripts of Islamic design, a traditional Chinese garden and a Christian garden. A Jewish garden is in the making. It will open next year.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)