One of the greatest Japanese Zen monk garden designers, Muso Soseki, lived during the turbulent Kamakura period from 1275 to 1351. Creator of many highly influential timeless gardens such as Saiho-ji (Moss Temple Garden), he was renowned for developing the art of traditional Japanese Zen gardening. Throughout his life and practice, Soseki believed strongly in the concept of ‘Flower Mountain’.
A poetic image, Flower Mountain is used to summon up a vision of an ideal place and time, to open people’s minds to meditation and the pursuit of understanding, to the World of Taihei – The Great Peace. Soseki believed that you must trust in the existence of this place, that it was crucial to trust in the hope of peace.
Since its establishment in 1974, the Zen Center of Denver has brought peace and insight to the Buddhist community in Denver, Colorado. Over the years, as their sangha grew, they realized the need for a larger space and committed to building their own temple and Zendo (meditation) garden. After searching the Denver metropolitan area, a site was located South of downtown Denver on the edge of the University District. Nestled between a native prairie parkway and residential neighborhood, the new location allowed for the program expansion they had been seeking. Working with Semple Brown, Colorado AIA Firm of 2018, a new temple building with classrooms, lodging, and a meditation hall was composed. In keeping with the Zen tradition of mediation gardens for practice as well, they sought out Desirae Wood of Dobro Design who has over a decade of experience with Japanese gardens.
In a quiet space outside the meditation hall, the Client desired a safe and private garden where sitting meditation, walking contemplation, and special ceremonies could be held at the same time. Adding to those requirements were the wonderful challenges of a small site which measured about 30’ x 50’, and the request to use plants from the ‘Colorado Plant Select Program’ - a nonprofit collaboration between Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Garden, and professional horticulturists to determine the very best plants for landscapes and gardens from the intermountain region to the high plains.
To complement the calm temple building, a garden of exquisite beauty and serenity in the midst of a busy city was envisioned – Flower Mountain. Three main elements inspired this enclosed Zendo garden:
The poetic image for contemplation from Zen garden monk Muso Soseki of ‘Flower Mountain’, native Colorado Rocky Mountain elements to give a serene atmosphere, and Daisen-in (Retreat of the Great Sages), a 16th century Kyoto Zen Temple garden inspiring the miniaturization of a mountainous river landscape scene.
Throughout the lofty Colorado Rocky Mountains, paths lead along mountain valleys to waterfalls and beautiful glacial lakes. The serene atmosphere of a waterfall scene set deep in the alpine flowered Colorado mountain peaks embodies the spirit of Flower Mountain as a garden. While the sense of place is inspired by the majestic Colorado mountain peaks, the sense of space is inspired by Daisen-in. A miniaturized impression of a mountainous and riverine landscape painting, the garden scene triggers profound positive feelings within the beholder. By employing the Zen aesthetic of distilling elements to their essence, Daisen-In draws the mind to a conceptual state where contemplation and meditation flow, to a place of practice and ceremony.
Flower Mountain offers a sense of nature within the city, an ease and vitality one can absorb. This Zendo garden summons the spirit of peace and contemplation through the creation of a miniaturized dry waterfall and lake scene set deep in the flowered Colorado Rocky Mountain peaks.
From hand selected large grey granite boulders from the Colorado mountains and buff sandstone gravel and slabs from the foothills, the distilled mountain waterfall, meadow, and lake scene begins to take on its essential form. An intimate yet evocative atmosphere is created by abstracting the massive mountain peaks and glacial water into miniaturized ‘boulder peaks’ and ‘dry water’. This simplification of elements and balanced empty space calms and clears the mind.
Seated on a raised deck which runs the length of the meditation hall, one gazes across a high mountain lake where majestic stone peaks rise from the waters edge. Spiraling out from a hidden source within the clefted rocks, a thin waterfall cascades down at first with much white water and energy before calming over numerous drops and gently flowing into the placid lake. The lake’s edge stretches the full distance of the scene disappearing at times into small coves. Subtle elevated stone paths lead across the golden lake; one curls behind the mountain peaks to their base forested green with Weeping White Spruce and Western River Birch where a hidden shrine awaits. A second passes beneath the far side of the mountains to the mouth of the waterfall, while yet another leads to a luscious mounded alpine meadow, bursting with blue flowered Columbine, Gentian, and Veronica blooms. Safely enclosed in this small and complex garden oasis, paths meander offering peaceful contemplation, quiet places to sit and meditate, and private areas for ceremony.
Surrounding the retreat of Flower Mountain, the site landscape descends in elevation from the moist alpine mountain peaks to the drier rolling foothills. Generous swaths of xeric plants create seasonal scenes which wrap around the building and ground it to the site. White, yellow, and purple blooms enliven the space in spring and summer, New Mexican Privet offers a golden fall shimmer against an evergreen backdrop of Panchito Manzanita, Little-leaf Mountain Mahogany, and the long living Bristlecone Pine.
PROJECT TIMELINE AND TEAM:
Design began in 2018. Stone selection and placement, hardscape and enclosure, and woody plant material installation took place in 2019. The Zendo garden fine grading and perennial planting finished in 2020.
Semple Brown Architects, Spectrum General Contractors, Haberer Group, TMW Stonemasons (Thadeus Wojdyla and Zach Johnson), Phase One Landscapes, Sadafumi Uchiyama