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Tranquility Is on Tap at Wang Center’s Zen Rock Garden

Zen rock garden

Tranquility – even in the midst of a fast-paced, hard-charging academic environment – is perpetually available at Stony Brook’s Charles B. Wang Center, where a Zen rock garden invites peaceful contemplation.

Zen rock garden
Wang Center’s rock garden offers space for quiet contemplation.

When the Wang Center opened its doors in 2002, its functional purpose was clear — housing a state-of-the-art theater, gallery, lecture hall, chapel and dining hall, it served a wide range of the academic and social needs of Stony Brook’s student population.

But philanthropist Charles Wang had another goal in mind when he made what was at the time the largest single private gift to the SUNY system. He wanted the new building to reflect the traditions of Asian design in an effort to not only make the school’s sizable Asian population feel more comfortable, but to provide a welcoming educational environment that would bring together all cultures.

To that end, the Charles B. Wang Center features a 100-foot octagonal pagoda, a structure that is traditionally associated with Chinese temples. Architect P.H. Tuan further captured Mr. Wang’s ideals, unifying the elements of interior space, the outdoors and the sky, and deploying vast expanses of glass to frame traditional Asian gardens and bridges.

One of those featured gardens is the Zen rock garden on the west side of the building’s lower level.

Zen rock garden
Three raised beds symbolize the connected cultures of China, Korea and Japan.

The Japanese rock garden or “dry landscape” garden, often called a Zen garden, is designed to create a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, water features, moss, and gravel or sand that is raked to represent ripples in water.

Zen gardens are usually small, surrounded by a wall, and meant to be experienced while seated from a single viewpoint outside the garden. Classic Zen gardens were intended to imitate the “essence” of nature, not its actual appearance, and to inspire meditation and reflection about the meaning of life.

Japanese gardens are rich with symbolism, and they are usually created with certain meanings in mind. The Wang Center’s Zen garden, created by local artists Gerard Senese and his wife Hiroko Uraga-Senese in 2017, features symbols of Buddhist paradises with a tortoise islet and a crane islet. Made with rocks, the tortoise symbolizes prosperity while the crane symbolizes health and good luck.

“The Japanese rock garden, in its Chinese-origin, embraced the Taoist belief in the ‘Island of the Happy Immortals’ (Horai Island), which has been a dominant theme in landscape gardening since ancient days,” explained Senese.

The raised center bed of the Wang Center’s garden, he said, represents Horai Jima, with the treasure trip of the Happy Immortals travelling to it on one side, and the Tortoise and Crane on the other. Kame-jima (tortoise island) and Tsuru-jima (crane island) represent Buddhist paradises, the tortoise represents 1,000 years of prosperity & the crane represents 1,000 years of health & good luck.

“These concepts transcend nationalities and cross over to all the Asian cultures, so I thought that design would be appropriate for this venue,” said Senese. “I wanted the students and others who visit the garden to be able to recognize both the crane and the tortoise, so I didn’t make them too abstract. The hope is that recognizing them might inspire more interest in the overall design.”

One final design touch helped ensure that Senese accomplished Mr. Wang’s dream of presenting a unified representation of Asian design and tradition.

“I tied all three raised beds together to symbolize the connected cultures of China, Korea and Japan,” said Senese. “China is the middle bed because it is often referred to as ‘The Middle Kingdom.’”

“Even though it is a much simpler and smaller version of the Japanese garden, it still lets our audience create their own calm, Zen moment whenever they need it,” said Jinyoung Jin, director of cultural programs at the Wang Center. “I look forward to incorporating intimate cultural programs such as Japanese poem haiku workshops and bamboo flute performances in the garden.”

Zen rock gardens date back to at least the 12th century, when Zen Buddhism was introduced into Japan. The gardens of the early Zen temples in Japan resembled Chinese gardens of the time, with lakes and islands. But in the 14th and 15th centuries, a new kind of garden appeared at the Zen temples, these expressly designed to stimulate meditation. Stone, which was common in China, became popular in Japan, and were used to create hypnotic “petrified” landscapes which seemed suspended in time.

Yet for all its outward beauty, perhaps the best view the Zen rock garden offers Wang Center visitors is an introspective one.

–Robert Emproto

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