Tranquility Through Osmosis

The Press Democrat

In these hyperactive, hyperstressed times, it’s good to know there’s a place of perfect peace and calm where the tensions of life evaporate like the morning fog.

Where is this place? Look no farther than inside yourself. But to get there, you may need a little help and support. That’s the purpose of the new Zen-inspired meditation garden at Osmosis Enzyme Bath and Massage in Freestone.

The garden, designed by Osmosis owner Michael Stusser and his friend Robert Ketchell of England, with construction overseen by Zen priest Steve Stucky, head of the Dharma Eye Zen Center in San Rafael, combines traditional Japanese and Chinese elements to symbolically represent the personal journey inward toward harmony and tranquility.

The landscaping covers about an acre of the five-and-a-half-acre Osmosis property. A pond, pathways, waterfalls, 60 tons of ornamental stone, and dozens of sculpted trees and plantings symbolize the awakening of a human soul to the place of peace at the core of its being.

Simply put, Zen is the practice of quieting the mind so that, like the mirrored surface of a still lake, it becomes reflective of one’s true nature.

In Stusser’s view, “It’s important that people be relieved of the chatter of incessant internal dialogue. That’s the source of true healing,” he says.

The genesis of the garden came in the early 1970s when Stusser discovered the influential book, “Zen Mind/Beginner’s Mind” that set him (and quite a few others in those days) on a quest for spiritual knowledge.

The quest eventually took him and Ketchell to Kyoto, Japan, to study the art of Japanese landscape gardening. He stayed for three years and returned to Sonoma County imbued with the tenets of Zen Buddhism.

While in Japan, he discovered the enzyme bath — used there primarily as a clinical treatment for ailments like arthritis and rheumatism. While there are many places in Japan that offer enzyme baths, his facility in Freestone is still the only one in the United States.

Hot wood chips

Bathers snuggle down under a loose combination of finely chipped evergreen wood and rice bran mixed with enzymes that generate heat. But Stusser also found that it was a treatment that made people feel good.

Why would a tub of hot wood chips make someone feel good?

“I’d love to have the answer,” Stusser says. “It’s an unanswered question. But the power of nature is at work in the enzyme bath, and you can feel it. Enzymes catalyze digestion, respiration, the immune system, and other systems of the human body.”

In some little-understood way, the enzyme bath both relaxes and energizes the body so it’s supple and available for further relaxation from the massage.”

He gets between 1,000 and 1,200 clients a month at the spa, but he realized that there was something missing — a calming place for clients to relax and meditate after treatments — rather than just hopping in the car and re-entering the world of buzz-buzz-busy.

“The spa experience is the front end,” Stusser says. “It’s about stress reduction and letting go of care. The meditation garden gives people the next step, which is the personal, internal place they access on their own.”

He remembered his training in Kyoto.

“In Kyoto, I felt a connection to the gardeners of 800 years ago. That connection gave me great peace, and I wanted to bring that back to our own culture,” Stusser says.

He contacted Ketchell, who had become a renowned creator of Japanese gardens, and they developed the idea for the new Zen garden in Freestone.

Few bright flowers

Japanese gardens, especially Zen gardens, are radically different from western gardens in purpose and conception. Bright flowers are kept to a minimum, and the emphasis is on the landscape and green plants whose layout has something of great importance to convey to the visitor.

You read the garden as a metaphor for attaining wisdom and enlightenment, and as you walk its path, you find the stages of this spiritual quest symbolically represented. There is no rule for how this must be done, just as there’s no rule for writing a great story.

The creativity of the designer and the perception of the visitor work together to create moments of insight: “Aha! I get it!”

The Freestone garden uses the ancient Zen parable of “The Ox and the Ox Herder” as an organizing principle.

It’s a 10-step story of how a human being first quests after enlightenment, attains it, realizes that it consists of nothing more than his true self, lets go of it, and returns to everyday life able to see its meanings and values by the new light that illumines his being. Ketchell uses large, ornamental stones to represent the ox and the ox herder.

The trees and plants are traditional Japanese varieties such as black and red pines, water irises, and Japanese maples. Seventeen of the larger plants, including beautifully sculpted and pruned oak, sweet gum, hawthorn, maples, and conifers, resemble large in-ground bonsai.

Began in milk cartons

They were given to Stusser by former Sonoma County resident and photographer David Cavagnaro, who started them in milk cartons when he was 10 years old, many decades ago. Cavagnaro now works in Decorah, Iowa, at the Seed Savers Exchange.

In the center of the meditation garden is a large pond. It is in the shape of the Chinese character shin, which means heart or mind, or both. Those who’ve visited the world-famous Japanese garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York will notice a similar pond at its center.

Another traditional element of a Japanese garden is Turtle Island. The island in Freestone is a small promontory that juts into the pond with a stone resembling a turtle’s head pointing into the water.

In the Japanese animist Shinto religion, the turtle represents the back of the giant tortoise that supports the world and symbolizes eternal life. Sculpted conifers jutting up from the island represent cranes, symbols of longevity, standing on the turtle’s back.

A nearby waterfall connotes the end of the journey. Water, signifying consciousness, returns to the still, smooth pond that stands for the receptive emptiness that is the source of everything.

So in a sense the meditation garden is a microcosm of the world, with the water at its center surrounded by land, representing great nature as a whole. But it is also a representation of the journey of a human lifetime, from beginning to end, as a person moves from being driven by desire to achieving the quiet wisdom of enlightenment.

And it is also the picture of a human being, with a still, reflective heart and mind in the center, the physical body encircling it, the vantage points of understanding and the low spots of befuddlement, and most of all, the sheer beauty.

Jeff Cox is an author and free-lance writer on food, wine and gardening based in Sonoma County.


Osmosis: Walk to the garden is meaningful, too

A roofed Japanese gate built by Japanese temple carpenter Hiroshi Sakaguchi 17 years ago marks the entrance to the meditation garden.

However, once through the gate, a visitor sees only a narrow path bounded on either side by tall bamboo and screens. This represents the narrow view of youth, before wisdom is attained.

It takes a bit more walking before the path brings you to another, larger pavilion with a beautiful round Chinese moon gate, through which the meditation garden can be glimpsed.

Visitors will notice an antique pickup truck sitting in the brush along the narrow pathway. What is this doing in a Japanese garden? It’s a link with the former use of this property, which was a junkyard.

“We removed 400 cubic yards of debris from the site before we started the garden development,” says Osmosis owner Michael Stusser.

True to Zen principles, the truck is kept as a link with the past. And any Zen priest would get a laugh out of the fact that a debris-strewn junkyard has now been turned into one of the prettiest spots in the county.