Orderly Chaos: Is there a Dharma Architecture? An invitation to senior students:

I was raised in an old house in Colorado. For a home in the United States, it had two very unique spaces: a purpose-built Buddhist shrine room and a servant’s access staircase that duplicated the grand staircase. That house had been remodeled several times, but its mixture of culturally-instigated features left me a little confused about what belongs in a home. The conjunction of the patterns of space tended to be disjointed.
Traditional cultures define "spaces" in a house, or a neighborhood, or town. Anthropologist can spend a whole career understanding how a village kitchen is intertwined with matriarchy, fealty, numen, gods, and the practicalities of cooking. The modern household inherits some aspects of these ideas from ancestral patterns, but the advent of "modern" theory of architecture demanded we abandon a great deal of the wisdom and superstitions of our forbearers. The result has been a separation from our awareness of space itself.

On average, North Americans relocate every seven years, reinforcing a sense of independence from space – even a superiority to space. We treat homes and neighborhoods much like clothing: we use them until they wear-out, then we try something new. Awkwardly, our old homes and neighborhoods do not go away like our old clothes. They persist; they often fester for the lack of attention.

The irony is many of us take holidays to visit quaint old villages to enjoy their authentic qualities of space and construction. We seek out such well-maintained, long-lived-in communities that have centuries-exercised patterns in space. We take our money that could improve our own neighborhood and spend it to fund the maintenance of the historic villages’ authenticity. Then we return home to spaces we consider lacking in authenticity and would consider nigh-uninhabitable without wifi.

KTC Dallas pilgrimage group at Jokhang kora, Lhasa Tibet - a touch overwhelmed by the vividness of tradition. Photo by Jason Winn, 2016
Over the last four decades communities in North America have expressed longing for a revival of traditional living patterns, particularly the emotions they evoke. This longing has resulted in whole movements within the design community attempting to reincorporate those missing patterns in space. Examples like New Urbanism has had mixed results at best. New Urbanist villages often have a "theme park" feel: a distinct ego is omnipresent rather than the collective contributions of generations of villagers. That looming ego is particularly obvious if you have invested time working with your mind.
My exposure to Buddhist practices has presented me with a manner of working with the mind to re-engage with space. Utilizing the rugged individualism of my culture, I took it upon myself to gently reengage with space, however disjointed the patterns of my space seemed. Like with New Urbanism, the results were initially mixed. However, I also was introduced to a variety of alternative means of engaging with space: Maitri Space Awareness Practice, Mudra Space Awareness Practice, Ikebana (the art of flower arranging), Chado (art of tea), and a few other disciplines arising from traditional Japanese culture. These practices invert the approach by working with space as a way to work with mind.
  • Shotoku-an Kyoto, garden
  • From the tea room at Jack and Hiromi's - click to zoom way, way in.
Ironically, much of modern Japanese culture has fully embraced modern architecture’s disassociation from space and spatial awareness. Though the above-named contemplative arts are still widely practiced in Japan, they are now more hobbies than literal components of everyday life. Still, some attempts are underway to replicate the old-relationships to space once cultivated in Japan. One pioneering bridge-builder in Japan is Jack and Hiromi Convery, tea teachers. Their school, Shotokuk-an in Kyoto, has begun to manifest as a reverse-bridge for their Japanese students. In the grossest analysis, thier western-Dharma interpretation of Chado for their modern students is providing them a window into their own culture without the burden of Japanese cultural classicism.
Jason attempting to demonstrate Turkish Çay to Jack and Hiromi's chado class. Photo by Angela Hartsell 2016
To be sure, every centimeter of Jack and Hiromi’s school (simultaneously their home) is alive, potent with a connection to the natural world, the craftsmen who built the traditional-style house, and the traditional foods coming from the little kitchen. The ease with which sound travels around and beyond the house inspires you to speak in a lower voice and to listen. This and other sense-inspired patterns adjust the visitor’s relationship to space.

I venture to say that Jack has taken the challenge of evolving practice and living into a seamless whole. These traditional local patterns are focused on achieving a home for its teachers and a school for its students. Jack, as teacher, has a great advantage: he has leveraged a 100-year-old house that employs 400-plus years of tradition in its native context. Its timeless qualities are reinforced and actualized by the surrounding culture which venerates the art form and practice.

With an unceremonious modern culture of construction, the inhabitants of the West are unduly challenged to develop the required attention and diligence to effectively merge practice and daily living. Furthermore, due to a chronic deficiency of integrated patterns of space, there is a desire to fill space with the contents of our mind. Whether posh or kitsch or somewhere in between, the collections of our lives with which we decorate our space are reflections of our habitual patterns: our aspirations and our hang-ups. The focus of the space is not pointed at the natural world, nor is it accommodating an expansive perspective (chronologically or spiritually). Rather it serves to highlight that which distracts us from others and our experience of nature.

Another interesting attempt to "reverse engineer" a sense of architectural space was initiated in the 1970s by a group of researchers at UC Berkley. They developed a collection of spatial patterns and a theory for how places that have a sense of timelessness employ those patterns. As it was funded by the United States government, the study was culturally focused on North American and European patterns. In the simplest definition, this collection of patterns invites the user of proposed architecture to lead with an emotional desire, and then build a space that fulfills that desire. The results were interesting but challenging to apply consistently.

In my career as an architect, I have found myself fawning over a single pattern in a design for a building which had a high potential for user delight. I could lavish hours on tweaking such spatial patterns to maximize their connections to the elements, the seasons, etc. Such isolated patterns were not consistently grown from a language of patterns, and so my results in employing patterns similarly have been mixed. Even so, opportunities to delve into the design of a spatial pattern arise more often for me since a disproportionate number of my projects are sacred spaces. Such work also has led to conversations with sangha members about the design of retreat cabins, retreat centers, and, recently, retirement communities.

Elegant retreat cabin at Thule, Greenland. Photo by Jason Winn, 2010
All of these conditions and situations raised a very interesting question: is there a way to bring the sensibilities of the Dharma together with the patterns of the UC Berkley team? The Dharma does provide matrices in which to grow patterns of space that facilitate an increased sense of user delight.


There has been an expressed need within the sangha to develop a manner of living suitable for the elders of the community, a space that integrates our culture with our practice. To achieve this, I invite the elders to participate in a two-month study that integrates your understanding of the nature of mind with your innate understanding of delightful space. This invitation to Western senior Dharma students is manifold in purpose:

  1. you have the most experience with the traditional patterns of abiding
  2. your contemplative energies are likely focused on the question of how to live in a manner that fosters practice
  3. you are likely possessed of the bittersweet awareness that a home is a possession of Samsara

Trungpa Rinpoche interpreted a variety of cosmological traditions from Tibet and Buddhism and reintroduced them collectively as studies into the nature of art and psychology. Curriculums at Naropa University have been taught for four decades on these subjects, spawning books and weekend workshops and a significant body of research. (My career as an architect began at Naropa in 1996 with the class "Sacred Geometry of Architecture" under Dr. Phillip Tabb.) There is a vast ocean of Dharma cosmology we could draw upon to infuse an "Architecture of Dharma". While there may be more nuanced approaches we could use, the following teachings provide a starting point that has immediate utility, in part because they are not secret:

  1. Five Wisdom Families
  2. Natural Hierarchy

The experience of this workshop can guide us to better organize future workshops that address other cosmologies and these patterns of space examined and developed by the volunteers.

The Berkley team developed 253 spatial patterns. Organized by a loose internal logic they can only really be completed with the environmental influences of an actual construction site. Categorizing the patterns with our collective understanding of the Natural Hierarchy and the Five Wisdom Energies changes how we might use the spatial patterns and resulting space. There is the potential with these modified patterns to learn about our own states of mind (similar to Maitri Space Awareness Practice.)

For example: Is a kitchen more focused on the abundance it creates, the desire for its craft, or the industrious sous chefs? Would a kitchen be focused on the earth for which it supports or is it a place of inspiration? Does a kitchen that is focused on feeding the masses express more industriousness than a hot-plate in an efficiency apartment? When I’m feeling paranoid should I go cook a meal for a friend?


The goal of this project is not to develop a Buddhist "Xanadu". It is to develop skillful means to create delight in space. Developing these patterns as a group will leverage our collective knowledge in a way that this architect cannot alone bring into being.

This process will be documented as academic research with the Eastern Mediterranean University, Faculty of Architecture. If you would like to learn more please contact me at JasonWinn@SpacePoetics.com
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Thank you!
Your author at the Court of Two Sisters, New Orleans. Photo by Angela Hartsell, 2010