Lessons from a Zen Garden

By Karen Maezen Miller

In the early summer of 1997, my husband and I found ourselves in the backyard of an empty house on a quiet street in Sierra Madre, a suburb of Los Angeles. The backyard was Southern California’s oldest private Japanese garden, an oasis of ponds and pines that had stood mostly intact since 1916. It seemed like paradise with our name written all over it. We knew in our bones that the place could only be ours, and with it, the little house alongside it. The next day we put money down and a month later, moved in.

Once we arrived, we hit the bookstores and local nurseries. We studied up on Japanese gardens: their esoteric architecture, history, and symbolism; and the very special way to rake, weed, prune, plant, and water. We sought opinions, called in experts, and asked for conservative estimates — ha! — to redo this or that. The more we learned, the more we doubted. It was too much work. We were fools, without the right tools, training, or time. No wonder no one wanted to buy this place but us. It wasn’t paradise, but a colossal pain in the neck.

Karen Maezen Miller

One day I ran across a single line in a thick book that made it all simple. It told the original meaning of the word paradise before it became a mythical ideal, imaginary and unattainable. Before it pointed somewhere else.

The word paradise originally meant simply an enclosed area.

Inside the word are its old Persian roots: pairi-, meaning “around,” and -diz “to create (a wall).” The word was first given to carefully tended pleasure parks and menageries, the sporting ground of kings. Later, storytellers used the word in creation myths, and it came to mean the Eden of peace and plenty.

But looking at it straight on, I could plainly see. Paradise is a backyard. Not just my backyard, but everyone’s backyard: the entire world we live in, bounded only by how far we can see.

There was only one thing to do. I began to garden. I got scratched, tired, and dirty. I pouted and wept, cursing the enormity of the task. I was resentful and unappreciative. But when I ventured afield, sidelined by things that seemed much more entertaining or important, I always came back to this patch of patient earth. Time after time I realized that the living truth of life is taught to me right here, no farther than the ground beneath my feet.

Twenty years later, I do not know the chemistry of soils or the biology of compost. I have not mastered the nomenclature; I do not know the right time or way to prune. What I have learned instead is this: paradise is a patch of weeds.

What loyal friends, these undesirables that infiltrate the lawn, insinuate between cracks, and luxuriate in the deep shade of my neglect. Weeds are everywhere, showing up every day, my most reliable underlings. Weeds keep me going.

The most common weeds in the yard are crabgrass, dandelion, and chickweed. The most common weeds in the world are greed, anger, and ignorance.

Here are ten things to do to spare your garden from stubborn entanglements:

  1. Blame no one. Blame is a powerful barrier: like prickly thistle, it spreads pain and disaffection. Blame turns the garden into a menace.
  2. Take no offense. Consider the energy we expend to prolong fictional injuries. How hard is it to get over what’s already over? I know: it’s hard. But there’s a way.
  3. Forgive. Forgiveness reconciles the rift between self and other. Forgive someone today — forgive yourself today — and feel the rift recede. Suddenly, it’s much easier to move on.
  4. Do not compare. Satisfy yourself with what you have in hand. It may not look like much, but this right here is everything.
  5. Take off your gloves. A nurseryman once told me, “A real gardener doesn’t wear gloves.” Native intelligence flows through your fingertips, wisdom received in direct connection with the world, telling you how deep to dig and how hard to pull, when to gather and when to release. Self-defenses make you timid and clumsy.
  6. Forget yourself. The world needs a few less people to own their own greatness and few more to own their own humility. When you can face reality without camouflage, yours is the face of compassion.
  7. Grow old. It isn’t easy, it’s effortless.
  8. Have no answers. In Zen, we don’t find the answers; we lose the questions. It’s impossible to comprehend the marvel of what we are, or to understand the mystery of life’s impeccable genius. Weed out the confusion that comes from trying to understand.
  9. Seek nothing. Just for one moment take my word that you lack nothing. Have faith in yourself and the ground where you stand.
  10. Go back to 1. The gardener’s job is always just beginning.

 

Photos courtesy of Karen Maezen Miller

Adapted from the book Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden, 2014 (New World Library) by Karen Maezen Miller.

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Karen Maezen Miller

About Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller is a wife, mother, and a Zen Buddhist priest at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles, California. She is also a speaker, retreat leader and author, writing about spirituality in everyday life. Her most recent book is Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden (New World Library, May 2014), and she has also written Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life (New World Library, 2010) and Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood (Shambhala, 2006). As well, her writing is included in several anthologies. Karen Maezen Miller lives with her husband and daughter in Sierra Madre, California.
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