The Constant Gardener


Have I mentioned that we have a beautiful garden?  Right now the irises, roses, poppies, clematis, and peonies are in full flower.  The wisteria, lilac, daffodil and tulip  blooms of the spring still linger in loving memory.  Along with these beautiful flowers, our arch enemy, bishop’s weed, aegopodium podagraria (also known as gout weed, ground elder, goat’s foot, and Jack Jumpabout) has made its nefarious return.  Bishop’s weed is a formidable foe.  It defies almost every method of eradication, and the more countless hours my wife and I spend rooting it out, the more vigorously it returns.

Aegopodium Podagraria

The other night, in his teisho, Sensei Paul Seiko Schubert discussed how meditation was like gardening.  It seemed a fitting metaphor.  After all, the Pali word for meditation is bhavana, which literally means ”cultivation,” a word with clear horticultural roots.   Professor Glen Wallis has written:

“I imagine that when Gotama, the Buddha, chose this word to talk about meditation, he had in mind the ubiquitous farms and fields of his native India. Unlike our words ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation,’ Gotama’s term is musty, rich, and verdant. It smells of the earth. The commonness of his chosen term suggests naturalness, everydayness, ordinariness. The term also suggests hope: no matter how fallow it has become, or damaged it may be, a field can always be cultivated — endlessly enhanced, enriched, developed — to produce a favorable and nourishing harvest.”

Buddhism also employs another horticultural metaphor — the metaphor of ”seeds” (bija) to describe how past thoughts and actions lay down karmic traces in the unconscious which affect our future thoughts and actions.

But Sensei had a different horticultural metaphor in mind.  He was pointing out that in gardening, no matter how hard one works at it, the weeds always return.  Weeding is a constant practice, whether in gardening or meditation.

Of course there are many different kinds of mind-weeds — a practically infinite variety of desires, fears, concerns, and aversions in never-ending succession.  Sensei had one particular sort in mind, however: one that relates specifically to Buddhist practice.  These are the perennial questions of ”what next?” and ”what else?”

I had brought these very questions to Sensei in dokusan that evening. ”I’m wondering if I should be doing anything more with my practice?” I asked.

”What did you have in mind?” Sensei replied.  I confessed I wasn’t sure, and Sensei responded with ”Just sit.”   ”If there’s something else you need to do,” he added, ”it will emerge from your sitting — no one else can tell you what your practice needs.”

Sensei was pointing out that in both beginning and mature practice the same questions  arise, but the answer is always the same: just return to awareness, sit quietly with the question, and allow what’s needed to emerge.  In Zen there is no beginning practice and no advanced practice.  There is just returning to awareness.  Nothing is missing.  Nothing needs to be added.  There is no ”next” or ”else.”

I heard a charming gardening fable when I was interning at the Center for Mindfulness, Medicine, and Society in 1996.  It’s one that’s made the rounds over the years in various forms.  Marsha Linehan incorporated one version into her Dialectical Behavioral Therapy workbook for patients.  The fable tells of a gardener who’s tried everything to rid his garden of weeds.  In exasperation, he contacts a famous expert who inquires whether he’s attempted a variety of remedies.  When the gardner replies he’s tried all of them, the expert pauses and reflects, and finally replies ”all I can suggest is that you learn to love the weeds.”

We shouldn’t be distressed or disturbed when mind weeds that we thought we uprooted long ago return once again.  We should treat them like old friends.  It’s not that we are doing our practice wrong.  It’s just the nature of things.  The weeds come back.  We must be constant gardeners.  The path of practice is unending.  We return to it again and again.

Be diligent and light of heart.

Apologies to John le CarrÁ© for appropriating his title for this post!