Even after thirty-plus years of Zen meditation grounded by organic gardening, each season my practice grows a little less civil and slightly more feral. Where once I identified with Thoreau and the red poetry of Zen master Ikkyu, I now take my place in the disrespectful lineage of the huge Chinese wisteria vine that is dismantling with its impolite weight the fence that separates our paradise from the Saha world. Soon all trace of barrier protection will disappear and the unseen design of things will take form.
A few years ago in a meeting at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, His Holiness the Dalai Lama encouraged a gathering of Western dharma students to return to the original teachings of the Buddha and apply these teachings to modern life. That was before there were more shopping malls in North America than there were high schools and before it was clear that the United States consumes one-quarter of the global production of oil to fuel our expensive lifestyle. On the edge of ecological disaster, I follow the Dalai Lama’s encouragement with renewed enthusiasm.
I have been investigating how the Four Noble Truths relate to gardening and meditation. That there is suffering in the human and more-than-human world is bedrock truth. I know suffering every time I plunge my digging fork into undisturbed ground—the suffering of a gardener wanting to grow food on wild land while also wanting to leave the ground profoundly alone, and the suffering that I imagine of the land itself bearing humanity’s heavy tread.
Gardening is radical work, made of the mixed blood of delight and suffering. The garden has long fangs, not always hidden. I remember my friend Christine, eight months pregnant, digging in her garden. She overturned an underground nest of newborn gophers snuggled around the roots of her prize bearded iris plants. With her shovel in her hand, ready to strike or not, the panting Earth mother gazed down at her blind-eyed rodent enemies as they moved slowly in her shadow. Suffering exists.
The Second Noble Truth teaches that there is an origin to suffering. It arises out of craving, aversion and delusion. The more I identify with my own physical body and the green body of the garden, the more I resist their inevitable change. Here a quiet inquiring mind, settled by the natural world that surrounds and sustains me, is essential. I know that craving has three expressions—a deep desire for sensual pleasure, a desire to manifest or to be something, and the complementary desire to release all that is and disappear.
At the midpoint of her summer meditation retreat, my no-nonsense dharma teacher neighbor, Yvonne Rand, provided me with an excellent teaching on the Second Noble Truth. In the dead of night she pulled me out of my home and gestured for me to approach her pet tropical cactus, a gigantic seven-foot-high Epiphyllum oxypetalum plant, the Queen of the Night. Immediately, I was submerged in a thick tide of tropical fragrance, Lethian, with wave after wave of soporific sweetness washing over me. The Queen of the Night had pushed open a single bloom of one of her legendary flowers that unfurl so rarely, always in the dark of night, and always for only a few short hours. The pristine white orb of this perfumed flower whispered huskily, “sex, sex, SEX,” to any available pollinating insect, tropical or not, in the vicinity. I longed to be absorbed by that blossom, to manifest as a jungle of Epiphyllum plants, and to disappear, leaving no trace.
The Third Noble Truth teaches that there is cessation of suffering. Cessation arises with patience and endurance. It is a coolness that puts an end to concepts. Standing next to Yvonne in the dark court of the Queen of the Night, breathing in and out in rhythm with the night-flowering cactus, I knew suffering and its cessation.
The Fourth Noble Truth is practical and clear, pointing to an eightfold path to navigate the terrain of suffering and delight. In 1577 the British horticulturist and author Thomas Hill described the garden as a “ground plot for the mind,” a phrase that came to life for me a few years ago when we laid out and planted a noble eightfold path children’s garden at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. As we dug the beds and decided what to plant in this ground plot of our common mind, the kids wrestled with the soil as well as with the teachings. We followed the classic groupings of the eightfold path as we worked, with a few kid-friendly adaptations.
We dug the first two beds dedicated to Wisdom. We marked the beds with blue signs for clear-eyed understanding and planted the herb eyebright for the first member of the eightfold path, Right View (samma-ditthi). This plant clears confusion from cloudy eyes, reminding gardeners that the best view is no view. We cultivated a partner bed for Right Intention (samma-sankappa), planting it to a wild mix of cover crop, honing our intention to feed the ground.
The next grouping of beds was a threesome dedicated to Beneficial Ethics. We marked these beds with bright yellow signs to call down the warmth of the sun and planted the ancient three sisters of Mesoamerica—beans, corn and squash. In honor of Right Speech (samma-vaca) we sowed dragon-tongue beans since the bean is the old Incan plant of communication. To support the beans we planted corn, the Mother of Crops, in the neighboring bed. This corn bed was dedicated to Right Action (samma-kammanta). Because modern corn is endangered by genetic modification, the kids insisted on planting rainbow Inca flint corn, with its unaltered gene structure. Then we planted the third sister, squash, in honor of Right Livelihood (samma-ajiva). The livelihood of squash, the eldest sister, is to cover and protect the ground, growing fruit that will feed the hungry and the stranger.
The final grouping in our noble eightfold path garden was dedicated to samadhi, or concentrated, focused attention. The kids weren’t so interested in samadhi, but they did choose red signs to announce the three members of the team: Right Effort (samma-vayama), Right Mindfulness (samma-sati) and Right Concentration (samma-samadhi). “Red signs are a traffic light to stop you when you’re lost,” one boy observed as he sowed sunflowers in the Right Effort bed. For Right Mindfulness—heart and mind together/in the present moment—we planted a few noble perennials: lavender for the heart and rosemary for the mind. Later when these plants got huge we moved them to the front of the greenhouse, where they are growing mindfully to this day. Last of all, we planted Stone Age wheat in honor of Right Concentration. The continuous cultivation of this ancient staple has long nourished the mind of concentration.
The children’s garden is almost ten years old this summer. As a ground plot for the mind of curious beings experimenting with meditation and gardening, it is well tended and well enjoyed. A few years ago we planted an apple tree in the center of this eightfold wheel of garden beds. By the time the fruit of this tree ripens, the huge wisteria at the western edge will have finished devouring the border around our Garden of Eden.