Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden
A wisdom teaching at The Rothko Chapel, Houston
June 29, 2014
Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden
A wisdom teaching at The Rothko Chapel, Houston
June 29, 2014
I could not feed you.
But you did not starve.
I could not comfort you.
But you found your rest.
I could not carry you.
But you learned to walk.
I could not teach you.
But you taught yourself.
I could not keep you
push or pull you.
After a while, I couldn’t dress you
or even comb your hair.
I couldn’t brush your teeth.
You wouldn’t change your shoes!
I could not understand you.
And I still don’t.
But I can love you
when I stop trying
to do everything else.
The longest goodbye is not the one we give our children.
It is the one we give ourselves.
How long have I labored
when the labor was long done.
Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
spring comes and the grass grows by itself.
When life comes into focus, you realize there’s no time to waste.
Form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like a dart of lightning — emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.
Have you ever known a 28-year-old who felt as though his life was nearly over? Perhaps. How about a 58-year-old? Now you do.
In 1222, a Japanese monk named Dogen was 28 years old when he returned from a sojourn to China, a quest in search of the true Dharma. Needless to say, he found it. Dogen came home so energized and committed that he singlehandedly revitalized Japanese Zen into a form still alive today.
Upon returning after a four-year absence, he immediately wrote a short teaching. It wasn’t mystical or philosophical. It wasn’t clever or even original. He didn’t bang his own drum. Frankly, Dogen didn’t get a lot of attention in his day no matter what he did.
Just 1,000 words long, this article was what we might today call a “how-to.” He titled it “Universal Instructions for Sitting.” By “universal” he meant “for everyone.” Dogen had resolved the great matter of life and death — grasped the ultimate reality, the holy grail of a spiritual pursuit. But he didn’t waste time telling stories about it. What seized him as the most urgent thing to do was tell people how to sit in zazen, or zen meditation: still, upright, and as comfortably as possible, with the added assurance that everyone can do it.
Do not use your time in vain.
Dogen was concerned with nothing else because he had realized that anything else would use his time in vain.
He had a head start on this realization because his father died when Dogen was two and his mother when he was seven. Here he was, already 28. He would die at the age of 53. His instincts were spot on.
Concentrate your effort single-mindedly.
At some point while I was writing my last book, it hit me. It hit me like a brick because it was so obvious. I was never going to be everybody’s favorite fuzzy-headed Buddhist writer. I wasn’t in league with the really well-loved memoirists. I couldn’t pass myself off as a parenting expert, a relationship counselor, a TED talker or a psychologist. I’d topped out as a literary celebrity without ever becoming one.
All of that is just fine and right on time, because I feel the weight and length of my days. They are running out, and I no longer have time for much else. I just want to tell folks how to sit.
A quiet room is suitable. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs.
I’ve become clear on my life’s work and purpose. I know what I want to be when I grow up.
So I no longer go anywhere to do anything except sit with people who want to sit. I know that not everyone wants to sit. But everyone can.
I’ll show you.
Fukanzazengi, complete text
The Straightforward Path: A Zen Retreat
November 14-16, 2014 Friday-Sunday 2 nights
For all levels.
Where can you go to find peace, patience, acceptance, and joy? The straightforward teachings of Zen point directly to your enlightened nature, right here and now. This retreat combines the simple practices of the Zen tradition with loving guidance, including:
Instruction and practice in seated meditation using chairs or cushions
Dharma talks to illuminate the wisdom teachings in daily life
Discover how the power of silence, the strength of breath, and the support of a group practice uncovers your capacity to live with clarity and compassion.
This program is eligible for CE credits.
Join me. Register here.
Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Berkshires, Western Massachusetts
Three hours north of New York City
From Gardening Gone Wild:
I’d published two books and I was having trouble getting started on my third. As a Zen Buddhist priest, I write about spirituality in everyday life. My first book, Momma Zen, was about the path of early motherhood; the second, Hand Wash Cold, was about making a mindful home. But for the third, I wanted to write something “important” about Buddhism. Boldly ambitious, I made several attempts, each summarily rejected. I thought my writing career was over.
Then a sympathetic friend offered a simple suggestion. “Why don’t you write about the garden?” The idea was obvious. I could suddenly see exactly what the next book would be, and how easily it would come to life. It was already alive, and filled my vision at every turn.
My backyard is southern California’s oldest private Japanese garden, constructed in 1916 by a landscape designer from Japan. The unlikely prospect that a 7,500-square-foot garden — with four ponds, three bridges, two waterfalls and a teahouse — would be hidden in the backyard of a house in suburban Los Angeles is a rich premise for a book. But Paradise in Plain Sight goes beyond any history I can tell, and instead recounts what the garden has told to me: the living wisdom of our natural world. Released from my notion of what an important book should teach, I found instead that the garden already teaches everything. Rocks convey faith, ponds preach stillness, flowers give love, fruit teaches forgiveness, and leaves show how to let go. The garden right in front of me gives the lessons in fearlessness, forgiveness, presence, acceptance, and contentment that form each chapter of the book.
A story about this unique garden might be interesting, but wouldn’t provide lasting benefit, so my purpose was to change the way readers understand the word “paradise.” The secret to doing that is found in the word itself. Its old Persian roots convey its original intent: pairi-, meaning “around,” and diz, “to create (a wall).” Before it became a mythical ideal, paradise meant simply “an enclosed area.” A backyard, if you will, and not just my backyard, but everyone’s.
In the 17 years we’ve lived here, my family and I have made this paradise our own. Now I want readers to find their own paradise in the here and now, on the ground beneath their feet. Then I will have done something worthwhile.
If you’re a gardener (or wanna be) visit the Celebration of Gardening Books 2014 Giveaway for a shot at one of 7 just-published gardening books, including mine.
Weekend in Paradise, practice meditation and yoga with me in Washington DC June 21-22
Spend an hour in your own Paradise, a radio broadcast.
Art by Julie Kesti
At some point in this long, troubling year, I started pulling up into the school driveway to pick up my daughter after school, ending a two-year banishment to the street a block away, where my instructions were to sit in the car don’t get out don’t wave don’t talk just wait for me. What changed? Her various complaints and entreaties, the weeks on crutches, a friend’s betrayal, her math teacher’s dismissal, the weight of her backpack, the heat, the stress fracture in her left navicular, or maybe just the compounded angst of an emotional eighth-grader and her overwrought mother.
Most days found me idling in line with the parents who arrive twenty minutes early for the 2:30 bell. That’s when I started to see them, the special kids.
The special kids get out of school ten minutes early to board the special bus before the crush of the four hundred others. At first, I was reluctant to look, really look at them, seeing the slow-moving pack of kids and attendants only as a sign of my daughter’s imminent appearance. But I did start to see them and even knew them in a way. I knew who would be talking to themselves, head nodding, arms waving, running ahead or lingering behind, and who would be tugged by the hand or nudged roughly ahead with each shuffling step.
Every day I saw the boy with the bandana. I began, in fact, to look for him. He never missed. He was short, at least a foot shorter than either the girls or the boys so that he looked like a young child with a broad forehead, drooping mouth and thick glasses. His back was hunched and both feet turned out by forty-five degrees. He pulled a wheeled backpack behind him, and with a rolling totter on the inner edge of his shoes, he passed out of sight.
The bandana tied around his neck looked sporty, I thought, and he was always smiling. I wanted to believe that he was always smiling, that he was happy and proud, with friends and classmates, toting a backpack full of books and a sense of belonging. Then one day I realized what the bandana, gathered under his chin like a mop, must be for. It wasn’t sport. I saw him for real then, and I thought about his parents. Chastened, I wondered why the hell I thought I had any problems.
School will be over next week. My daughter and I will leave all of this year’s worry and stress behind. She will have a fresh start and new friends. Both of us are ready for that. But there is someone I will never be able to say goodbye to, the one I’ve never even said hello to, the boy in the bandana, being shoved to the bus and leaving me behind with nothing to wipe the tears.
Find a short interview with me at Shambhala SunSpace.
Enter the Goodreads Giveaway for a free copy. You have until Sunday to find faith in yourself.
Step through the gate by watching this video.
Spend thirty minutes in the garden by listening to this podcast.
Take a picture of your Personal Paradise and post it to my author page on Facebook.
Enter the Goodreads Giveaway here.
Listen to 30 Minutes in Paradise, a podcast here.
Art by Julie Kesti
Can’t do it.
Save my place.
Hold the space.
Hit the wall.
Can’t keep up.
Can’t keep going.
Count me out.
And then you do.
Here’s hoping you get to 25.
In honor of Mother’s Day, May 11, I’m offering a paperback copy of the perennially popular Momma Zen, personally inscribed, to someone who comments on this post by the end of the day, Friday, May 9. Your gift will arrive shortly after, giving you time to consider what you will do with it.
Photo ©Perry & Roses 2014
The titles stand like dead trees.
I was at the school board meeting last week. Kids were getting certificates for doing things that lift our hopes near the end of another hard year. The first middle-schooler called up had participated in a program called the Million Word Challenge, a six-week contest to read a million words. I can’t imagine enticing a young teen to read one hundred words, let alone a million.
How much is a million? My latest book barely registers, clocking in at about 38,000 words. Small words, too. So 25 times that.
The principal bubbled over when introducing the honoree, a slender girl behind a curtain of dark hair who had read two million words in the contest period.
After the awed applause, a board member asked the girl what she had read. The answer was nearly inaudible.
“I can’t remember,” she said. The man behind the mike repeated it so everyone could hear, and we chuckled, as if she had instantly disqualified herself. She read two million words and didn’t retain the title of even one book.
And then I thought: Yes!
Yes! Read two million words just to read them. Read five million for no reason. Read a billion without knowing how. Use them for kindling, for compost, for dust rags. Swallow, spit, shit, and forget. Take your certificate home and leave heads wagging. That’s what reading is for.
I read a lot in the last year. I wrote a lot in the last year. The two are indistinguishable. What did I read? So much that I didn’t keep track — couldn’t keep track — can’t say and don’t remember. I read poetry every day, first thing in the morning or last thing at night. I read bestsellers and no-sellers, big names and not. Two books a week or was it three? My appetite was fierce, my need consuming. I read whatever there was to read today, no waiting, for free, from the e-book library. If I scroll through my device I can tell you what they were, but not what they were about. The titles stand there now like dead trees, empty shadows. What did they give me? I don’t know. They fueled an invisible, molecular process, the combustion of dirt, air and water, and from it, came this glorious, shimmering waste.
Read, read, read, and don’t remember why.
When you see your life, you bring it to life.
Paradise in Plain Sight is now available from online sellers and will soon be in neighborhood stores. Please share this video glimpse into my home and garden via Facebook or Twitter, and then leave a comment on this post for a chance to win the very first signed copy.
If you are reading this in your email, click here to see the video.
I will notify the winner by Monday, April 28.