The Fertile Ground of Zazen

The most exemplary nature is that of topsoil. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as a history or memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. ~ Wendell Berry

Being a farmer certainly made me prone to Zen practice. It was not such a big leap from the hand hoe to the cushion. Day after day, cultivating the earth regardless of the weather, not knowing what is actually happening, is also the art of zazen. At first, this earth doesn’t look like much — a dark substance, impersonal and distant. Some days are a lot of work — the digging fork takes a lot of muscle, and large bits and pieces of moldy organic matter stick up from the mud. But then, just when winter seems endless, the season shifts and the soil dries out. Becoming friable with continued working, it warms up to your touch. Tiny sprouts emerge, and seemingly before you know it, a blossom starts to swell on a twining vine.

Zazen is a lot like this. When we first start practice, we can’t always see what becomes of a single meditation, just as a farmer can’t really see what becomes of one day of working the land. Is this helping or hurting? How come my mind continues to be so busy? If we take up this daily practice however, over time we start to see something shift and change. The heart softens and becomes more pliable, and the mind becomes grounded and ready. Naturally, we often just want the fruit, immediately, but if even one day was removed from a year of caring for the soil, there would be no fruit. Not one moment is expendable. Farmers and Zen practitioners come to discover there is no use worrying whether it’s a good day or a bad day, it is just a good day. Zazen is just a good day. This is immensely freeing because it’s right in this place without compare when we really begin to take up our life in full.

 Zazen is enriched by all things that die and enter into it.  For every sweet pepper and crisp cucumber on the dinner plate, Earth touching buddhacountless microorganisms have cycled through birth and death to create the ground in which they emerged — mites and springtails, worms and spiders. Scientists know that the soil that looks inanimate to our eye (rudely referred to as “dirt”) is constantly in dynamic flux. In the same way, when we sit still and let go of our attachment to experiencing the world through our thoughts and turn our attention to the ground underneath, what drops away reveals this bright awake heart/mind — responsive, receptive, and ready. The whole of the Buddha’s teachings are understood through the practice of zazen.

So much of modern life involves piling on more and more, much more than the ground can digest, so that when we sit zazen, a cascade of thoughts, memories, involvements, and emotions often emerge with a vengeance. We have lost the appreciation for fallow time, for the mind and body to catch up to one another. Sitting zazen can be very revealing about the choices we are making in our lives day to day and over time. Little by little, we can see into the ocean when the waves die down.

For zazen, the instructions are simple, but the doing is hard!  One: Sit upright with a grounded base and open relaxed upper body. Two: Attend the breath. Three: When you notice involvement with thoughts, let go, returning to your immediate experience. It is our human nature to hold on and try to keep the things we love, and push away the things we don’t want. This is the way we usually navigate the day. But it is very interesting how we come to see that there is no winning this game, no end to it, and that the underlying energy beneath this is one of anxiety and separation, which becomes the source of suffering. Zazen is an invitation to broaden the view and reconnect with an awareness that is our birthright. We can say what dies nourishes the ground, this inherent bright clear mind, but in truth, dying is more like evaporating. We notice the ground, this mind more intimate than our brain’s thought processes, has been taking care of you all along.

One of the beauties of a small farm is its intimacy. After 25 years, my hands have touched every square inch of this land, planting and hand weeding. Likewise, in zazen, we become intimate with the landscape of our minds, noticing the familiar grooves, the rough territory, the sweet warm spots, and come to understand the limitless ground that supports it all. Shining the light of the Buddha’s teachings on this landscape brings great life forth. Surprises emerge and we begin to navigate our lives in a whole different way. We entrust ourselves to zazen like we trust the soil to nourish the tomatoes and sunflowers. We take care of our meditation, and zazen then informs us, wordlessly and without fail.

Take care of your meditation and trust that the teachings of the Buddha will find you.

~ Palm to palm,