Zen Practice in the Garden

sunflower-single-yellow1Perhaps I love the garden most for this combination of engagement with the world’s needs and those long hours when I find myself alone in paradise in the cool of the day. The evening light is slanted and pale green and wind moves through the gaps in the dark rosemary hedge like blue smoke over the uncut lavender. Ask me then for three good reasons to garden and I will tell you: for beauty, for the coming apart of beauty, and for the opportunity to begin again with no design in mind.

– Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

To be a farmer in this modern world is to engage a kind of intuitive Zen training. It delivers to your doorstep the intensity of love and loss amongst the practical deeds required for sustaining life. It juxtaposes visions of perfection with the ordinariness of the unfinished and the mundane. It forces the question of life and death before you’re inclined to ask. Like all spiritual paths, to farm requires great will and great surrender. What could be missing on the path of inquiry into the meaning of this life?

The answer of course, is nothing. And yet, without a method, we have the human habit of being blind to what is most close to us and disconnected from our purpose. This is true whether you live in paradise or prison. (Sometimes we’re in both one after the other!) Through Zen practice, this wholehearted act of just sitting, we learn how to care for the garden in an entirely new way.

It is in this empty field that I welcome the return of spring, meeting new and old friends amidst the sunflowers and oryoki bowls. To serve this dharma hall, to balance the calling of formal practice and field activity, and to meet one another in our fullness, is the most wonderful gift I can imagine for this lifetime. The one right way to practice is a moving target. We are all very fortunate to live in a time of great renewal in the west where the koan of how to integrate Zen practice outside the historical prescription of the monastic tradition presents endless possibility and contradiction.  This friction is actually an asset – it keeps us from grasping onto easy formulas and revitalizes the intimate conversation of what it means to engage spiritual practice. When we move from our true center, the answer to that question will ultimately takes care of itself.

In a recent Insight Journal article, David Loy, who writes about Buddhism and climate change, passes on this lovely quote from Nisargadatta: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. Between these two, my life turns.” I look forward to sharing this dharma garden, in all its minutiae and metaphor with you all this coming season, for beauty, for the coming apart of beauty, and for the opportunity to begin again with no design in mind.


Many bows to good friends on the path, and Wendy, a gardener’s gardener.


Palms together,



Johnson, W. (2008). Gardening at the dragon’s gate. New York: Bantam Dell.

Loy, D. (2010). Bursting the bubbles. Insight Journal, 33.