paradise in plain sight: lessons from a zen garden by karen maezen miller

IMG_1860 In an exchange with Karen Maezen Miller, author of Paradise in Plain Sight, I wrote, “I have Paradise on standby (pending a number of other activities that crowded my schedule).” I suspect that truer words were never written, spoken or lived. If I learned but one lesson from Paradise in Plain Sight it is how determined we are in obscuring that it is. Our days are filled not with what inspires and impassions us but with things that eat time and offer little nourishment. And then we are astonished that we feel overwhelmed or incapacitated.

Maezen Miller takes us on a gently disciplined stroll through her life as she cultivates this clear seeing of paradise. First, she tells us that paradise means an “enclosed area” and ultimately it is the enclosure of our own backyard, our own life. The lessons of how to tend to that life are offered through teachings stories of her experience in tending simultaneously to her own life and the Zen garden she tends.

It’s actually quite simple. First, she writes, find a garden. I looked out my window at the dishevelled stretch of the west garden. Well, that was exciting, I muttered to myself, at the same time realizing this is how I meet whatever I notice in my life. In the first chapter Maezen Miller brings us into the push-pull of her own life, decisions that should have been made but weren’t, tentativeness about going this way or that, until a chance word turns it all around: “The whole thing was built for Zen.” The real estate agent likely meant the garden itself; Maezen Miller soon discovers it means the thing was built for the whole of Zen, life itself.

Of course life doesn’t come in neatly weeded plots of springing-up roses and gracefully bowing willows. It was heartening to read that ground is hard to break in her world too. Apparently Zen teachers don’t get pre-tilled soil or Super-Gro on demand. They too struggle with the Great Matter. In the chapter “Moon,” she offers the tenderest of teachings by her own teacher, Maezumi Roshi.

“Whether we see a crescent moon or a half-moon, in any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking?” Maezumi said in the talk (she had transcribed for him). “Perhaps you are more logical than me,” he laughed, “and you don’t wait for the day your life will be full.” p. 42

Maezen takes up the teaching and points to the way we see ourselves as lacking because we mistake the waning moon of our abilities as a true diminishing of who we are.

Your heart is always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way. p. 44

The moon is always full. It is our vision that waxes and wanes. And that is the purpose of practice, to see that fullness.

The point of Zen is to settle on the ground. Feet, knees, butt: on the ground… There is no Zen that is not on the ground. p. 29

DSC_0162It’s reassuring, especially if you garden, to know all that time in the dirt and mud is not just for putting a pretty face on the house. It has been cultivating the solidity we all crave so we can be unshakable in the storms and upheavals of our lives. This solidity defines the spaciousness which is crucial to understanding what life truly is about. And if what life is about must be spelled out: It’s bamboo. Really. Strong, solid yet hollow bamboo which stand firmly planted yet boundless in its infiltration of the ground. It reminded me of the Bishop’s Weed my cousin gave me. Boundlessly indestructible. Maezen Miller crafts a manifesto of being out of her war against bamboo (and I grasp mine against the Bishop’s Weed); it is only a war with ourselves.

  • Be quiet
  • Drop your personal agenda
  • Lose all wars
  • Give up your seat
  • You’re as ready as you’ll ever be
  • Reject nothing
  • What appears in front of you is your liberation

And my favourite: Start over. Always start over.

DSC_0161Finally, though I wished it had been at the beginning, she takes us into the weeds! However, without the tantalizing tales of how the Zen garden came to be, how her life unfolded petal by petal, how roots take hold and vines entangle, I don’t think I would have been ready to take up a vow to live all weeds as an intricate part of my life.

Maezen Miller’s book is an invitation to stop using the constructed clocks around us to define paradise, that enclosed area which we render as a cage or a trap. She appeals to us to seek out the natural timing of our heart beat and the rhythms of our breath so that we can design a space that is livable, sustainable and truly boundless.

Paradise cannot be deferred or put on standby. It wouldn’t matter if it was because that would not keep it from unfolding. It would just keep us from seeing it.

Maezen Miller respectfully reminds us:

Life and death are of supreme importance,
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken, awaken!
Take heed!
Do not squander your life!


On a personal note, this book has been an a-maezen gift (yes, I just did that) as I enter my 7th decade this week. Half of it has been spent trying to avoid weeds and overgrowth while tentatively plunking down the flowers in all my gardens. At least now, the trowel looks like an old friend.

9 thoughts on “paradise in plain sight: lessons from a zen garden by karen maezen miller

  1. I always appreciate your book reviews Genju. My partner and I are buying a home with an already well loved yard full of possibility. I look forward to this new path of gardening and using Karen’s book as a guide. Happy birth-day too!

    btw, I took Jukai on March 13…beautiful, memorable, a lifetime of revealing.
    My new name, Myotai (subtle wisdom).
    deep bow
    Mary Myotai

  2. A beautiful and inspiring post. Yes, every moment is an invitation to start over. Being aware of how we meet everything in life is truly a teaching and dropping our personal agenda a wonderful challenge! Thank you.

  3. This reminded me of a passage from Nonin Chowaney’s article on William Stafford’s Dharma Eye.

    “Whenever I read this poem, I am reminded of the first Bodhisattva Vow, which is, “Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.” What are we to free them from? Suffering. Because they are numberless, this appears to be an impossible task, and early on in my practice with my master, Dainin Katagiri-roshi, I asked him, “How do we free all beings?” He replied, “By encountering them wholeheartedly wherever we find them.” At the time, I was puzzled, but after a while, I came to understand that what this means is to be there with them completely, openly, intimately, and kindly. Treat them with respect, gently and thoughtfully. Then, you give them no cause for distress or concern; put them at ease, and provide a kindred spirit for them to relate to. This includes all beings animate and inanimate — human beings, dog beings, tree beings, flower beings, dish beings, shoe beings, and car beings.”

    And trowel beings, I’m sure. Thanks for another lovely post.

    • Oh, trowel beings! Yes! Thanks, Grandma! This is not a book about gardens but a book about gardening. Which is all about walking into hell realms with respect, kindness and intimacy. Something you write about so well too!

  4. I am so pleased to have found your blog. I started at Zen Dot Studio.. I have followed Carole’s blog for some now now. I looked at her blog list of favorites and ended up at your blog. I love your posts and decided to subscribe to your blog via email. Then I took a look at your list of blogs and was completely surprised to find my blog ‘layers’ listed there among all the wonderful Zen blogs and sites.
    I have never considered my blog a ‘Zen” blog although I did sometimes write posts on Zen stuff. My current blog is titled “The Zen of Creativity” based on the wonderful book by John Daido Loori. Also, one of my favorite books about gardening and Zen is THE ART OF SETTING STONES by Marc Peter Keane.
    I will be back often to read more of your posts.

    • Hi Donna! How lovely that you stopped by. Yes, I enjoy your blog having found it via The Dot! Is your Zen of Creativity a new blog of yours? I’ll go check it out anyway and add it to my list!

      Ah. It’s a blog post. Daido was a formidable influence on my practice and art. How beautiful to see his teachings on your page!


  5. Pingback: Reading Lists from the world of Mindfulness & Creative Living | Aarathi Selvan

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