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.

hand-wash stones cold

DSC_0158 It’s the mantra of this season around the community: Tough winter. Lose everything?

I would hope so. Losing everything is the practice, isn’t it? Youth, good health, eternal life – these we know we are meant to lose. Ah but, let go? No. That’s a whole different matter. I’d rather die than let go and that has all the makings of a terrific TV drama. The sad thing is it’s my life drama. Dying is easy¹; letting go requires getting dirty.

A tough winter helps with letting go. So do two hooligan pups weighing in at 90 lbs apiece and loving the untrammelled joy of tearing through the dry bed garden. The results showed as the snow did its own letting go: a magnolia with top-kill, the Japanese maple looking gouged out and gnawed, the pebbles of the dry bed strewn hither and yon.

Determined to face this year’s disasters with equanimity, I dug deep beyond my typical tendency to overwhelm. This year would be different. I am, after all, a seasoned practitioner. So I sat in the Japanese garden by the upheaval of landscape material, stones, and cedar chips stuck to dollops of dog shit and cried. Crying is a normal function of a deep-felt embodied equanimity. Truly. In that moment of sensorily experiencing a vibrant mixture of soil, dirt, and poop, it is a statement of abject honesty which is the first part of equanimity.

The second is to start with what is at hand. Yes, even if it is dog poop. But if you’re really squeamish, do it first. Then pick up each rock, pebble, stone and wash off the debris of winter. Some things need a bit of help to let go of their accretions because they can’t quite do it for themselves. Sometimes we need to be the one driving that wedge between comfortably covered in useless material and frighteningly adrift in a cold wash of freedom.

And so I progressed from the Japanese garden to the walkway of the south garden.



Then onto the veggie and rose gardens where there was much more letting go to be done. It’s easier to let go of weeds but making the decision to tear out the vegetable boxes and all the paraphernalia that went with it was a bizarre series of discussions that eventually amounted to confronting my attachment to “being fair” to a pile of rotting wood. Pruning back the overgrown rose bushes drove the point home quite literally. There is no logic to attachment, only a misperception of what we think we’re nurturing.


rose garden








In the end all the procrastinating, crying, and debating culminated in a rather nice new layout.

veggie boxes


Yes, it’s been a tough winter. And we didn’t lose much but we let go of everything.


¹Ram Dass (2010). Dying is absolutely safe. Retrieved from


the options offered by suffering

Last week, John Briere was in town giving a lecture on Mindfulness & Trauma.  He was quite entertaining, insightful, and very well-versed in the pain of trauma.  I appreciated his transparency in talking about his own trauma – just enough for us to know he’d walked the talk for many miles but not so much that he became a caricature of “heal thyself.”

At one point he challenged the now-trite phrase “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  I won’t go into all of his argument on whether suffering is truly optional.  Suffice to say he made irrefutable points backed with solid data.  It did however remind me that I prefer to say, “Pain is inevitable; suffering offers options.”  I shared this with Briere at one of the breaks and we discussed the paradox of pain – that without pain we may not know our true suffering; without suffering we cannot know our true nature.  And that perhaps, our practice of sitting with that suffering burns way the multiple layers of assumptions and false logic we are heir to.

There were also parts of his talk that affected me deeply and so I sat with it over the days that followed.  I noticed that the suffering I felt gave me options large and small.  I had the option to tuck back into my autopilot ways of facing pain.  I had the option to turn towards it tentatively, ever ready to duck back under the covers of my favourite delusion, numbness.  I had the option to face it head on, engage it fully, and burn away the protective shell of stories in one firestorm.  I had the option to dance with it.

What was not an option however was the knowledge of being in pain.  We often hear that pain is the body/mind’s way of saying it needs something, that it is trying to adapt to a shift in demands and resources.  I wonder now if suffering is the body/mind’s way of saying we need to look closer to what is going on, to locate what is awry, and meet it with compassion.

a purposeful blindness

There’s a purposeful blindness that centers our perception.  I went out into the garden that hugs the south side of the house.  It tends to be a haven for butterflies, moths, and assorted flying bugs and beetles.  Thankfully, the ravenous Japanese beetles have gone after decimating my lily collection over several years.

I go out with my camera into the adolescent growth which sways with a gangly awkwardness as I wade through it.  Usually this is enough to send most winged beings flying for safer havens.  But that’s only been my perception.  Going over several pictures, I was amazed to find little bugs and beetles, ants and bees tucked away in the recesses of petals and leaves.

The first few shots of this bee balm caught the blossom and my little green friend didn’t appear to me until I stepped into the shadows and enlarged the shot.  He (she?) must have been having a kindness practice day because when I turned back, he was still there, ready to pose in several more angles.  He walked daintily across the petals and paused on the crest of the flower.  It reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings; to walk on the earth as we would on lotus petals without crushing them.

It amazed me that he stayed for so long.  Mostly, it amazed me that I had not seen him in the viewfinder the first time.  And yet, it might have been a good thing because in the excitement of seeing that luminous green against the mouth-watering red, I might have become obsessed with getting the perfect picture and forgotten to be surprised by his tender relationship with the blossom.

Sometimes when we see everything, we miss what is important to truly see.

showing up for salvation

There is something about persisting.  Last Spring the vegetable garden looked beyond salvation.  But we persisted because we knew somewhere in the thicket of stinging nettles and various noxious growth lay our good intentions for eating loca-mindfully.  Notice that I didn’t call the rampant flora “weeds.”  I’m finding it harder and harder these days to use words that betray my blindness and my preferences.  Keeping the ever-spinning wheel of dependent arising in mind, how can I label something as not belonging when it has simply moved into the space I created by moving out.

Still, there were boxes that leaned more towards the nomadic type of plant life.  So this Spring we decided to let the two Western-most containers house various grasses and the occasional volunteer squash vine while we reclaimed – yet again – the others for tomatoes, lettuce, chard, chili peppers, and (something new!) eggplant.  It was an easy negotiation – much easier than the one I tend to have with myself about the boundaries between mental order and chaos.  And so far the pact is being honored, even after all the heavy rain and blistering heat which would make the mulch sprout.

I suppose there is little that is beyond salvation if we’re willing to dig deep enough, negotiate wisely enough, and allow enough time and space to focus on the essentials.  Most all, there is little that won’t change or rearrange with sufficient persistence.  Showing up each season, each day, each moment is all it takes.

slumming in the garden of messy delights

Each year I work away at one more hindrance by setting the intention to let it be.  Whatever “it” is, I leave it to be what it is going to be.  Well, more accurately, I set the intention to leave it to be.  What typically happens is that as “it” becomes more and more its own self, my need to cull, cut, contort, and otherwise connive it to be what I want it be asserts itself.  And nowhere it that more apparent than in my garden.

I’ve defined a new psychological disorder; if delusions are inexhaustible, so too are shrinkolexical categorizations of the impenetrable.  Gardener’s Obsession Circumscribed to Dirt – GOCD.  It is diagnosed by an uncontrollable urge to punctuate clusters of flowering plants with spaces of dirt.  It can be chronic or acute.  Typically, it is a low-level dysfunctionality (sort of like a dysthymia of gardening illusions) but can surge into a full-blown acute case in the months of July and August.  The more serious cases are found in August if one has a case of GOCD – vegetative type.

As you know I’ve spent two years away from my garden during its most formative and needy periods of development.  This might well give rise to another disorder – some sort of parental neglect of blooming potential or something.  Anyway, having left for the wilds of Santa Fe every March and August, I seem to have developed a slight tolerance for letting go of the garden I had planned to have and an acceptance of the one I do have – not unlike being a real parent of a real child.  No longer do I yearn (too much) for a neatly established garden with swathes of dark earth or mulch caressing the growth edges of Ox-Eye Daisies, Campanula, Pasque Flowers, Bleeding Hearts, and Bee Balm.  I am at one with the Azaleas with their twiggy branches and have left the Nishiki to skirmish with the kiwi vine for canopy space.  The Irises seem quite content with the Lupines and the Clematis are holding out against the Sandcherries.   Even the dreaded Peonies have re-asserted themselves quietly in the side beds.

This year, with no travel plans on the near or far horizon, I ironically find myself confronting my GOCD full on.  Where I thought there would be time to edit the garden beds, I find only time to edit out the unnecessary from the narrative of my lifeline.  And the most unnecessary at this moment is the illusion that anything can be picture perfect.  So, I am embracing my garden in its gardenness and slumming in the messy delight of its tangled growth.  Strangely, that messy English Garden I coveted for so many years seems to have manifested.  Perhaps it has only if you tilt your head a smidgen to the right which allows the echinacea to block the view of the weedy grass between the spirea and the honeysuckle.  But it is there.

Deeply embedded in the foliage and flowers, it is there.

in the details

It’s all in the details.  Or maybe not.  I was relishing the rich prose of one of my most favoured bloggers, Zen Dot Studio, just after returning from my guerrilla gardening incident on Sunday.  It amazes me how a good writer can capture the details in the devilment that is life.  You know what I mean: the ability to freeze-frame an experiential moment, to re-frame the quotidian so it shows off the extraordinary in the ordinary, to…  oh!  Just go read Rowdy Abundance!  My words will simply ruin it for you.

Now, I will admit to having been somewhat peeved at this raucous talent that ZDS exudes in every post.  Well, not every because I do admit there was one… or was that a half of one…  or a third of something about three years back when I was feeling very intimidated by all these bloggers out here?  Suffice to say this meeting of like-minded people has an edge which is to show me the height and depth of what talent looks like when cultivated.  I don’t always welcome the challenge.  Thankfully, ZDS isn’t the only mirror I face every morning as I do a quick run through of my favoured literary pixies (that’s those of us living in our pixelated lives) and I am learning that there may be a possibility we can each attain this quality of careful attention to our lives. 

At the same time, facing this call to dive into the details of life can be daunting.  It can inflame the smoldering coals of self-pity, whining, whinging, and all other forms of self- assassination.  Or it can ignite the embers of creativity, commitment, and change.

What does this have to do with Zen?  Nothing.  And everything.  Life only happens in the details.  When we see what is right there in the center of our vision field, life happens extraordinarily.  When we don’t, life happens anyway – and we call it ordinary.