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.

being still with just this mind

Book Review: Everything is the Way: Ordinary Mind Zen by Elihu Genmyo Smith

From its Introduction to the last chapter, there is a tone of quiet humility in Elihu Genmyo Smith’s writing.  That gives it some serious street cred when he begins the first chapter “Be still.”

Sitting is a natural slowing down of this rushing, self-centered, mind-body chattering that we often live.

A student and dharma heir of Joko Beck, the chapters are infused with her way of writing (I’ve only read ever read Joko’s teachings) and I felt this particular book as an extension of her words.  Genmyo Smith explains complex ideas of nonduality and the impact on our everyday life, the Four Noble Truths and a variety of Zen practices with a light and open hand.  In his way of teaching what could be trite – “Zen is being intimate, being who we are” – becomes an opportunity to explore how we build the walls of self-centered dreams and engage in avoidance of “each moment, life as it is…”

“Life as it is” does not mean that “I don’t need to practice; I’ll just go on with my life and learn what is needed.”  That would be like saying, “Having food in the fridge is enough; I don’t have to prepare it and put it in my moth.”  The ludicrousness of this is obvious; yet often in our life we do not see the need to make and effort to practice.”

Genmyo Smith weaves teaching from the Pali Canon, Dogen, and Hakuin, sutras and koans, his dharma talks and exchanges with students.  Each chapter is unique in offering some aspect of practice and it’s often an aspect that has confounded me or seem impenetrable.  I particularly enjoyed the last chapters which were devoted to Jukai, likely because I tend to be a slave to ritual.  And yet, buried in a sentence down towards the end of a page was a nugget just for me:

As I said, receiving the precepts is receiving our life.

Just in this moment, on this day, I needed to hear that.  Joko Beck’s voice, blended with Maezumi Roshi’s and all my teachers.  It is encouraging in this moment to feel the understanding that, through the many ceremonies, I have been offered my life and perhaps it is time to receive it.

Genmyo Smith’s book is a little treasure to open over and over again.  I’d recommend the paperback edition over the ebook – much better for making your life notes in the margin.

Read more on Genmyo’s blog Clouds.

clarify life, clarify death

Sometimes our life seems to go to all kinds of so-called negative extremes.  When this happens, how do we take care of our frustrations, anxiety, pain, sorrows, even despair?  The point is how do we put balance in our life?  What kinds of standards do we use?

In the Four Noble Truths, Shakyamuni Buddha speaks the truth of suffering…  Birth, sickness, old age, and death are all suffering…  Dogen Zenji tells us that there is a buddha within sickness; there is a buddha in the midst of getting old; there is a buddha with suffering…  Do not discriminate between the life of buddha and your life.

Of the Four Noble Truths, the fourth, the Eightfold Path, is the most important, for it talks about how we can take care of suffering….  The Eightfold Path begins with right understanding, which takes care of ninety percent of the pain in life.

(From the) Eight Awarenesses of the Enlightened Person…  I want to emphasize the first two awarenesses: wanting little and knowing how to be satisfied.

The last of the Eight Awarenesses is avoiding idle talk… the pursuit of conceptual thoughts or dualistic understanding.  We can even make our healthy body sick by our thoughts and vice versa.  In our tradition, zazen is the best means to taste this nonduality, or peace.

So when you feel fear, pain, and frustration, appreciate your life as Buddha’s life….  Clarify what life is, what death is.  There is a very clear answer.  How you appreciate it and how you live it is up to you.  Please take care of it.

from Appreciate Your Life: The essence of Zen practice by Taizan Maezumi Roshi

some kind of maneuvering

For the most part, we are not just sitting; we are nursing delusions one after another.  There is often this feeling that I am doing shikantaza.  When we have this feeling, then shikantaza is not at all shikantaza.  Instead, there is some kind of maneuvering, some kind of action of one’s self.  Do not be fooled by words and ideas.

from Appreciate Your Life: The essence of Zen practice by Taizan Maezumi Roshi

groping the elephant

Eminent students [of the Dharma], long accustomed to groping for the elephant, pray do not doubt the true dragon.*

I like my misconceptions.  Actually, it’s more accurate to say I don’t dislike them enough.  In fact, they are so weakly challenged for their right of passage through my inner world that they tend to leave quite a mess behind.  None of this genteel “guests” in the Guesthouse à la Rumi.  And yet, strangely, I like them for the momentary respite they give me from reality.

Then on Monday, Barry at Ox Herding wrote a lovely post on reality to which I commented that “if reality is not optional, then suffering is inevitable.”  So there you have it.  Grope on that elephant all you want; reality will win out when you sit atop it and the tree trunks start moving.

*Maezumi, Hakuyu Taizan, Commentary on Fukanzazengi.  In Loori, John Daido (ed.), The Art of Just Sitting: Essential writings on the zen practice of shikantaza.

PS: Barry has graciously offered his new book The Path of Zen to everyone.  It’s simply beautiful… and very real!  Please click here to obtain a copy.  A deep bow of gratitude for all your teachings, Barry!

Edit: “if reality is optional, then suffering is inevitable.”  Not surprising I’m always confused!

an opportunity provided by a finger

Practice, apparently, is not about recognizing esoteric signs.  Fingers (flipped or no), banners, needles or mallets don’t count.  Nor do Rorschach leavings in the bottom of my ink pots.  Realization of our true nature doesn’t come carefully packaged and delivered by Fed-Ex.  And, listen carefully, it definitely doesn’t arise out of being whacked by a kyosaku, pummelled by a fist, a staff or a shout*.

This is the place we get stuck.  We try to understand enlightenment by our discriminative mind; yet, our discriminative, our discursive thought, is the very thing that binds us.  The question really is how to go beyond, how to transcend that dichotomy.  But we all have to start with that discriminative mind. 

At this point, I am beginning to get the inkling that I’ve wasted precious practice time diving into shallow waters.  But the discriminative mind, the mind that wants to have evidence, steps, and stories, is what we have as the start point.  Perhaps that first tentative step (or sometimes ego-inflated step) is simply to want this because my own suffering is too much and I am willing to take, buy, trade, barter time on the cushion for the promise of relief.

That’s ok.  Unless it stops there.

*Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Commentary on Fukanzazengi.  In Loori, John Daido (ed), The Art of Just Sitting, 2nd Edition

2009 – all that it was

Where is the Hindrance?  Our life is usually so hectic that we quite easily lose ourselves.  Zazen is a wonderful opportunity to face and closely study ourselves.  In a way, it is almost a joke to have to find out who we are or to realize what our life is.  Our life, this life, is already in realization.  It is already manifesting, so what is there to look for?  When we look for something, Buddha calls this delusion.  Unfortunately, this is what all of us do one way or another.

from Appreciate Your Life by Taizan Maezumi Roshi

Sharing below a reflection of my delusions in 2009.  Still, I have been blessed to find these many paths that allow me to walk out my practice.  I think I’ve caught almost all – except for the running – which may have to wait for another time.

It started in January with an unexpected chance to record the priest ordination at Upaya while I was there for a calligraphy retreat with Kaz Tanahashi.  In Spring, playing chauffeur, tour guide and close protection for roshi during her talks on hospice care and a Summer of preparing for jukai back at Upaya.  Then a side trip to San Francisco on the way home.

And home… the refuge of five kitties, wild birds, dragon fruit, and snow.

And home 2… the beach…

I still haven’t figured out how to get all this attached to  music.  That’s my delusion for 2010, I guess.

I hope you enjoy it.

Please have deep conviction and trust in yourself to be truly Yourself.  There is no other way.  By doing so, you will have a deep confidence and respect for yourself.  Going one step further, since the life of each of us contains everything, taking care of yourself is taking care of everything else, do you see?

Taizan Maezumi

Thank you for practicing,