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Lessons from a Zen Garden



By the time I was twelve, the tiny gardens in front of the attached brick houses in my Brooklyn neighborhood had become slabs of concrete. In the succession of city apartments I lived in as an adult, most of the house plants I dabbled with withered within days or weeks. So, when I moved to a house on the South Fork of Long Island and was confronted with a half-acre of scrub oak and patchy lawn, I was overwhelmed. How could I possibly transform this chaos into a garden? I clearly lacked a green thumb. But passion and determination won out over inexperience, and over a period of years a garden did appear.

As my garden matured, so did I. I planted my first lilac bush eight years before I began my Zen practice. I woke up to discover that Buddhist teachings had been growing all around me.

This article appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Spirituality & Health. Lesson: Expect Nothing When I planned the first perennial border behind the house, I enthusiastically pored over glossy garden catalogs and books from the library. Since I had never seen many of the flowers in real life, I chose the colors based on photographs and descriptions. Then I drew a large diagram — to scale, no less — indicating where the plants would be placed, with tissue overlays showing colors, heights, and blooming times. Based on information gleaned from books, I deduced the number of plants needed and ordered everything from the cheapest catalog. While I awaited the shipment, I rototilled the soil with a mixture of manure, peat moss, and lime. All was ready. In early April, a UPS van rolled up the drive and brought me a carton about two-feet by two-feet by eighteen-inches deep. Surely this was the first of many boxes due to arrive. Nope. The package contained everything I ordered. Nothing was wider or higher than two inches. All my planning was for naught, I believed. When the seedlings were …

The Rev. Madeline Ko-i Bastis, founder and director of Peaceful Dwelling Project (, is a Zen priest and the first Buddhist to be board-certified as a hospital chaplain. She has worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, NYU Medical Center, and in the AIDS Unit at Nassau County Medical Center.

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