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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 planted, they looked pathetic. To keep down the weeds I had to spread bags and bags of mulch. The garden was more brown than green. I was crushed. I rushed to fill the spaces with impatiens to curb my own impatience.

But by May many of the plants had quadrupled in size, and in June some began to bloom. Most of the flowers did not resemble the catalog pictures. What looked like a six-inch bloom in a close-up photograph was in actuality an inch in diameter. What was called “heavenly blue” was really faded lavender. “Delicate stems” meant that plants flopped over.

The real surprise was that somehow it all worked. I had my first garden, and that was the beginning of an obsession.

Lesson: Desire Is the Cause of Suffering

Nowhere is the second noble truth more apparent than when developing a garden. A few days after the New Year, plant catalogs, a gardener’s pornography, begin to fill our mailboxes. As we thumb through them, desire is aroused. One rose bush is never enough; ever-more enticing varieties are offered each year. The full-color photographs present impossibly large blooms in improbable colors and the text promises luxuriant growth, low maintenance, intoxicating fragrance, and long life. The catalogs purvey the myth of the perfect garden.

And garden tours! There the suffering is compounded. Everyone has a better garden than you do — larger, planned and maintained to perfection, and filled with exotic, rare (and expensive) specimens. There’s always a new variety that we must have, a vacant space to fill with greenery, a longing to create our own nirvana. The wheel of samsara eternally turns.

Just two seasons after my success with the perennial border, I felt the need to build a pond in the front garden. It took hours of backbreaking digging, and then the pond had to be filled with fish and oxygenating plants and water lilies. The surrounding area needed evergreens and ground cover and irises. Wouldn’t a large flowering tree look nice near the pond? How about a wrought-iron bench so I could relax and watch the fish? The pond was so beautiful with its rocks and waterfall; didn’t it deserve a perfect lawn? And after a summer of drought, a sprinkler system was a necessity. In the meantime, trellises laden with roses and climbing hydrangea and silver lace vine and clematis appeared, as if by magic, on the walls of the house. Tall evergreens masked the borders of the property and wind chimes and statues of rabbits and rustic chairs proliferated. Desire had blossomed into greed. I suffered and so did my bank account.

No sooner had the garden matured than I became attached to it. I liked the way it looked. Unfortunately, it refused to stay that way.

Lesson: Do Not Be Angry (The Ninth Grave Precept)

Now I was unhappy because things were not going the way I thought they should. Plants continued to grow, so the scale of the garden was compromised. A beloved dogwood lost branches during a hurricane. Perennials were ravaged by insects and burrowing rodents and rabbits. My collection of oriental lilies was the first to succumb.

My anger grew faster than the weeds. I went to war against the moles and voles that snatched my imported bulbs before they could bloom. First, defense: camphor balls spread at the base of the plants. Then the cavalry: poison peanuts, noxious pellets purported to attract and kill rodents. Then the infantry: smoke bombs placed at the mouth of their holes. None of these worked — the marauding horde prevailed, leaving only my daffodils untouched.

I embarked on a crusade against slugs and beetles. The garden was booby-trapped with bag-a-bug beetle traps and tuna cans filled with beer. Slugs would drink themselves to death, the sots. Special plants were imprisoned in wire mesh cages to protect them from nibbling rabbits. Next, the lawn! An army of lawn experts sprayed and sprinkled toxic potions on the grass, but the grubs, crabgrass, and chickweed thrived. I attacked oversized shrubs with clippers, shears, and saws.

All was futile. Anger and aversion defeated me, and I surrendered.

Lesson: Everything Changes

The garden would never be the same from one season to another or one year to the next. Plants that were stalwarts for two or three seasons just vanished. Perennials, indeed! Flowers that were red one season sent up mingy pink blossoms the next. Some ground covers disappeared after a few years; others took over, jumping from one side of the garden to the other and from front to back. (Beware ajuga!) Vines that clothed the house insinuated themselves between the shingles. Pines outgrew their locations, crowding together like subway riders, and became leggy and scrawny. The charming Japanese cut-leaf maple now had a spread of eight feet, overpowering the pond.

Instead of creating and planting, I found myself trying to hold the fort — constantly weeding, pruning, cutting back, dividing, chopping down, striving to keep things the same way.

Lesson: Things Are as They Are

I remember when my struggle with the garden ended.

One winter it was so frigid that the harbors were frozen solid far out into the bay. Marine birds were starving because they could not break through the thick ice. My small pond had a heater, however, so most of the surface was exposed. One morning I looked out the bedroom window and saw a great blue heron standing in my tiny pond eating my goldfish. I loved those fish. When the pond was new, I had ordered a dozen two-inch goldfish that arrived by UPS from Ohio packed in a plastic bag ballooned with water and air. All but one had survived many seasons and now there were several generations of goldfish. They swirled through the water, a kaleidoscope of shades of gold, red, orange, and black, from half an inch to six inches long. My first impulse was to throw a net over the pond to thwart the heron and any other birds that dared steal my fish. Then I thought of the starving birds. What to do? I decided to allow nature to take its course — and hoped some fish would survive.

The previous summer the pond had become murky with algae, and no matter what I tried, it never cleared up for more than a few days at a time. In spring, when I cleaned out the pond there were only 18 or 20 fish left. That summer the water in the pond was clear and sweet! There had been too many fish and the heron had brought the pond back into balance.

I began to relax and stopped struggling with the garden. I no longer thought in terms of my fish or my lilies. It was simply nature. My need to control the garden lessened, and we began a partnership.

Lesson: Love the World as Yourself and Then You Can Care for All Things

Although I continue to prune and weed the garden, I am more than likely to let nature take its course. I have let go of my desire for a perfect lawn, and since I stopped the weed killers and liming and fertilizing, the lawn has reverted to moss. It is wonderful to walk on it. In spring, blue-eyed grass pops up, along with dandelions and wild violets, and in late summer a variety of toadstools emerge, which the squirrels and rabbits enjoy. I have ended my war against the moles and voles; I just don’t plant lilies or tulips anymore. Daffodils are, after all, spectacular.

I am not so attached to my carefully orchestrated color schemes. One year, bright red-orange butterfly weed appeared unbidden in the sea of lavender — a gift of the birds, I imagine. The spot of color lit up the entire garden and opened my eyes to a new way to design. When the base of evergreens died out, I underplanted with native shrubs, and the garden was enhanced by new textures. The berries attract a wide variety of birds and their songs and squawks enliven the garden.

As I settled into a harmonious relationship with the garden, the atmosphere subtly changed. A turtle appeared in the back pond and several frogs have taken up residence in the front pond. When first-time visitors to Peaceful Dwelling Zendo enter the garden gate, they invariably exclaim, “This really is a peaceful dwelling.”

Have the meditation meetings in the Zendo created the serene atmosphere of the garden or has the garden strengthened the meditation? Has the garden changed, or have I? The truth is that we are inseparable. The flowers and trees and weeds and birds and frogs and fish and I are one. Unity and diversity living together in harmony — the most important lesson of all.

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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