Monday, February 9, 2009

Kale & Kensho - or, How I Became An Agrarian Zen Buddhist (with a story!)

I got a majority of my cool weather crops planted yesterday, because it was absolutely beautiful this weekend. (Eventually there will be photos on this blog, I swear.) Only time will tell if they will produce. I planted everything from strawberries to broccoli, so we’ll see.

Anyone who knows me personally will tell you that my luck is inconsistent at best. As a result of this, I have had to develop a “roll with the punches” attitude over the years – not necessarily without a fair amount of griping, but I do pride myself on being fairly flexible for somebody who adores routine and order. This is probably because I am innately chaotic, my life is full of bizarre trials, and my love of order goes against everything that I am. I am disorder walking, in a nutshell. Soto Zen Buddhism was one of the things I turned to as a teenager in order to bring some semblance of peace to my life. And for the most part, it has succeeded. I lead a pretty sedate and contented life, and my goals are simple ones – owe no one, own land, be free.

This isn’t a religious blog, but since my religion factors in pretty strongly with my interest in horticulture and sustainable living, I will explain why gardens and Zen go together like peas and carrots.

Gardens are symbolic of everything holy in Buddhism – transient life, simple aesthetic natural beauty, kindness, compassion, and the nurturing of other living things. This all sounds very free-spirited, hippy-oriented, and nice in general, but gardens also represent some of the more difficult tenets of Buddhism – that suffering is inevitable, that death is unavoidable, that sometimes no matter how hard you try, things don’t work out for you. No matter how hard you work to keep your plants from dying, when winter comes, that is what will happen to them. It is a solemn reminder that no matter how much you love the people and things around you, they will all, without exception, be destroyed and gone in time. This is why living in the moment is so important, because the moment is all you have. To paraphrase Kung Fu Panda, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.” (One of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard in a cartoon, I will tell you that much.)

Gardening slows you down, makes you pay attention and appreciate things. When you are digging a hole, it is very difficult to think of anything else besides digging that hole. You get in the zone. Being “in the zone” is Zen.
One way that Buddhism deviates from other major religions is that there is a major emphasis on putting thought into action. There is no messiah in Buddhism – the salvation of your soul is your own burden. Others can help you, but ultimately the realization which leads to enlightenment is your own. Things would be so much easier if a person could just say, “Here I am, please save me.” But in my experience, things are not so simple. Huddling in to wait for a miracle is not an option. Miracles, as far as I’m concerned, only come from the application of dedicated hearts and minds. God helps those who help themselves. Or, as Roland Deschain would say, “Water where God wills it.”

So here we are. Our country is teetering on the edge of a major economic meltdown which may last a decade and drive us deep into a depression. Global climate change is destroying our environment. We (Americans) have been at war for eight years. (Yeah, that long.) The world is in crisis.

But there is also a movement afoot to not only save the country, but the entire world. Yes, it’s headed up by flighty, disorganized, and sometimes impractical people.

So what is any self-respecting Buddhist to do?


Samu is a Zen concept which basically means “work practice.” Growing your own produce is a perfect example of this, and is actually done in many zendos and temples. It cultivates awareness of other living beings, brings humanity in tune with the seasons, and generally provides time for mindful meditation. I am certain that the first parent who told a kid to go out and shovel snow off the sidewalk because it “builds character” was secretly a Zen master. Because you know what? Hard work actually does build character. Buddhist monks have known this for centuries. And productive, meticulous work which provides sustenance to yourself and your sangha (community) is priceless in Zen. Because showing compassion to someone encourages them to pay it forward.

I am trying to move towards an ecologically sustainable lifestyle of voluntary simplicity not only because it’s trendy right now or because I don’t want to pay exorbitantly high prices for veggies or because composting is fun, but because I genuinely believe it’s the “right” thing to do.

Time will only tell if this crisis will cause us to take a step back, reevaluate our technologies, and simplify our hectic lives, or whether it will break us.
In the meantime, I have a lot of digging to do. And here’s a suitable koan, or Buddhist parable, which pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject:

There was an old Zen farmer who had worked his allotment of land for decades. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to offer their condolences. “What terrible luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the Zen farmer replied. The next morning, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful!” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the Zen farmer. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” the Zen farmer said.


  1. My husband is Zen and doesn't even know it. He's always saying hard work and deprivation build character. Of course, he usually says that when I'm whining about how cold it is in the house . . .

    Keep on digging. It IS the right thing to do. Also, the fun thing to do.

  2. I like the way that you have shaped your message, writing about the simple joys of frugal living rather than the external reasons that we should do so.

    It has been my experience that a truly successful life is one in which the difference between work and play cannot be distinguished. It's not an original idea but one that most Americans cannot as of yet begin to comprehend. In my view, it doesn't really matter whether you're gardening or writing books, or framing artwork; the important thing is that you're doing it for the love of it, and living within your means.

    Thanks for setting such a nice example for the rest of us.

  3. @Kristin - In my experience, a lot of people who have Zen don't know they have Zen. That's sort of one of the basics of the religion - everyone is enlightened and innately good, they just don't know it yet. ;)

    @Kim - Thanks, and I feel you. I have had people ask me, "Why would you work your tail off for some vegetables you could get out of the can for a dollar?" and my response is always, "Because it's not really work."