in Plain Sight
from a Zen Garden
By Karen Maezen Miller
In the early
summer of 1997, my husband and I found ourselves in the backyard of an empty
house on a quiet street in Sierra Madre, a suburb of Los Angeles. The backyard
was Southern California’s oldest private Japanese garden, an oasis of ponds and pines that had stood
mostly intact since 1916. It seemed like paradise with our name written all over it. We knew in our
bones that the place could only be ours, and with it, the little house
alongside it. The next day we put money down and a month later, moved in.
Once we arrived,
we hit the bookstores and local nurseries. We studied up on Japanese gardens: their
esoteric architecture, history and symbolism; and the special way to rake, weed, prune, plant
and water. We sought opinions, called in experts, and asked for conservative estimates — ha! — to redo this or that. The more we learned, the more
we doubted. It was way too much work. We were fools, without the right
tools, training, or time. No wonder no one wanted to buy this place but us. It wasn’t paradise, but a
colossal pain in the neck.
One day I ran across a single line in a thick book that made it all simple. It told the
original meaning of the word “paradise” before it became a mythical ideal,
imaginary and unattainable. Before it pointed somewhere else.
The word “paradise” originally meant simply an enclosed
Inside the word are its old Persian roots: pairi-, meaning
“around,” and -diz “to create (a wall).” The word was first given to carefully tended pleasure
parks and menageries, the sporting ground of kings. Later, storytellers used the
word in creation myths, and it came to mean the Eden of peace and plenty.
But looking at it
straight on, I could plainly see. Paradise is a backyard. Not just my backyard,
but everyone’s backyard: the entire world we live in, bounded only by how far we can see.
There was only one thing to do. I began to garden. I got scratched, tired, and dirty. I pouted and wept, cursing the enormity
of the task. I was resentful and unappreciative. But when I ventured afield,
sidelined by things that seemed much more entertaining or important, I always came back to this patch of
patient earth. Time after time I
realized that the living truth of life is taught to me right here, no farther
than the ground beneath my feet.
later, I do not know the chemistry of soils or the biology of compost. I have not mastered the
nomenclature; I don’t
know the right time or way to prune. What I have learned instead is this:
paradise is a patch of
What loyal friends, these undesirables that infiltrate the lawn, insinuate between
cracks, and luxuriate in the deep shade of my neglect. Weeds are everywhere, showing up every day, my
most reliable underlings. Weeds keep me going.
The most common weeds in the yard are crabgrass, dandelion, and chickweed. And the most common
weeds in the world are greed, anger, and ignorance.
Here are ten
things to do to spare your garden from stubborn entanglements:
1. Blame no one. Blame is a powerful barrier: like
prickly thistle, it spreads pain and disaffection. Blame turns the garden into
2. Take no offense. Consider the energy we expend to prolong fictional
injuries. How hard is it to get over what is already over? I know: it’s hard. But there’s
3. Forgive. Forgiveness reconciles the rift
between self and other. Forgive
someone today — forgive yourself today — and feel the rift recede. Suddenly,
it’s easier to move on.
4. Do not compare. Satisfy yourself with what you have in hand. It may not look like much, but this
right here is everything.
5. Take off
your gloves. A nurseryman once
told me, “A real
gardener doesn’t wear gloves.” Native intelligence flows through your fingertips, wisdom received in direct connection
with the world, telling you know how deep to dig and how hard to pull, when to
gather and when to release. Self-defenses make you timid and clumsy.
6. Forget yourself. The world needs a few less people to
own their own greatness and few more to own their own humility. When you can
face reality without camouflage, yours is the face of compassion.
7. Grow old. It isn’t easy, it’s effortless.
8. Have no answers. In Zen, we don’t find the answers;
we lose the questions. It’s impossible to comprehend the marvel of what we are,
or to understand the mystery of life’s impeccable genius. Weed out the
confusion that comes from trying to understand.
9. Seek nothing. Just for one moment take my word
that you lack nothing. Have faith in yourself and the ground where you stand.
10. Go back to 1. The gardener’s job is always just beginning.
Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen Buddhist priest
and teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Hand
Wash Cold, Momma Zen, and
most recently Paradise in Plain Sight. Visit her at www.karenmaezenmiller.com
from Paradise in Plain Sight, printed with
permission of New World Library, Novato, CA,