Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


A dear friend stopped by the other day on her way from a long day meeting to pick up a bag of chocolate biscotti. "I’m so tired," she said, stepping out of the car, "but I’ve got to get to Home Depot to get roses before they run out." "What for?" I said, given that she has at least forty rose bushes in two separate rose gardens among her at least $30,000 worth of packed in plant material. Her grounds are textbook ratna.

"Well, I got two earlier in the season and they’re going great guns. So I should get more, even though I’d rather go straight home. I have so much to do." "Forget it." I said, handing her the cookies so she could get going. "I can’t. There’s still open space between some of the bushes and, you know me, I can’t stand to see room in my garden."

‘There goes the woman,’ I thought as she was backing out, ‘who only a week ago was complaining about a friend whose life is nonstop activity, a woman who starts every conversation with: "So who are you having over and where are you going?" since she is always either throwing a party or going somewhere on a plane. The woman specializes in frenzy. She finds every new restaurant, shop and show first. She invites every last friend, family member and business associate to visit one of the two huge houses she amends with a project a year. "Always something," she likes to say before she flies off to India for a two week tour, Russia for three, Paris for five days to treat her granddaughter, Palm Beach for Christmas, Palm Springs for New Year, filling in a blank day by baking desserts to freeze for the guests to come and a blank week with a face lift. "She’s exhausting," my friend had sighed. "She insisted on making me a birthday party even though this year I didn’t feel like celebrating. She even invited my family to stay with her for the entire weekend. She doesn’t get it that I like time and privacy—and she invited my family to her house!"

Funny, my friend didn’t get that human time is just like garden space: people feel compelled to fill it. Her friend was jamming stuff into all the hours of her life the way she was jamming plants into all the spaces of her yard. This is the business of our culture: busyness. The GNP thrives on fear, and emptiness is the scariest thing around so we fill’er up. Indeed, once she was gone, I turned back toward my house and surveyed the scene. With so many dismaying gaps between new plantings, I had been fighting the urge to spend my last cash to stick perennials between the scrawny hydrangeas and among the dune roses for a richer, fuller effect. Now I caught myself in full foible, and suddenly, I saw my garden as very fertile Dharma ground.

For one thing, it really does take transcendent patience to obey a plant tag’s instructions, especially perennials, to "plant four feet apart", and to let those pathetic little plants nurseries push assume their majestic size without trying to hurl all sorts of instant-grow fertilizer at them so they hurry up and fill in. This of course validates Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching that shit shines. Only by spreading the manure of our neurosis is wisdom going to grow. I just bought my second bag of manure/compost for the season. But I have also sneakily taken to soothing my anxiety at the distance between flowers by purchasing plants at a big box store because they’re fat and full grown, for the same price as the spindly stalks of the same species I used to buy at the farmers’ market.

Last year, the college age guy doing the heavy lifting at the nearby garden center cheerfully assured me the only unsold rhododendrons, the runts, "grow about a foot a year, so they’ll probably catch right up for you next summer or so." I looked hard at him and said: "Young man, you have your whole life ahead of you, so a year is no big deal. At my age a year is iffy. It is way too long to wait for some itsy bitsy bush to catch up to those full blooded ones you just sold to a landscape contractor. That’s why grandparents don’t have babies." Thank Buddha I didn’t say I don’t want this teensy thing because it is going to appear to me like a stunted midget and to others like I am too cheap to get the good one. Thinking what other people would think of me was a Buddhist double negative without the positive effect.

Aversion to space makes me crazy for cottage gardens. I love their chaotic, convivial assembly of flowers crowded one against the other in a colorful, crammed choir as opposed to the seemingly stilted formal beds with oases of specimens carefully separated from each other as though they shouldn’t converse. I go crazy when there’s a blank spot in my tableau, suffering seriously from getting what I don’t want. Always something, as that busy woman would say. In the realm of vigilance, I have obsessed I don’t know how many hours this past month moving plants around, adding and subtracting trying to close the gaps and "get it right" as though there is a wrong.

There is. It’s a haunting space on my new lattice wall where the Jackmani clematis failed to climb, a tragic victim of the spring drought that also stunted the impatiens below, and it’s driving me nuts. Only the person who was with me when I bought that plant knows the lattice is not bare by design and even though no one comments, I see that hole advertising my failures. It says: In this house lives a killer. Or: she couldn’t get it up. My mind is that stuck on seeing a powerful purple clematis there. It is going to require the practice of true exertion to stop staring at that space and let the tormenting thought of my sin go—at least until next spring when I show off my habitual pattern and stubbornly seek out the fattest available climber because, sadly, even after twenty years of Dharma study, I am vigilantly attached to my vision of how a place should look.

Of course it shouldn’t have weeds. Everybody knows that. Weeds are a sign of dereliction, sloth, degradation, name the negative. But what is a weed? It’s a plant we don’t want, mainly because some Wharton MBA hasn’t yet developed a marketing strategy for it. Here is a sign of impure perception. And here is Madhyamika. We are discriminating on the basis of what? What defines the chosen? Dandelions in some parts of the planet are welcomed as a spring tonic yet I’m madly hoeing them the hell out of my ground. At the same time, I just happily spent $30 and proudly planted Eupatorium, commonly known as Joe Pye weed, an old native wildflower. I can hear my Rinpoche who delights in teaching the relativity of short/long, good/bad, old/young laughing his head off at this folly, especially because most of the expensive flowers by my patio were also wildflowers when the Victorian botanists discovered them. Cosmos, for example, covers the Himalayan hillsides the way blueberries cover coastal Maine’s. Weedy does not necessarily mean seedy.

That’s why I should probably stop mulching. Garden centers love to push mulch as a way to keep the weeds down, enhancing the chosen stuff, and I for one do like seeing the well tended neatness bark mulch provides, the admirable appearance of diligent care taking. But look how many discriminatory adjectives I’ve just used. Mulch is a cover up, a method of control. It’s as far from naturalness as trying to damn your thoughts or to cherry pick some as trains of them race by, isn’t it? Emptiness, Mingyur Rinpoche, says with deceptive simplicity, is the space that provides the capacity for anything and everything to arise unimpeded, pure and perfectly. And here I’m trying to cover it over to avoid surprise. And I am acidifying the soil in the process. Imagine if I’d spent the hours I’ve been mulching practicing the diligence of non-discrimination.

I could do that, it seems, by watching the flowers and smelling the roses. With transcendent generosity, they brazenly bloom their fool heads off, not caring who exactly is watching or touching them. They’re out there for everyone. They don’t turn away when certain people pass by, picking and choosing who to delight. They did not faint, fade or fall when the assessor showed up. They don’t even dis the horrific Japanese beetles munching them. They just keep on growing and blooming, showing me what the teachings mean when they say the sun shines without prejudice on all sentient beings and then some.

And what brave beauty they present, especially those glorious gobs of fragile, perfumed peonies. Their great, gorgeous blooms make me so rapturous with immeasurable joy, I mentally hug them. I fussily gather their brilliance into a vase as the happiest of offerings to my shrine and then in five days the petals fall, the stems sag and they’ve gone to hell, their once subtle scent turned to the dismaying puke of rot. Phooey.

They and all the flowers that show up, show off and fade away without struggle, are they not the reincarnations of the story of the Buddha and the famously stunning Vaisali courtesan Ambapali? Attracted to Buddha’s teachings, she offered her splendid mango grove to his sangha. Watching herself grow old and increasingly unattractive, Ambapali realized faster than the male monks the transitory nature of all things and joined their sangha. At her request, when she died, the Buddha delayed the traditional corpse torching with a very lengthy sermon that deliberately forced the sangha and assembled gentlemen of Vaisali to watch their beloved lady decompose before their eyes. The Buddha turned Ambapali into his most vivid teaching on the evanescence of beauty, the futility of struggle and the inevitability of impermanence. Funny how my garden does that too.

~Sandy Garson

"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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