Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Gardening Metaphors in Mindfulness Practice

"Don't go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don't bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens." - Indian Mystic Poet and Spiritualist Kabir (1440–1518).
"Peace is every step.
The shining red sun is my heart.
Each flower smiles with me.
How green, how fresh all that grows.
How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step.
It turns the endless path to joy." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (2005), p9.
"There is a certain view which likens Buddha Nature to the seeds of plants and trees. When the rain of the Dharma pours down and moistens the seeds, they sprout and send forth shoots, then branch out and produce leaves, flowers, and fruit, with the fruit, in turn, becoming pregnant with seeds. [...] ...you should investigate thoroughly through your training that each and every seed, along with each and every flower and fruit, is the product of an honest and sincere heart." - Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen,  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p247.
"Gardening is ...a wonderful way of connecting with nature and experiencing ‘flow’; absorbing yourself in tasks such as weeding and planting and enjoying the fruits of your labours as you see tiny shoots grow into beautiful plants and flowers." - Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), p263.


When our life gets too complicated to manage healthily, we can seek simplicity, but in our modern age such simplicity can be very difficult to find. Sometimes we hark back to older times when technology and social rules were not so complicated - when humans lived more intimately with the forces of nature. In this sense, we seem to have some instictive understanding of how a human can live in harmony with nature - some symbiotic potential.

One strong vision of human harmony with nature has been that of Adam and Eve living in the garden of Eden. As the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen (1997), p156:
"The Garden of Eden is a life of unbroken simplicity. We all chance upon it now and then."
However, most of the time we feel very far away from this kind of simplistic harmony, as Joko Beck states in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p210:
"...our lives are very unnatural. We feel ourselves to be separated from the world, and that removes us from the Garden of Eden."
In Everyday Zen she attributes this separation to our misunderstanding and thus misuse of thoughts, p164:
"Having the gift of thinking, we misuse it and go astray. We expel ourselves from the Garden of Eden. We think not in terms of work that needs to be done for life, but in terms of how we can serve our separate self."
The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), encourages one to view one's life as if one were living in a huge garden within which one constantly sows seeds. Thoughts, as actions, can be considered seeds sown, and these seeds become conditions for our future experiences, as in his Teaching on the Two Enterings and the Four Practices he says:
"As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past."
As a result of this situation, Bodhidharma encourages people to understand the nature of the mind's activity, and compares our minds to the root of a tree, in his Breakthrough Sermon:
"The mind is the root from which all things grow if you can understand the mind, everything else is included. It’s like the root of a tree. All a tree’s fruit and flowers, branches and leaves depend on its root. If you nourish its root, a tree multiplies. If you cut its root, it dies. Those who understand the mind reach enlightenment with minimal effort."
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh deepens this metaphor in his book Peace is Every Step (2005), by describing how we, like a tree, plant seeds, but we are prone to planting both good and bad seeds, p60:
"There are many kinds of seeds in us, both good and bad. Some were planted during our lifetime, and some were transmitted by our parents, our ancestors, and our society. In a tiny grain of corn, there is the knowledge, transmitted by previous generations, of how to sprout and how to make leaves, flowers, and ears of corn. Our body and our mind also have knowledge that has been transmitted by previous generations. Our ancestors and our parents have given us seeds of joy, peace, and happiness, as well as seeds of sorrow, anger, and so on.
He says that everything we need to healthily deal with our situation is already present within us as innate intelligence - built into the natural fabric which makes up our bodies, in The Sun My Heart (1988), p52:
"When we look at plants, we also see miracles of knowing. The apple tree knows how to make roots, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. You say that the apple tree, having no intelligence, has no other choice. But your ribs, your glands, your backbone, have you created them with your intelligence?"
By accessing this innate intelligence and allowing it to breathe, we can successfully tend to the gardens of our lives.

The cultivation of plants and the cultivation of mindfulness practices have been paralleled metaphorically and literally for more than 2000 years, so there is a wealth of references from various teachers to draw from. As with any practice which needs to stand the test of time, however, one must begin by aiming for an ideal. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) suggests the following practice when living in the garden of life, p107:
"Imagine a flower blooming under each step you take. Allow each step to refresh your body and mind. Realise that life can only be lived in the present moment."
Remaining in the present moment is an incredibly difficult task, however, as the mind habitually flies off into judgemental thinking, or the past or future, thus causing one to plant weeds and neglect one's garden in general. Such habits need to be replaced through conscious effort to bring the mind back to the present moment every time it wanders.

This disciplining of the mind in itself sows healthy seeds, and so one's metaphorical garden begins to look and feel more beautiful the more one practices. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step, p60:
"Every time we practice mindful living, we plant healthy seeds and strengthen the healthy seeds already in us. Healthy seeds function similarly to antibodies. When a virus enters our bloodstream, our body reacts and antibodies come and surround it, take care of it, and transform it. This is true with our psychological seeds as well. If we plant wholesome, healing, refreshing seeds, they will take care of the negative seeds, even without our asking them. To succeed, we need to cultivate a good reserve of refreshing seeds."
He adds to this in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), explaining that mindfulness is the key to growing beautiful flowers, p55:
"We have to learn how to water the wholesome seeds that are in us so they will bloom into the flowers.... The instrument for watering wholesome seeds is mindful living — mindful breathing, mindful walking, living each moment of our day in mindfulness."
Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki taught in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995) that the negative seeds - growing into weeds - are pulled out and fed to the positive seeds - the flowers - and that this means one can accept the presence of weeds from within one's mindfulness practice, p36:
"We say, "Pulling out the weeds we give nourishment to the plant." We pull the weeds and bury them near the plant to give it nourishment. So even though you have some difficulty in your practice, even though you have some waves while you are sitting, those waves themselves will help you. So you should not be bothered by your mind. You should rather be grateful for the weeds, because eventually they will enrich your practice. If you have some experience of how the weeds in your mind change into mental nourishment, your practice will make remarkable progress. You will feel the progress. You will feel how they change into self-nourishment."
Thich Nhat Hanh reflects this accepting stance in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching by using the idea of stinking garbage/compost as the equivalent of the pulled up weeds, p64:
"A good gardener knows the way to grow flowers from compost. Right Mindfulness accepts everything without judging or reacting. It is inclusive and loving. The practice is to find ways to sustain appropriate attention throughout the day."
This is more explicitly explained in his book Understanding Our Mind (2001), p402:
"A gardener does not chase after flowers and try to run away from garbage. She accepts both, and she takes good care of both. She is not attached to either nor does she reject either, because she sees that the nature of both is interbeing. She has made peace with the flower and the garbage."
And in Peace is Every Step (1991), p58:
"When we have a compost bin filled with organic material which is decomposing and smelly, we know that we can transform the waste into beautiful flowers. At first, we may see the compost and the flowers as opposite, but when we look deeply, we see that the flowers already exist in the compost, and the compost already exists in the flowers. It only takes a couple of weeks for a flower to decompose. When a good organic gardener looks into her compost, she can see that, and she does not feel sad or disgusted. Instead, she values the rotting material and does not discriminate against it. It takes only a few months for compost to give birth to flowers. [...] We need not be afraid of it or reject it."
So this watering of our garden through accepting, mindful noticing is all that is necessary. As the author of Meditation for Dummies (2006) states, once we have done that, we can leave the rest to nature, p146:
"...you just have to do your part and get out of the way! If you get carried away and overwater or disturb the ground prematurely, you only interfere with the process. In the same way, you need to exert just the right amount of consistent effort in your meditation — don’t overwater or keep scratching the ground searching for signs of progress, but don’t go away for a week and leave your plot unattended, either. Do what you need to do without fixating on the results, and your garden will blossom quite naturally, all by itself."
Thich Nhat Hanh supports this approach in Understanding Our Mind as follows, p127:
"As gardeners, we turn the soil, sow seeds, water them, pull weeds, and add fertilizer. But we cannot do the work of the earth. Only the earth can hold the seeds and bring forth the fruits of our labor. What is most important is to have faith that the earth will germinate the seeds that have been sown."
He refers to this faith in the potential of the earth to bear fruit again in The Sun My Heart, p90:
"When an apple tree produces flowers, we don't see apples yet, and so we might say, "There are flowers but no apples on this tree." We say this because we do not see the latent presence of the apples in the flowers. Time will gradually reveal the apples."
And he emphasises that the fruits of efforts are not the product of the gardener, but of the earth itself, p161:
"A garden cannot cultivate itself. A gardener is needed. When the gardener has plowed, hoed, tilled, sown the seeds, and watered the earth, the earth offers flowers and fruits to support the life of the gardener. The gardener knows that it is not he that brings forth the fruits, but the earth itself. His job is simply to take care of the earth."
The author of Mindfulness for Dummies advises us to be patient when waiting for the fruits of practice, p174:
"Be patient about your progress. You can’t see a plant growing if you watch it, even though it’s actually growing all the time. Every time you practise meditation you’re growing more mindful, though it may seem very difficult to see from day to day. Trust in the process and enjoy watering your seed of mindfulness."
And so, as the process continues, insights will inevitably come, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p185:
"Mindfulness is the plow, the hoe, and the irrigation source that waters insight. We are the gardener — plowing, sowing, and watering our beneficial seeds."
And in The Sun My Heart, p121:
"As you continue practicing, the flower of insight will blossom in you, along with the flowers of compassion, tolerance, happiness, and letting go."
Joko Beck describes the emergence of such gains while practicing within the garden as follows, in Nothing Special - Living Zen, p.vii:
"In the garden of everyday experience, we uncover unexpected treasures. Ingenuous, living from what we are, we move from a self-centered toward a reality-centered life—and open to wonder."
And in addition to gaining new healthy plants in the garden of one's life, one's skill and experience in this metaphorical gardening increases over time, which brings a newfound trust in nature. Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, writes of this in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004):
" ...as with any other practice, it deepens and grows with constant attending, like plants in a lovingly tended garden."
Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this deepening in the context of the Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva practitioner seeking Buddhahood, in Understanding Our Mind, p402:
"A bodhisattva handles enlightenment and afflictions in the same way a skillful gardener handles flowers and garbage—without discrimination. She knows how to do the work of transformation, and so she is no longer afraid. This is the attitude of a Buddha."
Aspirations can eventually arise in this way - beyond simplifying one's life, and towards helping others - recognising a seed of Buddhahood within all humans, and seeking to water that seed, and not other unhealthy seeds, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p52:
"The seed of Buddhahood, the capacity to wake up and understand things as they are, is also present in each of us. When we join our palms and bow to another person, we acknowledge the seed of Buddhahood in him or her. [...] If you plant corn, corn will grow. If you plant wheat, wheat will grow. If you act in a wholesome way, you will be happy. If you act in an unwholesome way, you water the seeds of craving, anger, and violence in yourself. Right View is to recognize which seeds are wholesome and to encourage those seeds to be watered. This is called "selective touching.""
Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen, referred to this deeper practice and the flowering that follows in his book Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p75:
"When great compassion is deep within you, and your wish to spiritually aid sentient beings everywhere is well seasoned... . Then your training and practice will flower..."
Thich Nhat Hanh says this flower will open, granting one deep insights into reality, if one also considers one's mindfulness as sunshine, in The Sun My Heart, p32:
"When the sun shines continuously on a lotus flower, it opens widely, revealing its seedheart. In the same way, through the activity of looking, reality gently reveals itself."
He elaborates further in Peace Is Every Step, p60:
"Our mindfulness will take care of everything, as the sunshine takes care of the vegetation. The sunshine does not seem to do much, it just shines on the vegetation, but it transforms everything. Poppies close up every time it gets dark, but when the sun shines on them for one or two hours, they open. The sun penetrates into the flowers, and at some point, the flowers cannot resist, they just have to open up. In the same way, mindfulness, if practiced continuously, will provide a kind of transformation within the flower... and it will open and show us its own nature."
As usual with mindfulness teachings, they can be easy to understand technically, but it is the putting into practice which makes them useful. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of this necessity in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p42:
"If you want to garden, you have to bend down and touch the soil. Gardening is a practice, not an idea."
Mindfulness for Dummies highlights the need for regular practice also, p48:
"A plant needs regular watering to grow – a lack of care and attention results in it perishing." 
And, p50:
"Think of these key attitudes like strawberry seeds. If you’re hoping to taste the delicious strawberries, you need to plant the seeds and water them regularly. In the same way, you need to water your attitudes regularly, by giving them your mindful attention. Then you can enjoy the fruit of your efforts in the form of a sweet, delicious strawberry."
Eventually the process can become automatic, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being (2008), p10:
"If we take steps without anxiety, in peace and joy, then we cause a flower to bloom on the earth with every step."
In the last words of Dr. Kabat-Zinn's introduction to his 15th Anniversary Edition of Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p.XXXIII:
"May your mindfulness practice grow and flower and nourish your life and work from moment to moment and from day to day."


  1. what an amazingly thorough and well researched beautiful piece - thank you!

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