Normally, instinct says to recoil from liberal use of the word Zen. Its over-application to describe everything from “Zen interiors” to a “Zen moment” feels ill-considered, but in the case of Karen Maezen Miller, an accredited Zen Buddhist priest and instructor, an exception is in order.
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While house hunting in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Miller and her husband came across a property that included a Japanese garden dating back to 1916, the oldest of its kind in Southern California. This discovery, which Miller writes made her feel “I was right where I belonged,” is the basis for her book, “Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.”
Well-kept gardens may look naturalistic, but they are never natural. When the Millers first laid eyes on it, the land had returned to nature, its ruinous grounds covered in weeds and vines; its once-ordered spaces now home to raccoons, moles and skunks; its trees hung with spiderwebs; the earth pitted with termite holes. The property had been on the market for two years, without so much as a nibble of interest. On hearing the agent say, “the whole thing was built for Zen,” Miller was snared.
The couple decided to rise to the challenge of reinvigorating the grounds, nursing it back to orderly splendor. By Miller’s own admission, neither she nor her husband knew the first thing about landscape design, or, as she colorfully puts it, “As for gardening, I didn’t know my a– from a hole in the ground.” And so, a deep immersion in Japanese garden studies ensued.
In Miller’s book, the garden she eventually tames and restores to its former beauty becomes a metaphor for life, a vision of an earthly paradise that is within everyone’s reach. One early chapter is called “The Gate,” a reference to the garden’s entrance and a symbol for having the courage to step over a threshold. Water in the pond represents the stillness of the mind; rocks are no longer anonymous masses of sedimentary or igneous matter, but convectors of faith.
In common with other works of compelling wisdom, like the “Heart Sutra” and Kamo no Chomei’s “Hojoki” (“The Ten Foot Square Hut”), this is a short text. Miller urges readers to surrender to the dynamic energy flows of gardens, to sense the possibility of replicating in their own lives a space that is safe, harmonious, fully integrated and balanced.
At the end of the book, Miller writes that readers may have thought they were absorbing her words, whereas, in reality, they already knew them all along.
“The two of us,” she writes about the relationship between author and reader, “have entered a profound intimacy, a state of oneness, in total silence.” This is the awakened mind Zen masters speak of.
What Miller is proposing in her lessons from a Zen garden is closer, perhaps, to a mental shift than an overhaul in thinking. She prods for an acknowledgement that people have strayed from an innate knowledge of the very world they live in. Like Zen, her book shows readers that their own bit of paradise has always been right in front of them.
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