In September 2020 I moved to a small island off the west coast of Canada. Living a rural life was never a priority for me, but suddenly I found myself in an enviable environment, surrounded by verdant forests, unused outdoor spaces, and master gardeners. It seemed that everywhere I went, experienced gardeners were engaged in eager conversation. I, on the other hand, was in my mid-60s and had little experience of keeping a houseplant alive.
The moment I thought about joining these gardeners and embracing this new endeavor, I felt overwhelmed – a feeling I was well acquainted with. When I first turned to Tibetan Buddhism seriously, I felt similarly overwhelmed by the multitude of schools, lineages, teachings, and terminologies. But I have learned that unraveling the great mystery of Vajrayana began with the realization that the path is an endless body of knowledge that spreads out in many directions. So when I started gardening, I reminded myself that it’s like Buddhism in that way. My decade of solid practice helped me to see that awareness is the tool we have to deal with new things and that I could now apply my Buddhist insights – in a very earthy way. In fact, gardening requires of us many of the same qualities that Buddhism requires: curiosity, discernment, diligence, consistency, and patience.
I began to visit gardens – both huge and humble – with the same curiosity I first felt when I picked up a bell and a dorje. For the most part, I didn’t know what I was seeing, but just as I had sensed that my background and nature would best suit the Nyingma school, I realized which gardening path I should follow. I wanted to plant food, not roses. Our island has rocky soil, a short growing season and hungry deer. These parameters were enough to lead me to a vegetable garden with a high fence and sturdy containers.
When looking for the right instructions, I relied on my intuition. I also relied on YouTube. I spent the first few days clicking through serious, well-meaning gardeners looking for entertainment. After some research, I found someone who was as confidently eloquent in his instructions, yet as direct and efficient as the lamas I studied under. His foundations became my foundations. I also read articles and asked many questions. Information came together to form a new basis of understanding.
In my Buddhist meditation practice, the successes and failures of others, whether on the pillow or off, were not my successes and failures. So while I was happy to find dedicated gardeners to share their stories, it was time to seek the deep, visceral knowledge of personal experience. Getting my hands dirty offered me a new kind of sanctuary.
There is a plethora of seedling sales on the island I live on that I could have waited for, but germination was part of an experience I was dying to have. With the kind of care I take in furnishing my meditation space, I hung full-spectrum lighting over trays of packed earth in a storage shed. Tiny seeds were pushed beneath the surface as the excitement of the potential within raced through me. Once these seeds were activated, the crust of the ground was pushed aside as new life broke through. I remembered hearing Buddhist psychology for the first time and how it had grown in my mind pushing aside previous concepts.
An exception to germinating from seed was the purchase of a ten inch Desert King fig seedling. I sent a photo of my little bare stick to a friend who replied that I bought my own bodhi tree. Until his comment, I hadn’t consciously known what my attraction was, other than the idea of eating figs in three or four years. Now I find myself tending to it with extra care.
I tended my seedlings while they were growing under the lights, but before they could be brought into the garden they needed a hardening off period. This transition of days in the sun and nights in the shed reminded me of an earlier time when I was still teetering on my path. Once the seedlings were transplanted, increased maturation took place. They firmly rooted themselves with full commitment, as I also managed to do. Moving forward without hesitation, knowing exactly where we belonged. And, of course, that certainty is when the greatest threats emerge. Curiosity, discernment, and diligence are important, but you get nowhere without patience and persistence—rare commodities in our modern world.
In Buddhism, patience requires faith in the idea of enlightenment. In the garden, it is the belief that tiny seedlings will eventually be able to fill an entire pot and bear fruit. Cultivating a daily practice and sticking to it prepared me to do the same kind of care with a garden, even though my first spring was epically cold and wet. The challenging weather continued into June. My wilted tomato leaves turned purple as I shook my head, wondering what the Buddha would do. Should I try to germinate more seeds and abandon my suffering plants or find ways to protect them?
I had learned enough to produce perfect seedlings, but they squirmed. As I gazed up at the overcast sky above, I thought of the Buddhist term “skillful means.” I grabbed wire cages, slipped them into the three five-gallon buckets, and covered them with the heaviest plastic I could find. For several weeks I took the plastic off during the day and put it back on at night. I refused to give up.
Nowhere do we encounter the transience of life more vividly than in a garden. The ability to personally witness the cycle of birth, growth, and death leads to a more nuanced understanding of life itself. As inner signs of our practice manifest outwardly, we hear about these profound changes from others. A teacher, classmate, or close friend may notice changes in our temperament, but they’re usually so subtle that we can’t see them for ourselves at first. We may notice that our lives are working better, but often we don’t see how the teachings have changed us until—like my eventually hardy tomatoes—we have become noticeably healthier.
The four seals catumudra (Skt.; T. phyag rgya bzhi; C. siyin; J. shiin; K. sain) literally means the four principles that characterize a doctrine as genuine dharma. They are points that a teaching must have in order to be validated as Buddhist.
The four seals are:
(1) all composite or conditioned things are impermanent;
(2) all things defiled by desire, aversion, and delusion are marked by suffering;
(3) all things have no permanent or unchanging self; and
(4) Nirvana is peace.
As used in the Mahayana sutras, the four seals are said to be unifying elements of all Buddhist teachings.
Taking it a step further, tending a garden offers daily lessons in the Four Seals of Buddhism: four aspects that mark a teaching as Buddhist.
The first seal is that all composite things are impermanent. The germination of these tomato seeds caused them to sprout, but the additional condition of my effort produced the karma that enabled the plants to thrive even in inclement weather.
I also saw how the kindness I had shown myself while struggling with my own wild emotions was now reflected in the simple equanimity I felt while tending to my young tomatoes. There was no hope, fear, or any other emotion that caused suffering. In this I recognized the second seal of Buddhism.
I have now spent several vigilant months overseeing my property and the joy of harvesting has begun. Cherry tomatoes, onions, basil, parsley, and Swiss chard abound, my squash box is overflowing, and I look forward to uncovering the layers of tubers hidden in my potato sacks beneath bushes of stems, leaves, and delicate white flowers.
This sense of completeness and fullness is satisfying, but being able to notice the composite elements that make up a plant throughout its various stages of growth has led to a deeper understanding of voidness – that all things have no inherent existence – the third seal of the Buddhism .
My first harvest is slowly replacing the joys of the new with the comforts of the familiar. I will never know enough, but with the completion of study and the activity of getting right in and getting the job done, both gardening and Buddhist practice bring great rewards. Both feed us with knowledge and lead us to be more loving and not neurotic. The Fourth Seal of Buddhism states that Nirvana is not invented. It is beyond concepts and cannot be pinned down. By removing what obscures our innate Buddha nature, we uncover what was always there. My own little Bodhi tree is also very present. It has grown another foot and is now adorned with a crown of leaves. I believe that one day it will also be big enough to sit under.