I spent the whole morning in the garden yesterday and it made me quite happy. I’m re-learning how to work in and with the dirt, the sprouts and the space. Here is a preliminary report of some of my recommendations to myself:
1) Work at a pace that respects the wonder and beauty around you. The point of working in the garden is working in the garden, not getting things perfect. Always appreciate the opportunity to be present with the worms, the birds and to the unseen mystery of it all.
2) Make little sculptures wherever you can. Every gardener is in the business sculpting space and relationships. Enjoy the work. Be aware of the objects and shapes around you and add your two cents when you can. Piling a few rocks together works well. Setting rocks and sticks out in a pattern will do too.
3) Your most essential gardening too is your body—pay attention to how you are using it. It’s early in the season and I’m out of shape. And as I grow young toward my death, I’m not as quick to recover from over-exertion. Find a rhythm of alternation of exertion and rest.
4) Take joy in little things. The smells. The sensations. The thoughts that arise in the mind. The not-quite-straight furrow for the seeds. The impressive determination of the mustard garlic that thrives despite my best efforts.
5) Don’t tug on the seedlings in an effort to make them grow.* Remember that your job is cooperating with what is already happening – or wanting to happen – or might possibly happen. Allow things to happen in their own time. When the urge to rush rises, take a breath. Take two breaths.
6) Lie down on the ground as often as possible. I’ve come to the conclusion that all the problems of the world could be cured if each one of us spent more time lying down in contact with the earth. Too much time vertical. Too much time at too great a distance from this source of life.
*Thank you Mencius for suggesting this and for Diane Fitzgerald for bringing it to my attention.
A bird sings.
A car goes by.
Saturday morning in this spring that is ever so reluctant to come.
The not-yet-risen sun is already illuminating the tops of the bare trees. Thousands of delicate twigs have been waiting through the cold winter receive this morning’s golden energy. I imagine this spring sun sings a special song to lure the sleeping green leaves from their hiding places. And the roots join in too. Having been roused by the warming ground, they send their sweet and sappy message of possibility skyward.
And me too, from my morning chair, add my wish to be graced by the high presence of an uncountable number of emerald leaves — very soon.
Some of my friends spend a lot of time wondering if they believe in the existence of God. For me it’s really a question of definition rather than of substance. Like the question ‘Is Zen a religion?’; everything hinges on your definition of religion. If religion is a system of beliefs, then the answer is no. Zen is not a religion because it does not require its practitioners to ascribe to a prescribed set of assumptions. But if religion refers to human beings joining in common rituals and practices to pursue their relation to the most ultimate truths of existence, then, without a doubt Zen is a religion.
Likewise, if ‘God’ refers to an older man with a long beard who sits on puffy white clouds and helps me find parking spaces, I have to confess to non-belief. (Mostly because in our family, my deceased mother-in-law, Sylvia Blacker, is the patron saint of parking spaces and can help the sincere petitioner find a spot in the most unlikely neighborhoods.) But if ‘God’ refers to the mysterious source from which everything appears, if God is the force that makes the electrons spin around the nucleus and is the brilliant functioning of each cell in my body, then I have no problem saying that of course I believe in God.
For me, ‘God’ is a useful pointer toward the wondrous miracle of life. ‘God’ is a referent to something that can never be fully understood. Many famous theologians have made pithy and derogatory comments about the fallacy of any definition of God that claims to be definitive. I wish I could remember a few right now to bolster my argument.
But I raise my mug of tea to my lips and I swallow. The tea disappears inside me and I have a sense of warmth and comfort. Could there be a more intimate demonstration of God—of the mystery and effortless functioning of life?
Monday morning was in the mid-fifties and I welcomed the arising day from the back porch glider with my cup of tea and trusty laptop. I do confess to a blanket to warm my legs and wrapping a scarf around my bald head for warmth. But still, it was a treat to write outside for the first time of the season.
Yesterday, I had to look twice to understand that the white blanket on the ground was actually snow and ice.
This morning, it’s cold again. I don my orange down jacket for the ritual Thursday morning walking of the yellow trash bag across the empty parking lot. The luminous and nearly round moon catches my eye through the bare branches of the mighty sugar maple that grace the clear western sky.
Soon enough the leaves will come and the weather will warm. But even now, the birds still sing and the daffodils, though bent, appear to be uncomplaining.
I’ll be preaching this morning at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson. It’s settled down to about four or five times a year that I’m asked to give the sermon at a Unitarian Universalist church in the region. I always say yes when I’m asked. It’s the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
I decided to be a professional cleric when I was five years old. At the time, my Dad had just taken his first ‘call’ as a Presbyterian minister. It was a second career for him. He had dropped out of the Coast Guard to attend Princeton Seminary shortly after his mother died, his young brother-in-law committed suicide and I was born.
We lived in Cambridge, NY, a small farming town forty miles northeast of Albany. Our house, which seemed big and rambling to a small boy, was right across the street from the church. My brother and I had a bottle cap collection and once captured several pollywogs that lived briefly in a gallon jug and eventually shed their tails and began becoming frogs. We had a small black and white TV with rabbit ears that could be adjusted to receive different kinds of static and occasional shadowy moving images.
Every Sunday, my Dad would stand up in the pulpit and talk. I have no memory of anything he said, but I remember that everyone listened. My job, it was made clear to me, was to be quiet and not fidget too much. And then after (or before) the sermon, Dad would join the four or five other people (it wasn’t a big church) and sing in the choir.
It was clear to me then, that this is was the most worthy vocation and that when I grew up, I wanted to be a minister and sing in the choir. Of course a five year old doesn’t really know very much, and yet I marvel at my prescience. Despite my best efforts to avoid a religious career, I am now Abbot of the Zen Temple where I live and participate in daily services (meditation). I consider myself astonishingly lucky to have this as my work and to share it with my wife Melissa Myozen Blacker, Roshi.
And on this lovely April morning, I get to go to a beautiful old New England church, and stand in the pulpit and talk about the good news of the possibility of being a human being. People will sit in the pews and listen. And though I probably won’t sing in the choir, I will join in on my favorite hymns with particular enthusiasm.