Friday, June 26, 2009

The Value of Weeds

Zen Master Dogen, who lived in 13th century Japan, encapsulated his entire teachings of Zen in a single written work entitled the Genjo koan.

It is said that the whole of his teaching is actually contained within the opening four stanzas of this work. They are as follows:

"When all dharmas are the Buddha-dharma, there are enlightenment & delusion, practice, life & death, buddhas & creatures. When the ten thousand dharmas are without self, there is no delusion, no enlightenment, no buddhas, no creatures, no life & no death. The Buddha way transcends being & non-being; therefore there are life & death, there are birth & death, delusion & enligtenment, creatures & buddhas."

Dogen concluded this passage of the Genjo koan with the following metaphor:

"Nevertheless, flowers fall with our attachment, & weeds spring up with our aversion."

Spring in New England has been uncommonly wet this year. At a time when many families are trying to minimize expenses due to the worst economy in decades, private vegetable gardens populate the landscape. And with all the rain thus far, the grass & fields are resplendent with the vernal glow of spring.

I have planted a vegetable garden in my back yard now for the last five years. It all started when I was recovering from surgery to eliminate a malignant tumor that would have ended my life. There was a three month period after the surgery during which time I was waiting to be tested to determine if all of the cancer had in fact been surgically removed from my body. It was during that recovery period, five springs ago, that I planted my first vegetable garden.

The practice of gardening yields many unexpected lessons. For example, while anxiously waiting to see if the plants I had put into the ground would take and bear fruit, weeds sprang up everywhere with no encouragement whatsoever. In fact, once planted, much of the ongoing process of tending a garden involves hours and hours of weeding.

For a long time my relationship to weeds could only be characterized as one of sheer hostility. Why, for heavens sake, do these weeds flourish so well in spite of my enmity and repeated efforts to control them?

At some point, I don't remember when, it dawned on me that the weeds in my garden share an affinity with the troubling thoughts & emotions I carry around in my head day to day. It was then that I first got a glimpse of what Dogen might have been pointing to when he wrote, "... and weeds spring up with our aversion."

The more unwilling I am to have weeds in my garden, the more troubling they are to me. By the same token, the more I try to control and push away difficult thoughts and emotions that surface in my mind, the more prevalent they seem to become ... the more they "spring up with ... [my] aversion."

Parenthetically, cursing & detesting the weeds in my garden does nothing at all to forestall their appearance or slow their growth. Nature doesn't care how I feel about her weeds ... she makes room for them even if I won't.

Incidentally, my mind functions in much the same way. Despite attempts to control and/or avoid aspects of my experience that reverberate as unwanted thoughts, images & emotions, they just spring up of themselves. It is just the nature of our minds. The appearance of these unwanted thoughts is not affected by our aversion to them. In fact, our aversion will only strengthen the likelihood that they will appear. If you don't think that is true, try to push an unwanted thought out of your mind and watch what happens. Funny, if you don't want it you've got it!?

When we find ourselves at this juncture, it is easy to get stuck, feel hopeless, become angry, etc., etc. Although it is at these times that a vegetable garden becomes a teacher.

Mother nature loves all of her creations equally well, without judgment. She is totally accepting of her infinite brood. Everyone and all things are welcome at her table. Within the unfathomable matrix of life, all things have their unique form, function & value. Everything is perfect & complete just as it is ... even those pesky weeds ... even those pesky thoughts ... even those difficult emotions.

So from this perspective a weed is no more or less valuable than a tomato plant. And in my garden I choose to have tomatoes. That means that there can not be a weed where a tomato is growing. So I remove the weed knowing that another one will grow in its place. The weed provides me with an opportunity to be in service to the other plants in the garden that I value. But I do not value them over the weed.

I also value the weed for the sacrifice of its life so the tomatoes can grow. I value the weed for its great bodhisattva action.

And what about those pesky mind weeds? I need them in my life as well. They present themselves to remind me of what I need to attend to in order to grow in the life directions that have deep importance for me.

You sure can learn a lot in a garden. It's all there. Life and death, decisions about important life choices, service to others and the value of weeds.