As I travel around the world, visiting different continents and working with various cultures, I find that all the social problems, regardless of scale, are found in miniature in and around my garden. This is not surprising because culture is a structure that is artificially imposed on people and reflected in their gardens. And yet, my garden is also an isle of solitude around which the increasingly hectic human world turns. I thus return again and again to my garden, there to touch my spiritual ground and to confront my understanding of the worldly problems outside of its borders.
I love my garden because it is small, and I can physically care for it, touch it, feel it, smell it; whereas I can only love society, care for it, and touch it through words on paper or in front of an audience or a TV camera. But in my garden, I need no words.
The Saint who brought Buddhism to China.
My garden as an isle of solitude reminds me of an Eastern fable about an emperor in a faraway land who built a palace, which he named "House of the Singing Floors." When the palace was completed, the emperor look at it and decided that he wanted some gardens planted to accentuate the palace itself in the midst of an earthly paradise.
The emperor sent for the wisest and most skillful of his gardeners and commanded him to create the palace gardens. The gardener, who was very old and very wise, selected a place at some distance from the palace and built for himself a simple chair, which he covered with a canopy of branches as protection from the elements. There he quietly seated himself.
Summer passed slowly and gently as the old man sat in silence, watching. Autumn came. The leaves of the trees changed colors and fell. Many of the birds departed as the north wind began to blow and the storm clouds to gather. As the sky darkened, snow began to fall, and Winter lay upon the ground. But still the aged gardener sat in his chair quietly observing.
The winds sent snow whirling and spinning across the land, sweeping the ground clear in one place only to bury it another as the trees now bent, now whipped back and forth under the fury of the gale. The gardener, meanwhile, pulled about him his woolen cloak as he reached for another bowl of hot tea.
Spring came. The snows melted. Little streams swelled. Birds began returning, once again filling the warming breezes with song. Through the spent stalks of grasses and the limp, decaying bodies of fallen leaves came the delicate heads of Spring flowers. And still the old gardener sat watching in silence the mural of the seasons.
At last, Summer came again. The gardener, having sat in his chair for a year, arose and entered into the presence of the emperor. I will now plant the garden," he said.
By the following Summer, the earthly paradise was completed. On every hand bloomed rare plants. Strange and wonderful fishes added color to the ponds as shinning native fishes swam in the streams. Birds, which migrated from afar, nested in the shrubs and trees, filling the garden with song. Little shrines reposed atop large rocks, and ancient stone lanterns bordered the pathways.
When all was in readiness, the old gardener requested an audience with the emperor, and led him onto the wide veranda of the palace.
"O Son of Heaven," he said, "my work is finished. In every season and with the passing of every year, this garden will retain its perfection. Each plant in its growing will become a living part of a balanced completeness.
"The fragrance of Spring, hidden in opening blossom and unfolding leaf, will perfume the air with Heaven's own scent. The leaves of the trees will create an ever-changing dance of light and shadow as the flowers nod and the ferns and grasses sway in the breezes of Summer. The falling leaves of Autumn will form patterns upon the ground and in the ponds as berries ripen into hues of blue and orange and red. Through the leafless branches of late Autumn you will see in vista grand the snow-capped mountains. With Winter will the ponds and streams freeze in patterns bold and intricate, a perfect mix of composition and harmony. And with Spring, the streams, released from Winter's grip, will form ripples, eddies, and pools in their flowing, each perfectly attuned to the rest.
"It is for this reason that I sat for a year in meditation. There can be only peace here, for conflict cannot abide where Heavenly peace reigns. Each passing season will express itself in its own way. There will always be harmonious beauty in the gardens of your palace.
"As your majesty advances in years, your perceptions and tastes will change, but the gardens will grow and change also. You will thus find happiness in them as long as you live. And when at last you return to the sky from whence you came, those who follow after you will find themselves in this garden as you have found yourself. I have created a miniature world to reflect for you the mysteries of a far greater world. This, O Son of Heaven, is a wise man's garden."
Fiacre, Patron Saint of the garden.
To every person, the fabled emperor is the Self; the garden, one's life; and the aged gardener one's own wisdom with which one must build one's earthly paradise. But the mystery of this fable cannot be understood by reading the words, it can only be felt inwardly as a spiritual experience while gardening, for as novelist Willa Cather says, "The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist [the gardener], knows how difficult it is."
So it is that while working in my garden, I can, for a while, be untouched by the various wars that are raging in the outer world, or by the disease and hunger that ravage this country or that, or by the corporate greed that is destroying whole ecosystems, both at home and abroad. It is not that I don't care about what goes on in the outer world, but rather that my garden is at once an isle of solitude in a sea of strife and an entrance into a realm of reality beyond the material, much like the rabbit's burrow leading to Alice's Wonderland.
It is here, in my garden, that I personalized my perception of the world in a scale with which I can cope and to some degree affect. Here, as the French painter J.A.D. Ingres says of art, "one arrives at an honorable result only through one's tears." Thus, in some small way, I can affect the world at the scale of my garden by consciously learning to understand and work with those physical, biological, and spiritual principles that govern the intrinsic wholeness of Nature--and myself as a quintessential part of that whole.
As such, it is spiritual succor that I find in my garden when the burdens of the outer world grow too heavy for my shoulders. For it is here that I kneel before God and find peace in turning the soil and in weeding.
And it is while weeding that my inner vision shifts, and I often see my garden not as an infinitesimal place in the world, but rather the world as a infinitesimal place in my garden, which acts as a nexus between the outer and inner realities of life.
© chris maser 2002. From The World is in My Garden.