Karen Maezen Miller is Zen Buddhist priest and teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. In her new book, she reveals what she has learned from her garden. This interview is graciously shared by her publisher, New World Library.
What is your new book about?
Paradise in Plain Sight tells the story of caring for the 100-year-old Japanese garden in my backyard. I simply write what I see, and invite readers to see it with me. But this book is not just about my garden. It's about seeing your own life, wherever you are, as a garden of wisdom.
How do you define "paradise"?
I see it as the word was intended originally. Shortly after arriving here 17 years ago, I read a book on the history of Japanese gardens. I came across a single line that described the original meaning of the word "paradise." Most of us think paradise is someplace else. But the original Persian word simply meant an enclosed area: a walled park or garden. To me, it was plain to see. Paradise is your backyard. Do you see it? Will you care for it? What will you grow? What matters is what you do in the place that you already live.
What is the history of the garden?
It was built in 1916 on a hillside in the small town of Sierra Madre, a suburb of Los Angeles. The designer was a gardener from Japan named Tokutaro Kato. It is about 7,500 square feet in size, with four interconnected ponds, three bridges, two waterfalls, a stream, and a teahouse. It was part of a larger estate that was later subdivided into housing plots, but the garden remained intact. A bungalow was added to the property in 1949. It is entirely hidden from street view in my backyard. It is Southern California's oldest private Japanese garden.
What can you learn from nature?
Nature teaches us about ourselves because nature is what we are. It is living wisdom. In the book, I tell how rocks teach faith, roots give us our lineage, flowers offer love, leaves show how to let go, and fruit teaches forgiveness. Everything is taught to you no farther away than the ground beneath your feet.
How did you come to be a Zen priest?
I began my meditation practice with a Zen teacher named Taizan Maezumi Roshi in 1993. In 2003 I ordained as a priest. In Zen, ordination is a personal commitment to a life of service. A life of selfless service is the actualization of wisdom.
Is it possible to live in a universe without fear?
Yes. It is possible to live in a universe without your own fear, because there is no fear in the natural world except what we bring into it. Fear is the product of the egocentric mind, the discriminating intellect that picks and chooses, grasps and rejects, in a fruitless effort to make us feel "safe." No longer thinking about fear is transcending fear. We do this automatically all the time: every time we stand up, walk, fall asleep and breathe. More dramatically, we are fearless when we act instinctively in a compassionate way. Sometimes these kinds of actions are called "heroic," but they are actually the selfless expression of our true nature, which is fearless.
You say in the book that the awakened mind has two attributes. What are they and why are they important aspects our lives?
The awakened mind has two aspects. One is compassion, what some would call love. The other is clarity, what some would call sight. They are not really two things. Each is a function of the other. When you see, really see, you just love. When you love, really love, you just see. You see things as they are, not as you expect, and that is unconditional love. They are important to realize because they are our true nature and our true nature is truth. Until we wake up and realize the truth, we live in confusion, doubt, fear, and pain.
You write that when you commit to a path, the Way opens up by itself. How so?
By itself means by itself. When we stop looking for anything or any place other than where we are, there is no more "how." We just keep going straight on.
You say that someday must be the great lie of our lifetimes. How so?
Someday never arrives. It is always now. When we live for "someday" we are not only lying to ourselves, we are robbing ourselves blind.
What is the Buddhist perspective on what happens when we die?
There is no single Buddhist perspective. Some Buddhists might attest to a certain belief or a dogma about death. In Zen Buddhism, which is the practice of observing what is, we can't pretend to know. Spend a few days or months in a garden, however, and the question may no longer disturb you. Every form of life is in constant transformation and flux. You can't locate a "before" or "after." The very question is grounded in the misconception of reality.
Why did you write this book now?
Every time I sit down to write, it's an invitation to look at the truth that is right in front of me. Familiarity can distort your view, and it wasn't until I started writing this book that the lessons came into focus. All I had to do was gather them. The garden was ready to have her story told, and I was ready to leave these lessons behind for someone else to find.
Can you describe your writing process?
It's a process of discovery. I never know what will appear when I sit down in front of an empty page. Writing is the way I resolve my own doubt or despair. It brings me to peace and acceptance, and I share that state of mind with readers. I am writing all the time in all kinds of ways: a word here, a paragraph there, on scrap paper, my blog, and in journals. Sometimes my best writing is just a tweet or Facebook post. As I'm writing a manuscript I find places to use passages I might have written months or years before. It comes together by itself. I love language and it moves through me like a song. All I have to do is listen. I write by listening and responding to what I hear.
What do you hope readers learn from you?
To open their eyes and keep going straight on.