In September of 2020, I moved to a small island off the western coast of Canada. Living a rural life had never been a priority for me, but I suddenly found myself in an enviable environment surrounded by verdant forests, underutilized outdoor space, and master gardeners. It seemed that everywhere I went, veteran horticulturists were engaged in fervent conversation. I, on the other hand, was in my mid-60s with little experience even keeping a houseplant alive.
The minute I considered joining these gardeners and embracing this new endeavor, I felt overwhelmed—a feeling with which I was well familiar. When I first devoted myself to Tibetan Buddhism in earnest, I felt similarly overwhelmed by the multitude of schools, lineages, teachings, and terminology. But I learned that untangling the vast mystery of the Vajrayana began with recognizing the path as an endless body of knowledge that spread in many directions. So when I took up gardening, I remembered that it is like Buddhism in this way. My decade of solid practice helped me recognize how consciousness is the tool we have for dealing with novelty, and that I could now put my Buddhist insight to use—in a very earthy way. Indeed, gardening demands of us many of the same traits Buddhism requires: curiosity, discernment, diligence, consistency, and patience.
I began visiting gardens—both massive and modest—with the same inquisitiveness I first felt when picking up a bell and dorje. For the most part, I didn’t know what I was looking at, but in the same way that I’d sensed my background and nature would best mesh with the Nyingma school, I discerned which gardening path to 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 guide me toward a vegetable garden with a tall fence and sturdy containers.
When it came to finding the appropriate guidance, I relied on my intuition. I also relied on YouTube. The first few days I spent clicking through earnest, well-meaning gardeners who were intent on entertaining. After some sleuthing, I found someone who was as confidently eloquent, yet as straightforward and efficient, in his instructions as the lamas I have studied with. His basics became my basics. I also read articles and asked a lot of questions. Pieces of information came together to form a new foundation of understanding.
In my Buddhist meditation practice, the successes and failures of others, whether on the cushion or off, were not my successes and failures. So, while I was happy to find dedicated gardeners sharing their stories, it was time to seek the deep, visceral knowledge of personal experience. Getting my hands dirty provided a new type of refuge.
The island where I live has an abundance of seedling sales I could have waited for, but germination was part of an experience I wanted in full. With the type of care I use to set up my meditation space, I hung full-spectrum lighting over trays of packed soil in a storage shed. Tiny seeds were pushed below the surface as the excitement of inherent potential rushed through me. Once those seeds were activated, the soil’s crust was pushed aside in the breaking-through of new life. I recalled hearing Buddhist psychology for the first time and how that grew in my mind, pushing aside previous concepts.
One exception to germinating from seed was the purchase of a ten-inch-tall Desert King fig sapling. I sent a photo of my little bare stick to a friend, who replied that I’d bought my own Bodhi tree. Until his comment, I hadn’t consciously known what my attraction was, beyond the idea of eating figs in three or four years. Now I find myself providing it with extra care.
I tended my seedlings as they grew under the lights, but before they could be transferred to the garden, they required a hardening-off period. This transition period of days in the sun and nights in the shed reminded me of an earlier time when I was still wavering in my path. Once the seedlings were transplanted, enhanced maturation took place. They became firmly rooted with full commitment, as I had also managed to do. Moving forward with no hesitation, knowing exactly where we belonged. And, of course, that certainty is when the biggest threats appear. Curiosity, discernment, and diligence matter, but you don’t get anywhere without patience and consistency—rare commodities in our modern world.
In Buddhism, patience requires faith in the very idea of enlightenment. In the garden, it is the belief that tiny seedlings will eventually be capable of filling an entire pot and bearing fruit. Cultivating a daily practice and sticking to it set me up for enacting the same sort of care with a garden, even though my first spring was epically cold and wet. That challenging weather hung on right into June. My wilted tomato leaves were turning purple when I shook my head and wondered what Buddha would do. Should I try to germinate more seeds and abandon my suffering plants or find ways to protect them?
I’d learned enough to produce perfect seedlings, but they were floundering. Turning my gaze to the overcast sky above, I thought of the Buddhist term “skillful means.” I grabbed wire cages, shoved them into the three five-gallon buckets, and covered them with the heaviest plastic I could find. For several weeks, I took that plastic off in the daytime and put it back on at night. I refused to give up.
Nowhere do we encounter the transitory nature 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. When inner signs of our practice show outwardly, we hear of these profound changes from others. A teacher, fellow student, or close friend might notice shifts in our temperament, but they are usually so subtle that at first, we can’t see them ourselves. We might notice our lives working better, but often we can’t see how the teachings have changed us until—like my eventually hardy tomatoes—we have grown noticeably healthier.
The four seals, or caturmudra (Skt.; T. phyag rgya bzhi; C. siyin; J. shiin; K. sain), literally means the four principles that mark a doctrine as genuine dharma. They are points a teaching must have to validate it as Buddhist.
The four seals are:
(1) all compounded or conditioned things are impermanent;
(2) all things contaminated by desire, aversion, and delusion are characterized by suffering;
(3) all things have no enduring or unchanging self; and
(4) nirvana is peace.
While they are employed in Mahayana sutras, the four seals are said to be unifying elements of all Buddhist teachings.
Taking it one step further, tending a garden provides daily lessons in the four seals of Buddhism: four viewpoints that mark a teaching as Buddhist.
The first seal is that all compounded things are impermanent. Germinating those tomato seeds created the cause for them to sprout, but the added condition of my exertion brought forth the karma that allowed the plants to thrive, even through inclement weather.
I also saw how the kindness I’d shown myself while struggling with my own wild emotions was now reflected in the simple equanimity I felt while tending to my fledgling tomatoes. There was no hope, fear, or other emotion that caused suffering. In that, I recognized the second seal of Buddhism.
I’ve now spent several vigilant months overseeing my plot, and the joy of harvest has begun. Cherry tomatoes, onions, basil, parsley, and chard are plentiful, my squash box is overflowing, and I look forward to uncovering the layers of tubers hidden in my potato bags under bushes of stems, leaves, and delicate white flowers.
That sense of completion and abundance is gratifying, but the opportunity to notice the compounded elements that make up a plant during its various stages of growth has led to a deeper understanding of emptiness—that all things have no inherent existence—the third seal of Buddhism.
My first harvest is slowly replacing the pleasures of novelty with the comfort of the familiar. I will never know enough, but with both the accomplishment of study and the activity of getting right in there and doing the work, both gardening and Buddhist practice produce big rewards. They both nourish us with knowledge and shift us toward being more loving and non-neurotic. The fourth seal of Buddhism states that nirvana is not fabricated. It is beyond concepts and cannot be held on to. In removing what obscures our innate buddhanature, we uncover what has always been present. My own little Bodhi tree is also very much present. It has grown another foot and is now adorned with a crown of leaves. I believe that someday it too will be tall enough to sit under.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.