My dharma sister of twelve precious years died this past winter by her own hand at the edge of her garden, in the curt junction of November meteor showers crossing over ripe persimmons on a bare branch. I loved her complex garden—it was like her mind, a labyrinth of roses pulling you down, out of conventional reality and into the deep well of time. It was a spirit garden, not a religious place. “Religion is for those scared to death of hell,” she liked to quip, repeating a popular dharma joke. “Spirituality is for those who have been there.”
But now, as spring thickens the sap of the first new persimmon buds, concepts like “religion” and “spirituality” are dry dung on the wind. My friend has been dead for three months, and it’s time to dig her a new garden. I choose the roughest land I know—a buffalo hump of barren earth bristling with Bermuda grass and neglect. It takes days to grub out the seven or eight wheelbarrows full of white-knuckled pernicious roots in that renegade soil before laying out the garden that has been incubating in sorrow all winter long.
One of the ancient sources of gardens comes from honoring the dead and planting in their memory. I imagine a medicine wheel design for my friend, a classic pattern of a central circle within a cross all contained within an outer circle, remembering that when the Spanish conquistadors invaded the New World, indigenous people fled before the stark pattern of their naked cross. Without the protection of the circle of life surrounding the cross, great danger was foretold.
Before laying out the medicine wheel, I spend hours by myself on the raw ground of the garden, sitting up late under a starless sky. Early the next morning I note where the sun rises. Since it is almost the vernal equinox, incense is offered to the lonely wind. Then I warm up by pacing out the dimensions of the new garden plot, dividing the distance in half, and marking the center of the garden with a strong wooden stake. Next, I tie a heavy cord to this central stake and circumscribe a bright ring on the ground by walking around the pole and marking the circumference of the outer circle with a bone-white drizzle of pulverized oyster shell. Last of all, the inner cross pattern is laid out within the circle by using a magnetic compass to find true north and to mark the four cardinal directions of the medicine wheel.
By midmorning the design is finished. Stepping back to survey the new garden, I am startled to see the familiar imprint of the Buddha’s teaching wheel etched in broken oyster shells within the pattern of the medicine wheel garden. Soon this skeleton wheel will be covered over with healing herbs planted for my friend: silver and green rosemary for remembrance in the northern quadrant of the garden, golden yarrow for the mind of awakening in the eastern section of the wheel, fiery red sage for hummingbirds and to gladden the heart in the southern quarter of the garden, and lavender, the queen of crops, for comfort in the western realm of the medicine wheel. But what about the center—what goes in the center?
I decide to leave it empty, nothing holy, just so the medicine wheel can turn, forward and backward, way up in the middle of the air.
Establishing A Medicine Wheel Garden
Before you lay out the design of your medicine wheel garden on your soil, cultivate your ground well, removing large stones and pernicious weeds. Next, add compost to help build good tilth and fertility in your soil. Now, proceed to measure and mark your medicine wheel pattern on the ground, using temporary materials at first (like bread flour or oyster shell lime) and more durable materials (like stone, gravel, sod, or wood bark, for example) once your design is clearly set. Last of all, plant the quadrants of your garden with the plants of your choice, and enjoy your medicine wheel as a place of practice, renewal, and beauty. Those of you without arable land can establish small indoor medicine wheels as temporary altars or offerings. Use a plate or circular tray with sand, stones, and fresh plants for your design.
For more information on creating sacred space gardens, here is some recommended reading:
Artress, Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool, Riverhead Books, 1996.
Kavasch, E. Barrie. The Medicine Wheel Garden, Redwing Book Co., 2002.
Moore, Charles W., William J. Mitchell, and William Turnbull. The Poetics of Gardens, MIT Press, 1993.
Wilson, Gilbert. Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.