As her family begins the restoration of a traditional Japanese-style garden, Zen teacher Karen Maezen Miller receives a teaching of love—and of letting go—in the fleeting beauty of its flowers.
Sister by Alena Hennessy
Flowers are love’s perfect offering. They do not ask to be appreciated. They expect nothing in return. They just let go.
Camellia japonica is a mainstay of Japanese temple gardens but was once avoided around private homes. That’s because the flower has no life span to speak of. It does not adorn the branch for long but falls off at its peak. You can see why some people would think this peculiar feature unappealing, even disturbing, but the Buddhists saw a lesson in this. (We see a lesson in everything.) In life there is death. In form, there is emptiness. In eternity there is fragility. What are you holding on to? What will you leave behind? Like the blossoms in their evanescent beauty, throw yourself into this moment and leave no trace.
“It’s not a flower garden,” I say about this place, meaning this isn’t the kind of garden where you fill a bed with blooming annuals and replace them when they fade. But then again, that’s not quite right. This is a flower garden, and it’s a bed of roses too. I don’t have to do anything, and yet flowers are appearing all the time: azalea, jasmine, and wisteria in spring; agapanthus, water lilies, and day lilies in summer; camellia, bird of paradise, and orange blossoms in winter; floribunda roses and gardenias nearly all year long. Even the dandelions count. By some mysterious and unerring hand, flowers all appear right on time. They seed the fruit. They feed the bees and butterflies; they sweeten the breeze. They are subtle and selfless, here and gone, appearing and disappearing, part and parcel of life’s perennial display. By this definition everything is a flower; by this lesson, all is love. Life is indeed love, continually pouring itself into itself—for my benefit and delight, I might add—but by my egocentric thinking I can be blind to the gift.
Love is abundant, but if you’re like me you may live a good part of the time thinking otherwise. That’s because love doesn’t always fit your idea of love. It doesn’t feel like you think it should. It doesn’t go your way. When I move through my own full house and go virtually unnoticed by my distracted cohabitants; when I set a meal on the table and no one answers my call, takes a seat, or applauds; when I hang up someone else’s clothes, rinse someone else’s dishes, straighten someone else’s mess, and fix someone else’s mistakes, leaving no one the wiser; when I cry for someone else’s pain and sweat someone else’s small stuff; when the neighbor doesn’t invite me over and the party goes on without me; when the critics are brutal and the fans are slow to muster—I’m rather convinced that I’ve gotten a raw deal from love, that I’m party to an uneven exchange. But that’s wrongheaded. This is my universe, and all the love in it is mine. If I detect a shortage, it’s because I’ve been picky, closed-minded, or stingy. Can I love a bit better and give a bit more? Considering that I’m the only one stopping me, well, yes, I can.
Whatever you love will bring you to the final test of love: letting go of what you think love is.
Buddhists don’t try to cause trouble, but one thing that troubles people about Buddhism is the concept of nonattachment. That’s because we think attachment means love, and we think love means I can’t live without you. We are always hung up on our self-serving notions—what I need, what I want, what I like, what I think, what is best, what is right—and that’s the cause of suffering. We attach to those ideas as though they were life itself. The truth is never the phony thing we attach to in our heads. The truth is as it is.
Buddha taught what he called the Four Noble Truths:
1. Life is suffering. Things change.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment. It hurts when things change.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. Accept that things change.
4. There is a way out of suffering. By changing yourself.
When we try to imagine what it means to overcome our attachments, we picture cruel and unfeeling indifference. But that is never the outcome of overcoming attachments. That is never the outcome of accepting what happens. That is never the outcome of allowing people and things to be as they are. The outcome of nonattachment is love.
I don’t have to preach this. You know it yourself by waking up to life as it is. Your children grow up and grow distant. They might upset, alarm, and even despise you, but your eyes still flicker at the sight of them. Your parents grow old, enfeebled, and afraid, dependent and encumbering, but you care for them. Sickness comes, disaster strikes, and seasons change. Everything falls apart no matter how hard you’ve tried: all that forethought, planning, and prevention! This life of ours is strewn with faded blooms. You didn’t sign up for the hard part, but this is the way it is. How will you love what you don’t even like? There’s only one way: selflessly.
When you act with compassion, all your doing is undoing—undoing ignorance, suffering, fear, anger, exploitation, alienation, injury, blame, you name it—simply by undoing the stingy hold you keep on yourself. Thinking poor me impoverishes your entire world.
When my daughter was about six years old, someone asked her what it was like to have a mom who was a Zen priest.
“She screams a lot,” she said. It wasn’t the answer they were expecting. There were polite chuckles all around.
I can comfort myself with the fact that children only remember when their parents scream, not when their parents don’t. Silence, after all, is a nonevent. No matter what I was hollering about, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to let it go. I wish I’d dropped my rage, fear, frustration, or despair: whatever illusory part of me I was cherishing at the time. I wish love could be my legacy instead, the way a camellia launches its blossoms into the oblivion of time without causing a quiver of pain. No one ever notices when a flower has fulfilled its purpose in life, just as no one ever regrets a moment lost to love.
“He was the kindest person I ever met.” These words were spoken by Taizan Maezumi Roshi’s widow after his death, after their public troubles and private pain, and after she was left alone to raise three children. When flowers fall, you realize the gift of their presence by their absence.
Maezumi, my teacher, introduced me to a dimension of love that we do not often experience. His love was not administered in the guise of charity or sympathy. He did not serve as a counselor, advocate, or intermediary. He had no suggestions for how I could improve myself. He simply sat in a room. When he rang a bell, you could enter, sit in front of him, and be seen. The two of us would talk a little and laugh or cry: whatever. Gradually, I would relax and stop trying to make an impression. His kindness was the profound kindness of seeing a person or thing completely, without judgment. I learned two things by this: that it is rare to be seen and that seeing without judging is an act of love.
Zen practice is facing yourself as you are. And by accepting yourself, you come to accept everything. Self-consciousness dissolves and separation disappears. Free of deception, you are no longer afraid to be yourself. You are no longer afraid of much of anything. There is nothing to hide; no self-image to defend; nothing to assemble, control, or avoid. It’s simply a matter of taking care of what appears in front of you.
Whatever appears in front of you is your liberation—that is, until you judge it. Then you imprison yourself again.
“Be intimate with your life,” Maezumi used to say, over and over, and in every way he could. Meditation is about cultivating intimacy with your life—not intellectually, as in I get it, but literally, as in I am it—intimacy with your breath, your sweat, your body odor, the pain in your back and knees, the crazy rage and riot in your head, and the saliva at the back of your throat. Intimacy with food and sleep, light and air, earth and sky, everyone and everything. When you leave nothing out, there’s no end to it. This intimacy goes far beyond the companionship and gratification we seek from another person. Keeping company with yourself changes the expectations you place on a relationship. You see firsthand what it means to take responsibility for your own fulfillment, and you experience love of a different kind—compassion, which arises spontaneously as your true nature.
Every time I meet with my current teacher in dokusan, a face-to-face interview, we talk about my practice. After a little back and forth, he’ll wrap up the interview with what sounds like small talk.
“How’s your family?”
I roll my eyes and repeat the usual about how worried or anxious I am, how busy, how burdened, how bothered, and then I realize. That was the big question.
The big question is always a little question. What’s it like to have a Zen priest for a mother?
One time after a mountain retreat, Maezumi asked me to come to his home nearby and meet his family. At the time there was only one phone on the property of the Zen Center (this was before cell phones would add another layer of egocentric disengagement to modern life), a pay phone strung up outside the bathhouse, and when it rang, someone ran up to the dorm to fetch me. I was packing to leave.
“Roshi is calling for you!” the messenger said, out of breath.
I was feeling pretty special on the way downhill to take the call, but when I heard his invitation, I had to say no. It was impossible, what with the drive to LAX and a plane to catch. Perhaps he didn’t understand how impractical it was for me. Maybe he didn’t grasp how far I had to travel or what I had to do. I thought he was a little naive to the ways of the world I lived in. No, I couldn’t come but maybe some other time. We all know how that kind of thinking turns out.
In between the self-important student who has no time and the mom who terrifies her kid, I’ve gotten a good look at what I hold dearest—myself. It’s what I must let go of completely before it’s time to go. Then this one life will have flowered into something beautiful without my getting in the way.
One more thing.
“Mom, you don’t have to keep telling me because I know.”
I love you.
Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden, by Karen Maezen Miller. New World Library, 2014. Reprinted with permission. Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen Buddhist priest at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.