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Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden

Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden

by Karen Maezen Miller

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Come See the Garden That Is Your Life When Zen teacher Karen Maezen Miller and her family land in a house with a hundred-year-old Japanese garden, she uses the paradise in her backyard to glean the living wisdom of our natural world. Through her eyes, rocks convey faith, ponds preach stillness, flowers give love, and leaves express the effortless ease of letting go. The book welcomes readers into the garden for Zen lessons in fearlessness, forgiveness, presence, acceptance, and contentment. Miller gathers inspiration from the ground beneath her feet to remind us that paradise is always here and now.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608682539
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 04/15/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 462 KB

About the Author

Karen Maezen Miller is an errant wife, delinquent mother, reluctant dog walker, and expert laundress, as well as a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. She is the author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, and her writing is also included in the anthologies The Best Buddhist Writing 2007 and The Maternal Is Political. She offers retreats and workshops around the country. You can catch up with her writing and events at

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Paradise in Plain Sight

Lessons from a Zen Garden

By Karen Maezen Miller

New World Library

Copyright © 2014 Karen Maezen Miller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-253-9



The View from a Distance

A monk asked, "What is the Way?" The master replied, "Stop standing at the crossroads gazing into the distance."

— The Record of Transmitting the Light

First you have to find the garden. It seems far off, but it never is.

You will arrive at a place you've never been before, and you will enter it. Then you will come to see that your life is the life of the entire universe. You may wander off, but you will keep coming back. Eventually, you won't go anywhere else.

This is where it begins. It begins on the curb.

There is something haunting about looking into other people's houses. You can see the past and its long shadow of pain. You see wasted potential: ten thousand futures gone missing. You see a lot of stuff that no one needed to keep, do-it-yourself projects that should have been left undone. You see what people love, and by their neglect, what they don't. You see a lot of bad carpet. On this day of house hunting, my husband and I saw nothing that we would ever want to inhabit.

The day had not gone well. More than a few days had not gone well. We were nearing the end of our second year of marriage and finally looking for our first home together. We had lived mostly apart, taking a measured approach to combining our single households in separate states. I wasn't happy it was taking so long, but my insistence triggered his resistance, and the gap between us widened.

That's what can happen when you're used to having your way.

We had met and married at the brink of middle age, each secure in our separateness, from entirely different worlds. He was an engineer, and I was a spiritual type. He was a loner, and I was a joiner. He believed in the metric system, and I believed in miracles. But the real difference was that I wanted everything to change, and he didn't, at least not yet. This kind of tension always surfaces between people, because for-and-against is a struggle we bring to everything we do. To prove it, just grab hold of what you think is your side of things, the right side, and tug. Wars like that can go on for — oh, I don't know — forever. You're putting all your effort into pulling a rope and then blaming the other side for the blister.

After barely a year of long-distance dating and then a fast-track wedding, I wanted to take up residence together, start a family before it was too late, and turn my world upside down. Sounds reasonable. But he wanted to take his time and have a plan. Sounds reasonable. Two reasonable people locked inside two different versions of reasonable: proof that reason alone doesn't bridge a divide.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, a two-career couple living in two parts of the country was called a marriage of the '90s. People marveled at our invention, but what I really wanted was a marriage of the 1890s. Barring that, I'd settle for sharing a zip code.

People who knew about our peculiar standoff would stammer in disbelief, "Didn't you decide where you would live, uh, before you got married?" The simple answer was no, and I blamed myself. I took great care, in my precarious approach to an impossible dream, to disrupt as little as possible in advance. Haven't you ever done that? Reached for something you want, on any terms, then seen that what you'd wrought was bent and half-broken, not quite working the way you'd thought it would?

I admit I had been less than clear about my intentions because they had been less than clear to me. Why did I, an independent, self-made woman, want to marry at all? Have a family? Willingly give up a last name, a job, and my own remote control to move across the country? With someone who was, for the most part, a stranger? To his credit, a benevolent one.

Because I thought something was missing in my life, that's why, and I didn't really know what. That's how we all live, as if we're missing half of ourselves, and whether we think that missing part is a person, place, or purpose, we call it our better half. Our best self. The new me. Even happily ever after. The best parts are nearly always the parts we think we don't have.

At least, that's how it looks from the curb, where we judge ourselves at a distance from everything and everyone else. We can stand on the curb for a long time, turn it into a crossroads from which every direction seems unappealing or even dangerous, afraid to take even a single step, so accustomed are we to feeling unlucky, unloved, or stuck. That day, I felt like all that, but I was about to get my way. Everything was about to change. It always is.

* * *

The feeling that we are separate — outnumbered and under attack — is where the spiritual life begins. It's the curb you have to step off of to get to the other side.

Sensing ourselves as separate is an illusion, but it's a crafty illusion. We're not separate at all, but it seems that way. It seems as if all our problems are caused by someone or something else.

We were kidnapped at birth and raised by strangers who never loved us. Misjudged by critics and overlooked by higher-ups. Unjustly accused and mistreated. The pawns of a system rigged against us. Ill-favored by fortune, betrayed by our friends, born too soon, born too late, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Undefended against an immutable force that's either standing in our way or running us over.

I'd been around the block a few times. Been stupid and wised up. Had it all and tossed it out. Made one plan and then another, then another. Lost in love and trusted someone again. And yet I was sinking into the pall of a malignant conviction — that I wasn't going to find what I was looking for, not today, not next week, maybe never.

That was me out there on the curb, looking into all creation, a many-splendored world arrayed at my feet, thinking this isn't it this isn't it this isn't it.

No matter what your story is, whatever your creed, you come to a spiritual practice looking for paradise. It's a paradise you've never seen yet feel as if you've lost. The question is whether you'll recognize it when you're staring it in the face.

You may not be able to change the way you think about yourself and the world, at least not in the first chapter of a book. But you can stop believing that all your thoughts are true. Because they aren't. There is another truth you may never have seen, and with it comes another way to live. It's called the Way.

From the curb you'll see the gate. From the gate you'll see the path. From the path you'll see the ground, and overhead, the sun and moon to light your way. These signposts will bring you to paradise.

* * *

We had exhausted our options by the time the agent drove us down one last street and surprised us by pulling over.

"Let me show you this one just for historical interest. It's empty, and you might not get a chance to see it again."

Whatever it was, I could hardly tell. The view from the curb was curtained by a stand of giant bamboo behind a rusted iron fence. Inside the fence was a worn-out gate. Inside the gate was a weathered bungalow, faded to a forgettable shade of dust.

"I know it doesn't fit your parameters."

I wondered what she thought our parameters were. Fear? Distrust? Ambivalence? We had asked to see rental houses with short-lease terms, uncertain by this stage where or how we would end up. On the one hand, all bets were off. On the other, anything was possible.

Even from the street I could tell that this wasn't the rose-covered cottage I'd envisioned for my honeymoon haven. We were deep into LA's featureless sprawl, near where my husband worked, in a suburban hamlet known for its sooty skies and desert temperatures. I didn't know that there was something else my husband had told our agent to put on the wish list. Doubtful that his type A wife could survive having this much nothing on her hands, he had told the realtor that I might like a little garden.

The only thing I'd ever grown was mold on bread.

There was no little garden in sight.

And then she said something that shot me straight out of the backseat.

She said, "The whole thing was built for Zen."



What's Holding You Back

The great Way is gateless, Approached in a thousand ways. Once past this checkpoint You stride through the Universe.

— Mumon's Preface, The Gateless Gate

In point of fact, the place was not built for Zen. It was built for vanity, the architect of most man-made things. But everything can be used for Zen once you get going.

The practice of Zen began nearly three thousand years ago when a man sat down under a tree in India and experienced enlightenment. His demeanor afterward seemed so uplifted that his friends called him Buddha, which means "awake." His teaching became a guiding light for wayfarers, who one by one and step-by-step carried it across the ground of many continents and centuries. People who practice Zen are more skeptical than some devotees. They want to prove the truth for themselves, and so they do what Buddha did. They sit down for long stretches. And then they get up and keep going.

Zen had already saved my life once. I had stumbled onto meditation during a dark period a few years earlier. The deep silence and discipline of the practice helped me get back on my feet. Without depending on special scriptures or doctrine, Zen meditation points directly to the truth of the human mind, which does not, by the way, mean the space inside your head. It means the universe beneath your feet.

So let's wake up and see where we are standing.

Just inside the fence was an oddly placed gate that wasn't really a gate. It was a wooden portal with swinging doors and a shingled roof. The frame was gnawed nearly hollow and slapped with peeling paint. It leaned to one side; the doors dangled, screws loose. It was old, that much you could tell, wobbly and cobwebbed, but as an obstruction, it seemed almost solid. Coming up to it, I stopped dead.

Where in the world am I going?

The agent was trying to tell us where we were going — onto old ground, what was once part of a larger estate, with a history and a bit of mystery. The gate had stood as the entry to a pristine garden, a side of the property we hadn't yet seen.

One hundred years earlier, a single woman of means, heiress to a timber fortune, had built a stately villa on this sunny hill. On the slope below, she planted three magnificent gardens as evidence of her worldliness — a Mediterranean garden with fountains, an English garden with roses, and a Japanese garden with rocks and ponds. This was the entrance to the Japanese one, the sole remaining garden, a relic of her once-charmed life.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Japanese gardens cropped up in quite a few unusual spots — in public parks and exposition grounds, on private estates, and, yes, even in some backyards. Since Japan had opened trade with the West in the mid-1800s, its culture had become precious, its art and aesthetics prized by the super-rich.

The woman who had commissioned the garden was simply doing what the wealthy do. She had fashioned a splendid fantasyland, but it did what everything does: it fell apart. When her investments failed, she parceled off her property and ended her days in a modest rental on the cheap side of the street.

Standing at the weathered gate, all we saw were the spiderwebs and the termite holes, and we were very afraid.

* * *

Fear is what holds you back from everything.

There's some lore about the gates outside Zen monasteries in the old days. Any seeker was refused at the gate until his intentions were clear. This might take several days or a week, each day the pilgrim making entreaties and the gatekeeper holding him back. What was going on there? Was this a way to screen out troublemakers and half-wits? No, there are plenty of those inside monasteries! Was it simply a show of rudeness? On the contrary, it was extreme kindness. Of elitism? Hardly. Anybody can enter. To pass the barrier, you have to drop your ambivalence and cynicism. Your clever self-deceptions, excuses, and ulterior motives. You have to be ready, even desperate, before you propel yourself beyond your own fear.

Then, of course, it's easy, because the gate isn't really a gate. Fear is a false barrier. It's nothing but a gaping hole you step through. On the other side, the teacher is waiting.

Four years earlier, I'd entered a different gate and met a great teacher. He had died, but while I stood at this threshold, he was not far from my mind. He was never far from my mind.

Taizan Maezumi Roshi was the product of an archaic system of Zen Buddhist patriarchy in Japan, where temples operated as family enterprises. One of seven brothers raised at his father's temple in Otawara, Japan, he was ordained as a priest at age eleven and studied literature and philosophy at the university. After that, he did two things uncommon for both his time and our own: he took his mother's last name, Maezumi, and he took the practice of Zen Buddhism seriously.

He'd lost respect for blind authority; he wanted to part with dead customs. After his institutional training, he sought instruction from radical masters, testing firsthand the truth of a timeless teaching. In 1956, at age twenty-five, he sailed for America, intending to spread the practice of Zen in a country hostile to both his nation and his faith. He was posted as a priest at a small temple in Los Angeles that served a diminishing and demoralized population of Japanese Americans.

His reputation grew. He attracted students from all over the world. He was revered by some, dismissed by others, and misunderstood by most. He was still there, in a dinky house in a dumpy part of town, on September 23, 1993, when I knocked on the door, afraid to say how afraid I was.

"I'm lost," I said, in so many words.

As if anyone got there any other way.

At this fragile point in my life I was between addresses, between careers, between marriages, between youth and the brittle aftermath of youth, beyond shame, without better judgment, and with nowhere else to go. But I'm not here to tell that story again.

He invited me to sit down, the very thing I feared most of all. It hardly makes sense that sitting still and quiet for eight hours a day in a meditation hall teaches you to stand up and put one foot in front of the other, but that's what Zen practice does. It is possible to traverse a great distance while your mind stands absolutely still. To alter your life entirely while doing next to nothing.

"Your life is your practice," he said to me, and it was true. My life had never moved farther or faster than it did after he'd taught me to sit down and let it happen. Now here I was in front of another gate, the cusp of a universe without fear. We all stand on a spot like this, every moment of our lives, facing the only universe we will ever know, and most of the time we turn back toward familiar haunts — the scary stories inside our heads. That's how we turn the gates of heaven into our own eternal damnation.

Is it even possible to live in a universe without fear?

I wish more people would ask.

Anxiety disorders are the number one diagnosis of the mental health industry. Each year, about 40 million American adults seek treatment for debilitating fear and dread. Now children are swelling their ranks. In one recent year, 85 million prescriptions were filled for the leading antianxiety drugs. Antidepressant use has quadrupled over the last twenty years. About one in ten people suffer from chronic sleeplessness. Deaths from prescription painkillers are epidemic and higher than those from illegal narcotics. There are 140 million people in the world with alcoholism. In America, heavy drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death. These numbers may not be completely accurate, but they are entirely true. If they don't apply to you, then they apply to people you know and love, people you live with or used to live with, people barely alive or dead too soon.

We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts and — if we don't stop — rot our own flesh.

How do we end up like this? I don't know why we reach for noxious cocktails to drown our fear and pain, but we all do, and they don't work. Every time we turn away from what is right in front of us we are headed in the wrong direction. So don't turn away.

It's not easy. There are no shortcuts or detours. No one can tell you how to fast-forward your bliss. If they do, they're just making it up. I found out for myself that none of the secret formulas work. That's why I won't tell you how to fix a relationship, guarantee your happiness, or realize your passion. I can't repair your past or re-engineer your future. I don't know the alchemy that turns fiction into fact or pain into pleasure. There is no sure thing. I can only ask this: What are you ignoring? What are you resisting? What part of your life have you locked out and sealed shut? And I am not talking about something invisible and unspeakable. Just take a look at what is right in front of you — the obvious and unavoidable — and step foot there. All that is ever required of us is that we lift one foot and place it in front of the other.


Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller. Copyright © 2014 Karen Maezen Miller. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue: Paradise,
PART ONE: COMING HERE Have faith in yourself as the Way.,
1. Curb: The View from a Distance,
2. Gate: What's Holding You Back,
3. Path: Straight On,
4. Ground: Here It Is,
5. Sun: What You See,
6. Moon: What You Don't See,
PART TWO: LIVING NOW Cover the ground where you stand.,
7. Rocks: The Remains of Faith,
8. Ponds: The Right View,
9. Roots: The Meaning of Life,
10. Bamboo: A Forest of Emptiness,
11. Palm: The Eternal Now,
12. Pine: A Disappearing Breed,
PART THREE: LETTING GO Make the effort of no effort.,
13. Fruit: Swallowing Whole,
14. Flowers: Love Is Letting Go,
15. Leaves: The Age of Undoing,
16. Weeds: A Flourishing Practice,
17. Song: Not What You Know,
18. Silence: Not What I Say,
Epilogue: Rules for a Mindful Garden,
About the Author,

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