Letters from the Garden: Season Three

April 16, 2023

Dear Sangha,

Just before sitting down to write this, I moved all of the tomato and pepper seedlings outdoors for the first time. It’s still early this year, but we are having a week of very warm weather right now, so they will be happier out in the real sunshine than under the cramped grow lights in my room. We also planted the peas and onions this week, and I’m excited about the arrival of a few new fruit trees to inaugurate a second orchard that I’m planting down the hill by the garden. In other words, spring has arrived just in time for our Garden Planting Month (April 18—May 15).

This is the third summer of building the garden at Ancestral Heart, and my third summer as Enju (園頭), head of the garden. Some of you may remember the first summer, when I started writing these Letters from the Garden as a way to share the fruits of the growing season at Ancestral Heart with all of you. This year I would like to bring it back again as a monthly serial, so you can look forward to updates throughout the summer.

I’ve learned a lot over the past three years, and the garden has come a long way. Many, many hours of work by beloved Sangha members have transformed this small patch of meadow into a beautiful field that offers us buckets of bok choy and beets to eat throughout the summer. I’m looking out at the bare, brown hillside right now, feeling the surge of spring energy arising all around me, and also feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the tasks that all demand attention immediately. But this year I am grounded in a faith that has also grown over the past seasons that everything will, somehow, work out just fine. I also feel the strength of ancestral wisdom in my body, which concentrates the knowledge of thousands of past summers in the way my nose knows what good dirt should smell like.

A full deck of seedlings growing big and fat before planting time.

I tell myself that my ambitions for this season are modest — grow enough vegetables to sustain our little temple through the fall; stay a bit more on top of mowing down the invasive vines and honeysuckle; plant more native flowers and bushes and keep listening to how the mountain wants to grow; and most importantly to care my best for all of the beings, whether two-, six-, eight-, or no-legged, who meet me in their fullness every day.

Altar and assembly for the third annual garden opening ceremony on April 5.
Some participants were
colder than others.

Like all of our Zen practice roles, I understand my role as Enju as fundamentally a position of service to the larger community, of humans and nonhumans alike. In one sense, the garden here, like the temple grounds, belongs to the Sangha, as much as it can be said to belong to anyone beyond the garden beings themselves. But it is more accurate to say that we all belong to each other, which is a truth that is much more difficult to accept, and yet the mountainside keeps insisting.

What does it mean to be in service to the great earth and all beings? What is the medicine that is being asked for, in this place, here and now? Can I be open to receiving it, as much as helping call it into being? Like the precepts, it is hard to find anything concrete to grasp onto, and yet in three years of living on this mountainside, my heart can point the direction where the spring wind blows.

The orchard isn’t quite blooming yet, but soon

Come join us for Garden Planting Month at Ancestral Heart this spring! All Brooklyn Zen Center (BZC) members are warmly invited to join us for short-term residential practice, anywhere from a few days to a month. Contact ahdirector@brooklynzen.org for more information.

Palms together,