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Letters from the Garden: Permission to Be

Dear Sangha,

Last week, Laura and I were down working in the garden. She was weeding the spinach, I was spading the soil for a row of daikon, and both of us were throwing sticks for Milo and Molly. It was a cool day, and the air had that feeling like rain was coming. One of my favorite parts of living in this valley is being able to watch the storms sweep down from the north, slowly getting closer and closer. We could see dark clouds at the end of the valley with grey sheets of rain moving towards us, but where we were standing on the hill was still sunny with breaks of light coming through the clouds. We worked in silence as the storm crawled closer, both of us thinking “just a little bit longer,” until all of a sudden it dropped ten degrees and the wind picked up. We looked at each other and knew that was it! Holding our hats in the blowing storm, we packed up and scurried back to the house, laughing as the first fat raindrops started to fall around us.

Working outside teaches me something every day—how fast the grass grows, what kind of caterpillars eat kale, when the hummingbirds come back, how the root systems of vines grow, what good soil feels and smells like. It’s teaching me the joy of getting soaked in a thunderstorm, throwing open my arms to the rain. Or the patience of accepting poison ivy and ticks as not separate from the delight of apple blossoms. All of it is right, and I have complete permission to show up exactly as I am. Slowly, I am learning to trust this.

The orchard in full bloom

I am working on the garden, but the garden is also working on me. The baby seedlings are telling me how to take care of them; can I listen? The soil and the trees and the worms are communicating exactly what they need, if only I know how to understand. I am also asking them for something when I’m planting seedlings, when I’m digging weeds, when I lay down to rest and remember the sky.

Today for lunch we ate the first garden salad of the year, grown in the rocky soil of these mountains and watered by the thunderstorms. Perfectly holy; perfectly ordinary. Inseparable from everything.

First parsley
Baby kale and spinach. Planting asparagus roots.
A perfect fence

Lots of love,
Sansei


Letters from the Garden: Work Week, April 17, 2021

Letters from the Garden: Planting Good Seeds, April 3, 2021

Letters from the Garden: Dharma Blossoms, March 20, 2021

Letters from the Garden: The First Birdsong, March 6, 2021

New audio dharma by Ian Case

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Audio dharma by Ian Case (2021/03/06)

New audio dharma by Laura O’Loughlin

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Audio dharma by Laura O’Loughlin (2021/04/03)

 

New audio dharma talks by Kosen Gregory Snyder

The dharma talks offered by Kosen Gregory Snyder during a three-day sesshin in 2018 are now available on the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Audio dharma by Kosen Greg Snyder (2018/10/05): Sesshin Day 1

Audio dharma by Kosen Greg Snyder (2018/10/06): Sesshin Day 2

Audio dharma by Kosen Greg Snyder (2018/10/07): Sesshin Day 3

May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors

May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors is the first national Buddhist memorial service in response to anti-Asian violence. The ceremony will be livestreamed from Higashi Honganji Temple in Los Angeles, which was vandalized earlier this year. The event will be freely broadcast online and will bring together Asian American Buddhists and their allies to heal in community together.

On May 4th, 2021, exactly seven weeks, or forty-nine days, will have passed since the Atlanta shootings claimed the lives of eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, including the 63-year-old Buddhist Yong Ae Yue. In many Buddhist traditions, forty-nine days after death marks an important transition for the bereaved. May We Gather will feature Buddhist chanting and reflections from forty-nine Asian American Buddhist leaders of South, Southeast, and East Asian descent in a communal ritual to honor people who have died from acts of anti-Asian violence in the United States.

The hourlong event will be held on Tuesday, May 4th, 2021 at 4pm PDT (7pm EST). Brooklyn Zen Center is a partner sangha to this gathering and we invite all to join us in this ceremony on May 4th.

The livestream is free and registration is not required. Attendees will have an opportunity during the ceremony to jointly recite the names of those who we are memorializing (the names will appear onscreen) and to provide an offering. As you watch from wherever you are, we invite you to come prepared with a light source (such as a candle or flashlight), incense, or a flower (in white, yellow, or a color of your choice) for this part of the ceremony.

New audio dharma talk by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel (2021/03/17)

New audio dharma talk by Teah Strozer

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast

Audio dharma by Teah Strozer (2016/07/02)

New audio dharma talk by Laura O’Loughlin

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast

Audio Dharma by Laura O’Loughlin (2021/01/30)

Letters from the Garden: Work Week

Dear Sangha,

This has been a work week at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery. That means that our daily schedule has mostly turned into two long work periods every day, and we’re working in crews to tackle a few big projects in the garden and around the house. One of the more dramatic moments this week was discovering that someone had organized the “miscellaneous” drawer in the kitchen, which we use nearly constantly and has been overflowing for months. I’m still excited about it. Hashtag monastery life.

A drawer of beauty

I have also had the benefit of a tireless crew of helpers in the garden, where our big project for the week has been putting up a fence around the garden to keep out the rabbits, groundhogs, and deer that live around these parts. I’m not opposed to sharing some of our vegetables with the local non-human residents, but I’d rather they didn’t eat the whole crop.

Because we’ve been spending most of our time working outside, I haven’t had much time to write, but here are some photos to show you what we’ve been doing.

Step 1: pound the posts. Step 2: dig a ditch. Step 3: string up the wire and bury the bottom.

I can’t describe how grateful I am for everyone’s help this week. It’s actually unimaginable to me that so many people might come out to do such sincere, joyful work in such hot, poison-ivy-laden conditions, yet they have done. I could not have built this fence by myself. But everyone came out and we built it together.

The fence progress as of Wednesday. By the time you read this, it should be done.

We’ve also done a lot of planting in the last two weeks. So far everything looks very happy in the ground.

Planting cabbage. Watering onions. Yes, these are the same baby onions that you saw in early March. Now they are teenagers.

On a personal note, I’ve been playing with gender expression lately and experimenting with going by my Dharma name, Sansei, instead of my birth name. Sansei (山誓) can be translated as Mountain Vow, and something about it feels right to use for this moment. It may not feel that way forever, but right now I’d like to sign off like this.

Lots of love,
Sansei


Letters from the Garden: Planting Good Seeds, April 3, 2021

Letters from the Garden: Dharma Blossoms, March 20, 2021

Letters from the Garden: The First Birdsong, March 6, 2021

New audio dharma talk by Ian Case

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Ian Case (2021/01/16)

New audio dharma talk by Chimyo Atkinson

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Chimyo Atkinson (2021/03/13)

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

New audio dharma talk by Laura O’Loughlin

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Laura O’Loughlin (2018/02/24)

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

New audio dharma talk by Ian Case!

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Ian Case (2020/02/29)

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Letters from the Garden: Planting Good Seeds

Dear Sangha,

So much is happening! Right now I’ve got two main projects going: planting seeds in flats to grow them up into small baby plants, and then transplanting those starts into the ground outside. This week I want to talk about seed starting, because it’s fun, easy, and frankly miraculous. You can also play along at home.

This past week, we transplanted our first seedlings outside into the garden. They were spinach! You’ll get to see them if you finish reading this email.

Spinach starts as seeds. Seeds are incredible little packets of energy that contain just about everything the future sprout needs to put out a root and its first leaves. Water and temperature are usually the main events that tell the seed when it’s time to stop being a seed and to start being a sprout. Some seeds require a period of being cold and damp (i.e. winter, or a simulation of winter in your refrigerator), while others don’t. This is called cold stratification. Spinach doesn’t need it. We just put the seeds in some good quality potting soil, cover them up, add water, and wish them well.

Left: spinach seeds. Right: using soil block makers to make pressed dirt cubes for seeds. This is the first time I’ve used this method and so far I really love it. There’s a lot less plastic involved.

We started these spinach seeds in potting soil and protection of the indoors in order to get a head start on the planting season. Spinach can tolerate pretty cold temperatures, which is good because we’ll likely have frosts through early May, but the ground has been frozen solid until recently so nothing could be planted. By starting them early inside though, they were ready to go as soon as we could get them in the ground. It also guaranteed that we were planting big, healthy plants that can out-compete weeds and bugs.

Soil blocks ready for planting

Spinach, like lots of vegetables, doesn’t need to be started indoors. You can plant it directly outside (“direct sowing”) and it does just fine. There are some vegetables, however, which need a longer and warmer growing season than we get in New York, and therefore do need to be started early indoors and transplanted after the last frost if you want them to reach maturity before fall. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are the big names in this category, but onions also need a long season.

Once the seeds have been planted and watered, it takes them around a week to sprout. The first leaves you see aren’t actually true leaves. They’re called cotyledons, and they’re part of the embryo that was contained within the seed, like a starter pack. Those give the sprout the ability to gather enough energy to then put out their first set of true leaves, which look like the typical leaves of whatever the plant is.

Spinach seedlings under grow lights. The long thin leaves are the cotyledons, and the spinach-looking leaves are the first true leaves.

Leaves need sunlight in order to do photosynthesis, which is the process of converting light into metabolic energy. Unfortunately the light that comes through a bright window isn’t usually enough, and the seedlings can get too long and “leggy” as they stretch themselves towards it. Because we have a lot of seedlings here, I built a big rack in my bedroom in which full-spectrum LED grow lights can support the growth of plants that need to be kept in warm temperatures while they’re small.

The grow light rack in my bedroom

For plants that can tolerate colder conditions, which includes spinach as well as most brassicas and alliums, they get to go outside in the cold frame. A cold frame is basically just a large bottomless wooden frame with a transparent lid, which offers a protected microclimate inside. It can actually get over 100 degrees in there on a sunny day, even if it’s in the 40s outside! Propping open the lid to vent is therefore very important. Anyway, the rack in my room was getting full, so the spinach seedlings went into the cold frame along with the onions and cabbages.

The cold frame

The day of “as soon as the ground can be worked” arrived last week, and Bianca and I transplanted all the little spinaches into the garden, where they now look much happier. Because we don’t have a deer/rabbit fence up yet, I also covered them with a row cover, which lets light and water through but provides some wind and herbivore protection for the moment. I like to peek inside and say hi to them every day.

Bianca with spinach, and then spinach in the ground

You can do all of this at home, even if you only have a sunny windowsill or a balcony. Herbs grow great in pots, and container gardening is very possible in the city. I recommend trying basil, mint, chives, parsley, cilantro, oregano, and thyme. Basil is really the star, though, in my opinion, and will grow fine in a sunny window. If you have a balcony or porch outside that gets good sun, tomatoes and peppers also grow perfectly fine in larger containers.

All you need is some newspaper, paper bags, or brown packing paper and you can make your own seed starting pots for free. Just fill them with potting soil and add your seeds, keeping them moist by misting with water until they sprout. Covering with plastic wrap also helps, but make sure to take it off as soon as they start to grow. When they get a little bigger, thin the sprouts to one per cell, and when they have a couple sets of leaves you can transplant them into a larger pot. Of course you can also skip the seed starting and buy plant starts from a garden center. Either way, the biggest challenge is making sure everything gets enough light indoors, so use your sunniest spot.

I’m curious what y’all are growing this summer. What sort of spaces do you have access to? Is there anything new you’re really excited to grow? How are your houseplants doing? Are you doing any seed starting this year? Please share! I’m at ahzmgarden@brooklynzen.org.

Lots of love,
Ella Antell

New audio dharma by Kosen Greg Snyder

 

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Kosen Greg Snyder (2021/02/27)

 

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

New audio dharma by Teah Strozer

 

A new audio dharma talk by BZC‘s root teacher Teah Strozer is now available!

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Audio dharma by Teah Strozer (2016/05/07)

 

New audio dharma by Kosen Greg Snyder!

Audio dharma by Kosen Greg Snyder (2021/02/06)

For more audio dharma talks, please visit the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Robes and rubber boots at AHZM (March 2021)

Letters from the Garden: Dharma Blossoms

Dear Sangha,

This is the first spring I’ve experienced at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery, and I continue to be enthralled by how fast everything changes. It feels like overnight that the apple trees are suddenly putting out buds and little green nubs of flower bulbs are poking up through the ground. Last week was close to 70 degrees, and this week we’re back to freezing. It’s still too early to really plant anything outside, but the day is coming soon.

This past Wednesday we celebrated Ancestral Heart’s first annual Garden Opening Ceremony, in which we held service outside under the sky and planted seeds while chanting Dogen Zenji’s “Dharma Blossoms Turn Dharma Blossoms.” It feels good to stand in the stubble of the field and thank the earth for the life she gives us; to give our lives in return. It feels like coming home.

Robes and rubber boots at AHZM (March 2021)
Robes and rubber boots
A temple under the sky at AHZM (March 2021)
A temple under the sky

Most seed packets will tell you that early varieties should be planted “as soon as the ground can be worked,” a phrase which I find delightfully ambiguous. I interpret it to mean that the ground has both unfrozen and dried out enough that the seeds won’t rot in the ground. But when is that exactly? It’s not my analytical mind that knows, but something in my body can tell when the weather is right and the soil is ready. I feel all my ancestors in that knowing.

The one thing (besides grass) that is growing in the new garden field is something we planted last October—a pound of garlic cloves. Last fall the bulbs put up a few little shoots before going dormant for the winter, and then lay sleeping under several feet of snow until just a week ago when the last of it melted away. Now they are waking up again and putting out new green shoots to reach the spring sun. Hopefully they’ll grow some tasty scapes soon.

Garlic sprouts this spring at AHZM (March 2021)
Garlic sprouts this spring

As Dogen says, “Although bodhisattvas who emerge from the earth into myriad worlds are the great sages of timeless dharma blossoms, still they emerge now turned by themselves and turned by others. Do not regard emerging from the earth alone as turning the dharma blossoms. Regard emerging from the sky also as turning the dharma blossoms. Know with buddha wisdom that bodhisattvas emerge not only from the earth or the sky, but also from the dharma blossoms.”

Lots of love,
Ella Antell

Audio dharma talk by Sarah Emerson now available

Audio dharma by Sarah Emerson (2021/02/20)

For more dharma talks by BZC and visiting teachers please visit our Audio Dharma page.

Our programs are given free of charge and made possible by the donations we receive. If you would like to support Brooklyn Zen Center, please visit the “Giving” section of this website. A suggested donation of $10 per audio dharma talk is greatly appreciated.

Letters from the Garden

Dear Sangha,

I heard my first birdsong of the year this morning. A week of days above freezing have been rapidly turning two feet of snow into boot-sucking mud. Our neighbors at Watershed Center are busy tapping dozens of elder maple trees to collect the spring sap, and on a warm day you can watch the clear liquid flow from the trees into a huge metal trough to be boiled down. You need 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup! In this year of so much uncertainty, it feels good to know that the sun is still coming back, right on schedule.

As you may know, we here at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery are in the process of getting a large garden up and running this year in order to feed some hungry, hungry monks a lot of vegetables. My job is to make all this happen, together with the seasons and the weather, the deer and the rabbits, the seeds and the soil. Spring’s arrival means that the plans I’ve been busy making all winter are about to rapidly transition into intense activity. It’s a huge undertaking! All this work is guided by our vow to act in alignment with the ecosystems around us, large and small, human and non-human, in recognition that our lives and deaths are bound up together intimately. There is no control here—the earth is very clear that we plant and harvest on her terms only.

Winter view from Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery

Our current horticultural efforts consist of two raised beds by the main house, a mature orchard that produces more apples than we know what to do with, a 4×8’ cold frame, which is basically a ground-level greenhouse, and a sizable new plot that we plowed out of the meadow last August. This new plot will become the main garden, planted with both vegetables and flowers, while the raised beds will turn into an herb garden for the kitchen. I also have plans to plant a ring of flower beds around the orchard in order to feed our friendly pollinators and provide fresh-cut bouquets for the temple’s many altars. For now, though, most of this only exists as spreadsheets and hand-drawn blueprints, and it’s going to take a lot of collective effort over the next few months to bring it into being.

Cold frame and raised beds, still snowed in last week

Most excitingly, my bedroom is currently home to the first tiny seedlings of the year (onions), which I started from seeds a few weeks ago and will transplant outside in a little over a month. They are about to be joined by other early-season plants like spinach, parsley, cabbage, and kale. The first thing I do every morning after hearing the wake-up bell is turn on their grow lights, and the last thing I do before going to sleep is turn the lights off and say goodnight to all my tiny little roommates. I recently hosted an “onion viewing” for the other humans here to come see how adorable they are! You can admire them too!

Tiny onion seedlings just up (yellow onions, red onions, and scallions). So cute!!

This garden, like the monastery, belongs to the Sangha, as much as it can be said to belong to anyone beyond itself. Because we are all so far apart right now, I’d like to do my best to bring the garden to you through a new biweekly letter (you’re reading it!)—with photos, stories, updates, recipes, maybe some tips on window gardening, who knows?—in the hope that the mountains here can connect us, wherever we are. I feel we’re all cultivating something here together, one way or another.

Bags of soil and and a big box of seeds in the garage

That’s it until next time, much more to come. Until then, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to write back, you can reach me here, or by snail mail at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery, 87 Kaye Rd., Millerton, NY 12546. Let me know what you’d like to see and hear about in future letters, and we can have a conversation. Happy spring!

Lots of love,

Ella Antell