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Letters from the Garden: Living by Vow

Dear Sangha,

What is garden practice? It’s a question I ask myself every day. What does it mean to practice, in and with the garden? What is it to understand myself as not separate from the living world around me? What does it mean, as a monastic community, to grow our own food in a moment of such ecological crisis?

It has been easy for me to emphasize interconnection in these letters, because interconnection is easy to see outside with bees buzzing around and rain clouds on the horizon. But such communion is not passive; it requires something of us in return. It asks us to be in right relationship to the bees and the fields and the rain. It asks us to confront every part of how we are living, individually and collectively, that is based in killing, stealing, lying, arrogance, greed, and disparaging the value of life itself. To practice with the garden is to be radically challenged by it, to confront something that is beyond my small control, to let myself be changed by the work and the land in ways that I cannot predict or understand.

It is one thing to intellectually understand that tomatoes grow on plants, which come from farms, and then are shipped to the store for us to buy. It is something else for my body to know what it is to plant tomato seeds in the dark of winter in faith that the warmth will come, to dig a bed by hand with sweat pouring off my head, to water them in the heat, to weed out the grasses and smell the distinctive perfume of tomato leaves on my hands for hours, and to watch day by day as the fruits set and grow dusky pink until finally they are ripe to pick. It is one thing to know intellectually that pesticides are harmful; it is something else entirely to stand in the field and consider spraying poison on the ground that I have tended and the vegetables that I am going to feed to people I love. My body actually will not let me do it. And yet we live in a world where such a thing occurs on a staggering industrial scale.

Greens and flowers from the garden

What would it mean to live our vow to the earth? I’m not asking abstractly. Our lives actually depend on it. Please genuinely sit with this question in your own life, and in our lives together. Our food comes from the earth. All of it. And the earth cannot sustain the way we have been living.

What would it be to truly face the carbon consequences of eating meat and dairy? What would it mean to let go of “supermarket thinking”—going out to acquire the predetermined specifics for a recipe, wherever they may come from—in favor of cooking based on what is available in our place and season? Would it be possible to only eat foods that grow within our region, in the season in which they grow? What might it look like to develop a vegetarian home and temple cuisine that honors our own ethnic heritages, but is based in foods that grow here, rather than relying on cultural foodways that may come from very different climates and require globally-sourced and resource-intensive ingredients, like coconut and other produce from the global south? Where does renunciation live in our practice of ethical life?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but these are what the garden is asking of me right now. I share them with you with the invitation to explore them together, and encourage you to consider them with the kind of heart that is open to being changed by the encounter. What does it mean to live our vows as a community when the stakes are our very lives?

In faith and love,
Sansei



Letters from the Garden: Full Bloom, July 9

Letters from the Garden: Digging, June 25

Letters from the Garden: Harvest, June 4

Letters from the Garden: Warm Days, Warm Nights, May 23

Letters from the Garden: Permission to Be, May 8, 2021

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 Kosen Greg Snyder

A new talk by dharma teacher Kosen Gregory Snyder is now available on  the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Kosen Gregory Snyder (2021/03/19)

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 Ian Case

A new talk by Ian Case is now available on the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Ian Case (2021/05/08)

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 Laura O’Loughlin

A new talk by BZC dharma teacher Laura O’Loughlin is now available on the BZC Audio Dharma Podcast.

Audio dharma by Laura O’Loughlin (2021/05/01)

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: Full Bloom

Dear Sangha,

I’m writing this from the relatively cool downstairs library, because it is two in the afternoon and close to 90 degrees outside. There are thunderstorms forecast for later this evening, but sometimes they blow past us without giving any rain. We’ve reached that part of the summer where the air is heavy with humidity, and the whole valley feels thick with life. It seems like everything—birds, plants, insects, animals—is throwing all possible energy into growing as much as possible in the next few months.

I was in the city this past weekend, and was shocked at how much the garden grew in the three days we were gone. We are officially out of the cool spring season (peas, spinach, rabe) and into the season of full summer heat. The tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and squashes are all setting fruit. The first flowers are now reaching full bloom and are decking all our altars. Early lettuce plantings are starting to bolt, so we’ve been eating them in abundance. I stand in daily awe of the abundance and fertility given by this land to feed and heal us in so many different ways. Living close like this to the cycles of the year and the labor of planting turns every vegetable that comes to the table into good medicine, grown in love and given completely.

Snapdragons and the view up the hill from the garden
Kabocha squash in our future
Snow peas on the vine. Although they’re getting a little fried in the heat.

If you’re a BZC member, please save the date for the upcoming AHZM Sangha Day, here at the monastery on Sunday, August 15 from 12:30 to 6pm, right after the end of the Watershed retreat. You don’t have to be sitting the retreat to join the party. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to gather again in person and catch up on each other’s lives for the past 18 months. There will be potluck foods (probably featuring something that we’ve grown) and I’ll be giving tours of the garden. We can give thanks together for everything we’ve come through, for everything we’ve been given, and for everything that’s brought us here, warm heart to warm heart.

Lots of love,
Sansei


Letters from the Garden: Digging, June 25

Letters from the Garden: Harvest, June 4

Letters from the Garden: Warm Days, Warm Nights, May 23

Letters from the Garden: Permission to Be, May 8, 2021

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 talk by Teah Strozer

Audio dharma by Teah Strozer (2021/04/24)

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 Kritee Kanko now available!

The audio talk and presentation offered by Kritee Kanko to the BZC sangha in April is now available to all!

Audio dharma by Kritee Kanko (2021/04/10)

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!

Honoring 100 Days: May We Gather Short Video

This short video features highlights from May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors. The ceremony, held on May 4th, 2021, forty-nine days after the Atlanta-area shootings that claimed the lives of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, was the first national Buddhist memorial service in response to anti-Asian violence.

The video was released one hundred days after the tragedy in Atlanta, marking an important memorial period in many Buddhist traditions.

Brooklyn Zen Center joined the May 4th gathering as a partner sangha. We invite you all to watch the video, which features Buddhist chanting and reflections from forty-nine Asian American Buddhist leaders of South, Southeast, and East Asian descent.

Letters from the Garden: Digging

Dear Sangha,

Day after day I watch Sansei, wearing their overalls and a straw hat and a huge smile, carrying buckets and shovels down to the garden. I join them when I can, a visitor from the land of computers. I come carrying words, concepts, and metaphors. I believe I know about digging up karmic roots. I’ve heard about planting wholesome and unwholesome seeds. I believe it when they say no mud, no lotus. But until now, I had never pulled a root from dirt, never planted an actual seed, never seen a lotus grow.

My first time in the garden, Sansei handed me gloves and a shovel, and led me to a plot of land covered in grass and weeds. They explained that the process of turning a grassy meadow into a garden requires digging up the ground. This turns the weeds into the soil and lets us pull out roots and rocks. Then we aerate the soil by using a broadfork (an enormous fork that you jump on) to loosen it. At the end, we have a nice fluffy bed of soil, ready to plant seeds in.

They demonstrated how to stomp on the shovel’s edge to make it slide into the earth, how to cut out and flip over a square piece of earth, how to use the shovel to break it up. And then left me to it.

A freshly dug bed in spring, and Ian indefatigably wielding the broadfork

I began to dig, determined to cultivate the most rockless and weedless plot of soil known to humankind. I would diligently remove every root! I felt so strong wielding the shovel, lifting and turning and chopping up dirt. Whenever I hit upon a large, stubborn root, I’d drop the shovel and pull on it as hard as I could. But often the piece I held would break off, leaving most of the fine, lacy roots underground.

Sansei and I heroically extracting a huge rock

Uprooting is really hard, so much harder than I understood from the word itself. Where the root appears is not where it began. Its beginnings could be all the way on the other side of the mountain, or, in the case of karma, countless generations ago. I’m impatient, and in pain. I want to cut out all this internalized violence, and be free once and for all. Yet in digging, I hear it plainly: these twisted, ancient roots are asking for patience and respect.

 And there is joy in the digging. I love how our faces become smeared with sunscreen, dirt, and sweat. I love the sudden breeze, the white larva, the purple shimmering worm. I love how unending it is, how the work goes on and on, how I collapse on the ground and rest and then get up again. And I love how, at the end of the work period, Sansei and I will pull up our sleeves to show off our muscles.

Extremely ripped

Now we are harvesting the fruits of all this digging and subsequent planting: this week, it’s butter lettuce, kale, and collards. And the tomatoes and beets are growing! The weeds are back in full force. But that’s okay. We can keep digging.

Kaishin Victory Matsui


Letters from the Garden: Harvest, June 4

Letters from the Garden: Warm Days, Warm Nights, May 23

Letters from the Garden: Permission to Be, May 8, 2021

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

Letters from the Garden: Harvest

Dear Sangha,

Yesterday I went out to the garden planning to pick a moderate amount of Chinese cabbage to eat for the week. When I got there, I looked around and realized that a lot more than cabbage needed to be picked. I grabbed a couple of five-gallon buckets and started filling them with veggies, and then hauled them to the kitchen, where our Tenzo, Kiku, was expecting a moderate amount of Chinese cabbage to eat for the week. That is not, however, what she got, because then I went back to the garden and filled up two more buckets and a milk crate with more veggies and brought those back to the kitchen, and then I went back to the garden and picked even more. By the time I finished, I was worried that Kiku wouldn’t let me back in the door with any more produce, because now she has to deal with it all! Today she kept looking at me suspiciously like I might bring back more.

A bucket of cabbage and a baby bok choy

We’ve already been eating garden salads for a couple of weeks now, and they are incredibly delicious. All that spinach we planted in March is now big enough to eat. It’s hard to describe the difference between store-bought greens and greens that came out of the ground the morning before lunch, but there’s a difference. These taste like the mountains that grew them—earthy and minerally, strong and sweet together.

When we do the meal chant, I find it resonates differently with me when I know the people, tools, animals and plants, air and water, sky and earth, turned in the wheel of living and dying whose joyful exertion provide our sustenance this day. Working in the garden has brought me intimate with all of it, from the tiny seedlings to the weeds and the bugs, helping everything grow and being helped by it. Eating the fruits of our labor is just another deep intimacy, emphasizing how literally none of this is separate.

The cold frame has overflowed…

I did promise seasonal recipes in these letters, so here is your first one. It’s for vegetarian Caesar dressing, which is a requested favorite around here. It’s deliciously sharp and holds up well to strong salad greens like spinach, arugula, and mustard greens, of which we now have a bounty. Truthfully, though, it’s delicious on everything. I made a big jar of it last week, and it disappeared pretty fast.

Vegetarian (or vegan) Caesar Dressing

Put everything in a blender and give it a good pulverize. Taste and adjust until you arrive at the right stage of briney, garlicky pleasure.

  • Olive oil – about 1 cup for a reasonable amount of dressing, multiply as desired
  • Garlic – two or three cloves, roughly smashed
  • Vegetarian Worcestershire sauce – a good few dashes, adjust to taste
  • Lemon juice or red wine vinegar – a couple of tablespoons, go easy at first and adjust to taste
  • Dijon or brown mustard (just not the yellow kind) – a small squirt
  • Soy sauce or tamari – a splash
  • Sour cream or (vegan) mayonnaise – a spoonful
  • Parmesan cheese, grated (optional) – a small handful
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Missing you all, wherever you are. You can always reach me at ahzmgarden@brooklynzen.org.

Lots of love,
Sansei


Letters from the Garden: Warm Days, Warm Nights, May 23

Letters from the Garden: Permission to Be, May 8, 2021

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 talks by Tenshin Reb Anderson!

For the past few years, Tenshin Reb Anderson has come to Brooklyn Zen Center (BZC) to offer dharma talks and to guide our sangha in meditation retreats. Traveling all the way from California, where he is based, Reb has been a steady supporter of our community, holding us in practice each year for five-day sesshins during the spring. This year, as well as last year, unfortunately, he was not able to come to Brooklyn, as it was planned, due to the Covid 19 pandemic.

We would like to invite you, nevertheless, to practice with Tenshin Reb Anderson by listening to the dharma talks he offered during the 2016 sesshin at BZC, which 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!

2016 Rohatsu Sesshin by Reb Anderson: Day 5 (2016/05/22)

2016 Rohatsu Sesshin by Reb Anderson: Day 4 (2016/05/21)

2016 Rohatsu Sesshin by Reb Anderson: Day 3 (2016/05/20)

2016 Rohatsu Sesshin by Reb Anderson: Day 2 (2016/05/19)

2016 Rohatsu Sesshin by Reb Anderson: Day 1 (2016/05/18)

In-Person Zazen is Back (outdoors)!

We are happy to announce that we will now be offering in-person outdoor sits in Brooklyn on Wednesday evenings, starting today!

These weekly sits will take place at the Warren St. Marks Community Garden in Park Slope, between 4th and 5th Avenues. There are entrances on both Warren Street and St. Marks Place. The sitting will happen on the Warren Street side. Meditation will begin at 6:30pm, so please arrive early enough to be settled in your seat by 6:25pm. This will be a 30 minute zazen period, ending by 7pm.

There are chairs and benches in the garden but you are welcome to bring a blanket and meditation cushion or extra support cushions if you like. The ground is hard dirt and wood chips. Masks are optional. Bug spray is recommended.

This ongoing outdoor event is weather dependent. Announcements will go out on BZC’s website and social media the day of should we need to cancel due to weather conditions.

In-Person Zazen
Wednesdays,  6:30 – 7pm EST
Warren St. Marks Community Garden, Park Slope, Brooklyn

New audio dharma talk 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 (2019/11/23)

New BZC audio dharma podcast episode by Yoko Ohashi

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 Yoko Ohashi (2021/03/27)

Letters from the Garden: Warm Days, Warm Nights

Dear Sangha,

All fingers crossed, we are past the danger of any more nights in the 30s, which means it is time to plant all of the lovely tender garden divas that like it warm. I am talking, of course, about the flats of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants that I have been carefully tending for the last six weeks. First they started as tiny babies on heat mats in my room, then graduated up to four-inch pots, and recently have been living outside except for cold nights when I hauled them all back into the safety of the garage after evening zazen. The big day came this past week, when we planted them all out in the real soil, trusting them to grow into themselves from now on. Lil babies, all grown up.

Peppers and eggplants

But the nightshades (Solanaceae: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, as well as potatoes) aren’t the only plants who need the heat. This past week was also the big day for planting another family, Cucurbitaceae, which includes squash, cucumbers, and melons. Last October I really missed picking pumpkins, which has been an essential ritual marking fall for me since I was very young. Pumpkin seeds are huge and quick to grow, and so are extremely fun to plant at any age, but especially for little hands. Planting and picking pumpkins were always my favorite garden tasks as a kid, and my body associates anticipation of the first fall frost with the excitement of hunting for fat orange pumpkins among a forest of squash vines. Then you know frost has come when you wake up and all the vines are wilted, because they die at the first touch of cold.

Pumpkins! Just one hill of many, I assure you.

Because I was so sad we didn’t have squash last year, of course this year I planted an enormous pumpkin patch, possibly an irresponsible number of pumpkins. Looming pumpkin apocalypse aside, I reason it’s totally worth it for the joy they bring, but also they store well and we can eat them all winter. Most of what I planted this year are kabocha (two types), but also a variety called Long Island Cheese (comes from Long Island, looks flat and round like a wheel of cheese, supposedly delicious for baking, I’m very excited), and butternut squash. Plus some summer squash, as well as both pickling and eating cucumbers, which are not squash but planted like squash. Also I’ve never tried to grow melons before, but this year I’m giving it a try with a variety called Petit Gris de Rennes, which is a French variety of small, sweet cantaloupe. This is a year for many new things. If you can’t tell I’m excited…I’m very excited. I have visions of a squash jungle climbing over everything and spreading joy and pumpkins everywhere.

Helpful monks doing some hard labor in order to get things into the ground these past few weeks.
It’s really been a lot of work and I am so grateful for all the help.
This one just helps chase the sticks.
It feels good.

I’m missing all of you, and hoping you can get outside and enjoy the warming weather, wherever you are.

Lots of love,
Sansei


Letters from the Garden: Permission to Be, May 8, 2021

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

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.