What Plants Have Taught Me About the Bodhisattva Vows.
One of my earliest experiences with growing food came when I practiced at a Zen center that had a garden.
In Zen, manual labor is considered an important part of spiritual development, so I spent every Saturday cutting grass, pulling weeds, and shoveling horse manure into vegetable beds. “Shovel crap and become a Buddha!” was the running joke between me the other students. It was difficult at times, but there was a brutal honesty in the work that I found appealing.
If I cared for the plants properly, they would grow and provide food for people. If I didn’t, they would die and I’d have to start over from scratch. There was no complexity or intrigue involved in the process. What I put into the vegetables beds was exactly what I took out. It was karma in its purest form.
These days, I have a garden in my backyard. And I’m happy to report that the plants are still teaching me the dharma. Lately, they’ve been teaching me about the Bodhisattva vows, which go as follows:
* Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all
* Delusions are endless, I vow to cut through them all
* The teachings are infinite, I vow to learn them all
* The Buddha way is unobtainable, I vow to obtain it
The first thing any sane person notices about these vows is that they’re impossible. How are you supposed to save all sentient beings if there is an infinite number of them? Thankfully, my plants have shown me the way.
The most important and time-consuming part of gardening is pulling weeds. If you don’t do it regularly, the weeds will crowd out anything you are trying to plant, so consistency is key. That being said, it’s an impossible task. There have been many times where I spent hours crawling through the dirt, pulling out invasive plants, only to get up and wonder if I accomplished anything.
But I keep doing it because the small amount of time between when I pull the weeds and when they return gives my vegetables time to grow. Eventually, the vegetables become strong enough that they start crowding out the weeds!
Similarly, when we walk the Bodhisattva path, we do so knowing that it’s impossible. But we keep trying because each time we pull the weeds of greed, anger, and delusion from the world, it provides space for vegetables like empathy and compassion to grow. Eventually, compassion grows large enough that it crowds out the darker parts of human nature, but only if we’re willing to keep pulling weeds.
There is a brutal honesty in this work that I find appealing.
The world is our garden, and what we put into it is exactly what we get out. Every act of kindness, no matter how small, provides space for good things to happen. And each time we help another person, we create an opportunity for their compassion to grow. It’s hard work, and the struggle is never-ending. But a good harvest is guaranteed as long as we never give up.
Sensei Alex Kakuyo is a former Marine who now earns his living as a Business Analyst. He splits his free time between social justice work, cycling, and deepening his meditation practice. Alex has been a Zen practitioner since 2013, and he is training to become a lay minister in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism. You can read more of his writing by visiting his blog, The Same Old Zen.