Zen and the art of gardening

Geri Larkin's latest book is like your neighbor's undisciplined garden, a little too rambunctious at times, but filled with moments that will appeal to both gardeners and those looking for a little enlightenment.
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Geri Larkin's latest book is like your neighbor's undisciplined garden, a little too rambunctious at times, but filled with moments that will appeal to both gardeners and those looking for a little enlightenment.
Plant Seed, Pull Weed: Nurturing the Garden of Your Life
By Geri Larkin
HarperCollins, 193 pages

Plant Seed, Pull Weed is not really a book for gardeners (despite its lovely botanical cover); it is a spiritual book for seekers of peace and enlightenment who enjoy a good chuckle and a friendly, informal teacher to guide them. It is a manual for spiritual growth that sometimes applies the metaphor of gardening, but it is most firmly rooted in the Buddhist text, The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva.

Larkin's background is not your typical Zen master's. She excelled as a management consultant but left that path to enter Buddhist seminary. She was ordained in 1995, then started the Still Point Buddhist Temple in inner-city Detroit four years later. She has written several books about her spiritual journey and Buddhism, including Stumbling Toward Enlightenment, Tap Dancing in Zen, First You Shave Your Head, and The Chocolate Cake Sutra. In 2005, when the meditation center in Detroit was well-established and a successor was in place, Larkin left Detroit and moved to the Pacific Northwest. She has since been doing landscaping and working at a nursery in Seattle, living her practice as she does her jobs.

Her experience as a dharma teacher, a management consultant, a mother, a founder of non-profits, and a landscaper combine to make Larkin's approach to Buddhism well-rounded and accessible. In her introduction, she explains, "This book is about being as wise and compassionate as we can be, right where we are. Its specific themes come from one of the great classics of Mahayana Buddhism, The Way of the Bodhisattva, an eighth-century text by Shantideva." She then tells the funny story behind the inspirational text, how Shantideva's words came from a practical joke played on him by fellow students. Shantideva's improvisational wisdom is fitting structure for this collection of examples, personal and global, of Buddhist themes: Clear Intention, Transcending Hesitation, Clear Seeing, Generosity, Enthusiasm, Taming Our Minds, Patience, Anger, Joy, and Vigilance.

If C.S. Lewis's spiritual writing is an English garden, with well-tended, carefully plotted but seemingly organic, lush prose, Larkin's book is more like that wacky neighbor's garden, the one with riotous daisies and lavender and irises and forget-me-nots, tangles of rosemary and mint, plus little gnomes, gazing balls and whirligigs. Larkin uses pointed sentence fragments: "Poppies. Sweet peas. Mignonette." She also uses abstract spiritual sentences that throw caution to the wind and the preposition to just before the period: "Our brains morph from being crammed full of our personal version of anger, greed, and delusion to being filled with a clearheadedness that naturally leads us to doing exactly what needs doing in every situation we find ourselves in." Her writing is filled with spontaneous joy, surprising beauty and quirky humor — the authorial equivalent of the artful artlessness that I so enjoy in happy gardens like my neighbor's. Within the structure of her themed chapters, Larkin allows herself to play.

Where other spiritual writers use restrained eloquence or rigorous logic to convince a reader, Larkin employs self-deprecating honesty and genuine enthusiasm. She is unafraid to bounce energetically from anecdote to anecdote to illustrate different steps along the path to happiness. This can sometimes be tiring to follow, like when she jumps from a personal experience to a friend's story to a riff on Van Gogh, but there is also something wonderfully candid and refreshing about her heartfelt stream-of-enlightened-consciousness approach. Larkin's paragraphs tumble one after another in a rush of emotion that makes her excitement palpable and contagious. I have not read widely of Buddhism, but much of what I had encountered seemed so detached that I could not understand how enlightenment could be so desirable. However, Larkin's zest for life, evident in every paragraph, makes her philosophy very appealing.

Larkin's best passages are snapshots of joy. In her chapter about enthusiasm, she focuses on hummingbirds:

They are the bird equivalent of happy pills. Hummingbirds fly into a flower so fast and hard that I always think they'll fly right through the petals, although they never do. Then they hover with wings beating at the speed of light, twitching and eating and dancing their hummingbird dance, until suddenly, without pause, they zoom off to their next meal. Everyone caught up in watching them ends up smiling and even laughing with pleasure. I say each of us needs to lure them into our lives, whatever it takes.

The happiness Larkin finds in the hummingbirds comes through clearly, and she encourages the reader to savor the moment along with her. Just following this passage, she also provides a list of "Plants Hummingbirds Love" as a little step to help us experience our own hummingbird joys.

Likewise, her descriptions of Fujitaro Kubota's garden in South Seattle sing with appreciation. The sheer beauty of each view is the result of [Kubota's] deeply thoughtful choices about which plants should go where, and how to position pools so that water best reflects the beauty of the property. His streams bring sounds and birdsong to the garden, and the quiet pools reflect Seattle's ever-changing sky, providing the sensation of movement where there is none. Kubota's smells are the smells of the Northwest, clean and clear, pine filled and just this side of sweet.

Larkin's gratitude is infectious. Whether she's marveling at petunias, an ice storm that makes it look "like Santa Claus did a diamond run and then dropped them all over the park across the street," or the works of Bill Gates, John Wood, and Wangari Maathai, Larkin acknowledges the good in life. When she salvages a lonely Valentine's Day by recalling "small good deeds people can do to celebrate loving each other" on a radio interview, the world smiles with her. Create a quiet space in your life to wander through her writings, and you will, too.

Editor's Note: Geri Larkin is a Crosscut contributor.  

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