Playing well with others

Our Zen gardener suggests the path of dana paramita, a voluntary giving of one's wisdom, time, or assistance.
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Guerilla gardeners planting vegetables in Calgary. (Grant Neufeld)

Our Zen gardener suggests the path of dana paramita, a voluntary giving of one's wisdom, time, or assistance.

I love rain. Not like, love. I ride my bike to work in the pouring rain, and before and after work, Bodhi the dog runs with me through puddles until we are both so soaked that only a hot fire, for him, and complete change of clothes, for me, warm us. Rain is an excuse to curl up with a good book for days, for finally catching up with e-mails, for making noodles from scratch.

Two years ago, when I moved to Seattle at the beginning of the rainy season, it felt like I had died and gone to heaven.

For the first month.

Then I started to miss ... people. And doing fun things, things we could do together without drinking ourselves stupid or, forgive me, playing one more board game. Knowing exactly two people in Seattle at the time, I wanted to make new friends. Not trusting computer match-ups, I wanted to get to know Seattleites in person. (The exception here, for me, has been Craigslist. I met a great, true friend from Green Lake last summer, a musician, an environmentalist, and one of the most vibrant writers I've ever known. I'd tell you his name, but I'm too greedy to share here.) How to get from no friends to new friends?

Dana paramita. In Buddhism, the first practice that is taught by many teachers, including me, is generosity. Flat out, no expectations for anything back generosity. It creates all sorts of surprise gifts in return, including great, abiding friendships. I knew from my Detroit days that, when dana is the bottom line, weather is irrelevant. Meeting up with other people to cook for homeless people in the rain à la "Food not Guns" is great fun and always leads to friendships with wonderful, interesting people. Another: card parties for Amnesty International's list of illegally imprisoned men and women. Last year's effort led to a burgeoning pen pal relationship between my granddaughter, now eleven, and a man on death row.

One of the best events I've ever attended happened on a winter Sunday in Detroit. About twenty of us, all ages, gathered together to clean up an overgrown abandoned block across the street from Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple. You learn a lot about someone when you are picking up garbage next to him or her. What made the day memorable was that a prize was offered for the most interesting and unique find. Competition was tough: an old leather work boot with letters tucked inside of it; hall passes for the nearby high school (There were a ton of those. Someone must have printed them off at the nearest Kinko's.); bottles of all shapes, colors, and sizes. The prize went to a little girl who, as I remember it, found a Barbie doll in a bottle. Her prize: a small cloth pouch filled with chocolate coins. I'd do more clean-ups like that one in a minute.

In this dana paramita realm, the trifecta of fun goes to guerilla gardening events. They are exciting and fun, and they create community. Every planting is a blast, even the ones in which plants disappear the next day. As a reminder, Wikipedia's definition of guerilla gardening is

political gardening, a form of nonviolent direct action ... activists take over an abandoned piece of land which they do not own to grow crops or plants. Forms range from flower gardens and pots of vegetables to birdhouse installations and seed bombs ...

See the Guerilla Gardening Web site for specific examples of projects. The key word here related to dana is "abandoned." Beauty appears where beauty was lost. Honoring spaces happens where spaces were forgotten. Landscapes appear. Plants usually thrive. New friends are made. There is a dissertation topic just waiting to be grabbed here: one codifying the other improvements that happen in a community following a guerilla planting. I know they happen because I've seen them.

Here's a documentary showing guerilla gardening at its best. The rainy season is a perfect season for this form of dana. The ground is already wet, making it easy to plant. Plants and shrubs are on sale. Even winter flowers — think primroses and cyclamens — are cheap and promise happy splashes of color.

Dana is the key to surviving the rainy season because it keeps our focus on helping other people. For some reason that focus is a direct path to happiness. We do something that is kind, don't expect anything back, and then go home to grin our way through a cup of tea and a book. Maybe Richard Reynolds, On Guerilla Gardening, maybe Wangari Maathai's Unbowed, or maybe something flatly hilarious like Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation. With tea and a fire, there is no better end to a day of generosity and making new friends.


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