The Preface

The cypress tree in the garden. The flapping flag on the pole. As a blossom bespeaks the boundless spring, a drop bespeaks the ocean’s water. The five-hundred-year-old Buddha clearly leaves the usual stream. Not falling into speech or thought, how do you express it?”

The Koan

Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?
The cypress tree in our garden.

-Gateless Gate, #37

The question is a common one, a ice breaking sort of question between student and teacher, a question that gets to the heart of the matter, “What is the meaning of life? What is Zen? Or as David Hinton translates it in his “No-Gate Gateway, “What is it, the ch’i mind Bodhidharma brought from the west?” This question can hang you up, especially if you are into explanation, giving the reasons, etc…. The teacher in this case cuts through all that, saying only, “The cypress tree in our garden.” An old teacher once said of this koan, “The cypress tree has the activity of a thief.” What do you suppose is being stolen, where does that leave “me” in the scheme of things. That’s the cypress tree. That is usually where I go with the koan. This time it is the garden.


I’ve been in the garden all week. The tomatoes, 23 plants!, are in the ground and growing like crazy, doubling in size over just a day or two. Also, watermelon and cantaloupe seeds. Sunflowers. This year I have planted all my plants in mounds, piling up dirt and hauling composted horse manure from the barn. In the garden many hours a day, I have become reacquainted with ticks and have seen my skin turn color, from pale flesh tones to red and then deep brown. You can look at my neck and arms and you might say, “farmer’s tan” or depending on your mood and opinion, “redneck.” Hoe in hand I have begun the battle with the weeds.

Too, I have been thinking of gardens. The Garden of Eden myth, and the fortuitous fall that is part of the creation that brings us into life. I have contemplated the gardens of Islam, filled with smells, sights, design that bespeak paradise right here and now. And even the nursery rhyme of my childhood, “Mary, Mary quite contrary…”you know the rest – a protest rhyme in the time of Mary I of England. It was Bloody Mary who restored the Catholic faith in England – quite contrary to the wishes of her subjects. The silver bells and cockleshells are references to torture devices and the pretty maids in a row, guillotines. Gosh, Mary, “how does your garden (the country) grow” now?

Gardens are life, teeming and chaotic. As I have spent my time gardening, Zhaozhou’s koan comes to me. This garden, my life, how goes it? The cypress tree that cuts through grows in the midst — in my life what is this midst?

As I crack the veneer of my pastoral life here on my Kentucky farm, heart opens and I smell the acrid smoke mixed with tear gas that hangs over American cities. I hear the cries of George Floyd as he dies before my eyes. I feel the death of 100,000 people in this time of plague. Even as I am comfortable and safe from economic dislocation, I feel the despair of the 40 million people who have lost their jobs. Racism, a building block of our American institutions, raises its head and I feel the shame, “that’s me.” How does my garden grow? My heart breaks. This is my life too. As Zhaozhou says in the long version of this koan, “I don’t teach using objects (things on the outside). So, my life: anger, fear, rage, sadness, guilt, all kinds of pain right here is my garden, my life. As my heart breaks, it is hard and humbling, tough and humiliating – here I am, in it all.

At the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I must confess that that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare.” The interesting thing is that we can awake from a dream, no matter how scary.

Awakening – First, the Precepts

As I look at what I am facing in my own life, aware of the whole laundry list of feelings, thoughts, the quarrels that I have with reality, I remember the Bodhisattva vows — they are boundless, without beginning or end. We cannot fulfill them absolutely. Nope, but they set the path, point the way. This Bodhisattva Way? Like a physician who’s first precept is “first, do no harm,” so it is for us as we vow to support and encourage others to embrace life, and to work for the physical and spiritual benefit of all. There’s that and as we walk that path, we can do so with hearts open, without judgement, to how we are of help and of how we fall short. Such is life’s garden, our practice on-going. This is really important: we will fall from what we believe to be the perfect garden into life as it is — the whole mess. Practice in this context means a continuing humble embrace of what is here for you.

Awakening – the Tree

In the koan the student makes an appeal to tradition, looking for wisdom. As we seek wisdom we often locate it “back then,” way back, when people knew what we do not, or sometimes we place it in an apocalyptic vein, “wisdom is for the future, when we have it all together.” Zhaozhou takes that right to the now, the moment, the right here: “the cypress tree in our garden.” For Zhaozhou and the student there was the garden and there was that tree — right in life, here and now. With this koan, it is for the student to find intimacy with the koan as it opens to the healing vastness of here.

When my father was a doctor for the Public Health Service serving the Tohono O’odham people in Arizona, folks would not come to him. The local shaman/medicine man had told them not to. My father requested a meeting with the shaman and they came to an agreement. Folks would go to the shaman first and be healed. He would restore the upset balance, and then they could go to my father for medicine. Healing was a deep re-knitting of reality for the Tohono O’odham, a journey into before life became unbalanced, out of wack. 

Koans are here to reunite us with Reality, the continuous flow of life, the radiance of heart before we began to cut it to pieces and fit it into the image of what we think life should be. Koans heal. In this they are like love notes from the universe — your life flows in endless stream with all that is. All. That. Is. Dis-ease begins in separation, one from the other, myself from my “dark” feelings. We cannot discount anything, no thought or feeling, or anyone. To do so is to quarrel with what is here, with life itself.

So, again, my garden. There is fear and guilt, despair and shame, rage, anger, frustration, marginalization and the tendency to marginalize. There is also contentment and joy, celebration and uplift. It’s a complete mess. And it is all there. As I loosen my hold, as I unclench, each and every thing given is an opening, a gate to wisdom in the vast dance of life.

Once a teacher was asked, “How do I enter the way?”
The teacher said, “do you hear the sound of the stream?”
”Enter there.” 

So, when asked, Zhaozhou had a cypress tree. What have you? What is in your life? Ok, then, enter there. We have everything we need and we practice with everything we have.

So, finally this is a wonderful time to practice. We have protest and pestilence loosening our hold on things, and we have a tree, or maybe it is a tomato plant, or a weed, or feeling left out or frustrated. Whatever…. Opening to life is hope and it is simultaneously the realization of hope – right here.