OMZ is closed Saturday, May 4th. Sesshin will be via Zoom only.

What shakes your tree? Barry Magid April 5th 2008

Once there was a monk who lived in an old temple, taking care of his retired teacher, and tending the temple's rather famous garden. One day, visitors were coming from far away to admire the garden, and so he spent the morning meticulously raking the sand and carefully gathering up all the stray leaves. After he had gotten everything to look just right, he noticed his old master looking over the garden wall at his work. "Very nice, " the old man said, "but there's one thing missing." "What's that?" asked the monk. Taking hold of a branch of tree that leaned over the garden wall, the master gave it a good shake, sending autumn leaves cascading every which way onto the pristinely raked sand. "There," said the old master, "now, it's perfect."

I don't know the origin of this story, which I first read it in Janwillem van der Wetering's book, An Empty Mirror. Looking back at his version now, I was surprised to see that the primary lesson he draws from the story is one of impermanence and detachment. We should be prepared to see all our efforts come to nothing, and view the results with equanimity. No doubt that's an important lesson “ and one all of us need to learn“ especially as we get older. But today, I'd like to approach the story from a slightly different angle.

I think all of us come to practice like that monk in one way or another. We want practice to settle our minds and allow us to rake and manicure our inner mental landscape into something serene and beautiful. We want to gather up and discard all the leaves of our unwanted thoughts and emotions. We want to attain a certain state or look and stay there. Now we do need to learn that we can't hold onto any one state of mind. But in the van der Wetering version of the story, the Old Master sounds just a little bit sadistic, shaking the tree just to unsettle the young monk. Or at least that's how it would feel from the monk's point of view, because he can't yet believe the garden really does look better with all those leaves scattered randomly about.

Now we might say that if garden actually does look better unraked, why go to all the trouble of raking it in the first place? But the fact is, we are psychologically unprepared to simply accept life as it is. Unless we first meticulously rake the garden, we can't have the experience of seeing the perfection of the leaves falling where they may. What is the practice equivalent of this raking? Well, first of all, a meticulous awareness and labeling of our thoughts about just how we want our inner landscape to look. Just what we're willing to tolerate or not tolerate and where.

I told this story to my wife this summer and she laughed and said, "Sam (our two year old son) is your Old Master! He can really shake your tree!" And she's right! We were traveling together in Italy this summer and had a very interesting time. But if you've ever traveled with a small child you know how they can disrupt any notion of how you want things to go. Generally, things went pretty smoothly whenever I could forget the word "vacation." Because "vacation," to me, implies all the peace and quiet and time to read and write that a toddler completely disrupts. So he was a good teacher pointing out to me whenever I got too attached to my perfectly raked garden.

We all have to practice raking that garden over and over, in order to really be able see where the leaves fall and how we react. Our practice isn't about clearing out the leaves once and for all, rather its about building a bigger and bigger garden, gradually expanding the walls, precisely so it can hold more and more leaves! That is, until it can contain whatever happens in our life. And when the garden expands to include our whole world, when we're truly willing to accept and respond each moment of life as it is, then one day we find that every leaf has fallen in exactly the right place.

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.