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Building a Container of Contentment

Image courtesy of the author

This spring will mark my second year on the homestead. And while many things have changed from last year, many things have remained the same. I’m still obsessing over seed catalogs; trying to decide what kind of potato looks the tastiest. I’m still feeding and watering the chickens twice each day, and getting pecked for my troubles. And I’m still awestruck each time I step on my back porch to breathe fresh country air.

But there have been a few changes. The biggest is happening in my garden. Last year, I grew plants in anything I could find. Tomatoes and potatoes were planted in buckets. Kale grew in plastic pots. And beans sprouted in fabric garden beds. Anything that could hold seeds and soil was fair game. And the garden was a success.

The only problem was that after the plants were harvested and the tools were put away for the year, my garden plot looked like a junkyard and not the well-manicured plot of my dreams.  

So, this year, I put on my big boy pants, bought some lumber, and built garden beds. Building garden beds isn’t hard. But it’s also not easy.  There’s a certain amount of physicality required to lift and turn wood boards. And there’s a learning curve to putting screws into wood correctly the first time. Add the repetition that comes with building enough beds to fill a garden plot, and Zen-like levels of concentration are required.

Today, I began the process of placing the beds in the garden—replacing the hodgepodge of buckets, cinder blocks, and other miscellaneous items that I used to grow food last year. I’m using the hugelkultur method in my garden, which means each bed has a layer of wood sticks and logs added to the bottom before I start putting in soil. The wood acts as a sponge, holding moisture in the soil for thirsty plants, and as it rots it becomes a slow-release fertilizer, adding carbon rich organic matter to the soil.

As I filled each garden bed with wood and soil, I wandered and I thought about what vegetables would grow in each one. I imagined rows of carrots popping their green leaves above the soil. I visualized myself hilling soil on top of potatoes. And I reminisced about the satisfaction that comes from eating salad made from fresh-picked greens.

Pondering this made me realize that garden beds, whether they’re made of wood, metal, or cinder blocks, aren’t just raw materials that have been pieced together. They’re containers that help life grow. A well-made garden bed can be the home of tasty vegetables, beautiful flowers, or an ornate shrubbery that bring joy to everyone who sees them. So a thoughtful gardener puts a lot of thought into the building and maintenance of their garden beds, understanding that they’ll provide years of service in return.

For Buddhists, it can be helpful to think of our lives as garden beds—as containers for our contentment. If our lives are put together carefully, with attention to the small details, they provide fertile ground for happiness to grow. If we are careless with the construction of our lives, however, things fall apart.  

In his grandmotherly compassion, the Buddha provided straight-forward instructions for building strong, long-lasting containers that allow us to live lives of contentment. These can be found in the Noble Eightfold Path, which gives instruction on how to live a good life. Even if we only hold to the moral tenets of the path, Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, our lives improve as we stay within the healthy, life-affirming boundaries of the path.

But this is easier said than done. As humans, our minds are filled with desires. And our hearts are privy to greed, anger, and ignorance. Thus, even if we know the correct action to take, there are times we convince ourselves to do something else “just this once.”

But doing the wrong thing, “just his once,” can have dire consequences for our overall well-being. In the same way that using substandard soil can ruin a harvest, making decisions based on defiled ways of thinking can ruin large chunks of our lives.

Thus, we must be careful builders of our life/garden beds. We must make decisions that ensure our container is strong, that it provides ample room and fertile soil for both our enlightenment and our happiness to grow. And in those moments when we make a mistake—when our garden looks more like a junkyard than a source of food—we must remember that in addition to moral instruction, Buddhism also offers grace. 

In his sage-like wisdom, the Buddha reminded his followers that there would be karmic consequences for their actions, but they could always try again. They could change their behavior, they could build a better life-container, and through diligence and hard work they could grow a happy, contented life.

Namu Amida Butsu

More from The Ordinary Buddhist by Sensei Alex Kakuyo

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