Once while I was visiting my mother, she looked out of the window and saw some strangers wandering around in her backyard. She opened the sliding glass door and asked, “Can I help you with something?”
Sheepishly, one of the visitors replied: “We heard about your garden and we just wanted to take a peek.”
My mother had a beautiful English garden. It was her pride and joy. I know for a fact that on the morning that she died, she had worked in her garden. Which is exactly what she would have wanted. Sometimes, when I visited, we would walk through the garden together. She would give me a tour; while pulling a weed or two she would teach me which plants should be near one another, and what to plant to stave off intrusive insects or aggressive vines. She carefully cultivated each section of her garden, paying regular, focused attention to what was or was not working and adjusting as needed. I view her garden and her work as an analogy for our own spiritual practice.
“I don’t envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, leads to such great harm as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated leads to great harm.”
“I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, leads to such great benefit as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, leads to great benefit.”
“I don’t envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about such suffering & stress as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about suffering & stress.”
“I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, brings about such happiness as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, brings about happiness.” (AN 1: 27–30)
We are like the flowers in the garden. We require careful cultivation. To grow in our practice, we need to place ourselves in an appropriate environment, surrounded with the right companionship, placing regular, focused attention through learning and meditating and following the Noble Eightfold Path.
During our garden tours, Mom would often cut back or completely remove a dead or dying plant. On more than on occasion she said to me: “There is a lot of death in the garden.” Her tone was very matter of fact. Her statement came from a place of this is how it is.
Mom never let gardening deaths and disappointments get the better of her. She had a very good understanding of the expected lifespans of her plants. She was not completely surprised if a raccoon dug up her bulbs, or if a passing deer bit the head off of a flower, or if a plant seemed to randomly die. Occasionally she would express annoyance at the raccoons and the deer, and disappointment when a plant did not work out, but she did not dwell on it.
Mom gardened with non-attachment. With a complete understanding of horticultural impermanence, she did not avoid using a flower that would bloom quickly and then fade away. She would showcase that flower. Finding a way to surround it with plants that would allow it to have a brief moment of stardom. Then, the surrounding plants would have their turn. And eventually, they too would disappear. Within the context of her garden, Mom understood the truth of aging and death. She knew that once planted, a flower would bloom and then die.
“The aging of beings in the various orders of beings, their old age, brokenness of teeth, grayness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of life, weakness of faculties — this is called aging. The passing of beings out of the various orders of beings, their passing away, dissolution, disappearance, dying, completion of time, dissolution of the aggregates, laying down of the body — this is called death. So this aging and this death are what is called aging and death. With the arising of birth there is the arising of aging and death.” (MN 9.22)
We are like the flowers in the garden. Once we are planted and begin to grow, we will die. And others around us will die. Take a look at a garden, or a park, or a forest. There might be tall and mighty trees that are more than a hundred years old. Then there is a flowering ground cover that shows up in early spring and fades away with the summer heat. There are rose bushes, which last several seasons. And, perhaps, tulips or daffodils that pop up once a year; they have one bloom and they are done. We do not know who that seasonal ground cover or the ancient tree will be.
Do not let the concept of impermanence discourage you. When the meaning of impermanence is misunderstood, it can push you toward nihilism. Some develop an attitude of “if nothing lasts, why bother?” If my mother had taken this point of view, she would have missed out on all the joy she felt while gardening. Her neighbors would have been denied the opportunity of walking past such beautiful scenery.
Go all in. Instead of avoiding experiences in life, learn the most you can from those experiences. Instead of avoiding relationships with others, be fully in those relationships, without attachment. Learn from the present moment because it will be gone. Don’t think, “Why bother? This will not last.” Do think: “This opportunity will not be here again. Let me really be in this moment and let it be my teacher.” Like my mother with her garden, be skillful in how you cultivate your practice and your mind. Be aware of death. And let it encourage you to live.
What arises, ceases. With each passing moment, even the strongest, sturdiest tree becomes closer to death. Today, petunias might be blooming, yet they will wilt under the hot summer Sun. It is not about if we and our loved ones will die, it is when.
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
Lessons in Impermanence: A Conversation with Choje Lama Wangchuk of the Thrangu Monasteries
Meaning in the Face of Transience: Reflections of Socially Engaged Buddhists in Japan
Anam Thubten Rinpoche On Non-attachment, Being a Buddhist Gypsy, and Impermanence