A priest was in charge of a Zen temple garden because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple was another, smaller temple where there lived an old Zen master. One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. As he pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss and meticulously raked up and carefully arranged all the dry autumn leaves the old master watched with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.
When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work. “Isn’t it beautiful,” he called out to the old master. “Yes,” replied the old man, “but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I’ll put it right for you.”
After hesitating, the priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down. Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it. Leaves showered down all over the garden. “There,” said the old man, “you can put me back now.”
A Zen story
I like this story. It reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s famous observation that “There are no straight lines in nature,” and of what nature is and is not and of how mankind’s idea of perfection destroys nature’s own. It’s an illustration of several things, among them the priest’s narrow (unpriestly?) pride in the beauty and order of his own work juxtaposed with the master’s more expansive appreciation of the inherent beauty of a larger, older and more inclusive edict. The word ‘respect’ comes to mind.
Thank nature for the master.
It is a much older story than this Zen version of it.
Man versus nature. Man in nature. Man in harmony with nature. Man in conflict with nature. Man and nature. Man as a part—and a small one at that—of nature. Man’s obsessive need to make order out of chaos. Man’s neurotic need to control—everything, including nature.
Keeping care of one’s garden is admirable, honorable work, and, depending on the garden, it may provide sustenance for a few people. Tending the garden is the work of survival, and man and nature as equal partners will keep man flourishing and alive. The scientific study of the natural world, the common observations of the common man, the escalating rate of species extinction and the high temperatures of summer are but a few of the plentiful indications that modern man’s partnership with nature is completely out of balance. Despite the moronic ramblings of people in high places who have every opportunity and obligation to know better—people like Donald Trump and most of his administration, George Bush, James Inhofe and others who take an unpriestly pride in answering to a higher father who goes by many names including ExxonMobil—man caused global warming is real, and it is changing the garden of earth in unknowable and irreversible ways. And there is something missing in their concept of perfection and beauty.
The Zen priest who stood back to admire his work and calling it beautiful was, as the old master pointed out, missing something in his own garden that he had made every effort to make perfect. And he was missing something as well in his own self. Though he hesitated at first, the priest had respect and took the effort to lift the old master over the wall so he could shake the tree in the middle of the garden. At the end of the Zen story there is nothing missing from the garden, the priest or the master.
May we all have such respect and do as well and lift the old masters over all the walls so they can shake those trees in the center of every garden until the leaves fall down like nature’s own.