by Nanc Nesbitt

So how do you garden without harming? Is there even such a thing? I have accepted the hard fact that it is impossible not to harm someone when I garden. The challenge as the Abbey gardener is to minimize the effects of my handiwork in a garden filled with countless sentient beings, and to use the teachings I have been given as guideposts.

For a Dharma practitioner this can be quite a tall order, as well as a humbling endeavor. Everywhere I walk, dig, rake or water in the garden might be a place of refuge, feeding or sleeping for any number of animals. Is there a way to do it gently and mindfully, minimizing my impact on this vast, mostly unnoticed world?

I sat with this question in order to transform my mind about my indifference to these small beings. And I realized that I have a long way to go. I was uncomfortable about the fact that I rarely noticed sentient beings when I gardened. And when I did, I either covered them over or hosed them down or brushed them aside. I perceived them as being “in the way” of my goal of a quiet, lovely garden. How was I going to change that arrogant attitude?

Fortunately, the Buddha supplies a number of teachings that helped me start to transform this indifferent, prideful way of thinking, and to realize the serious nature of my actions. The first one that seemed to help me was the thought that all beings want happiness and not to suffer. The aphids on the birch trees and broccoli, the vole digging holes all over the lawn, and the mosquitoes buzzing around my head are all looking for the same thing I am. It takes much effort to transform the cherishing of my own happiness into seeing their efforts for happiness also. They’re so small and so insistent in their endeavors. Besides, they’re in the way… .

But by slowing down and observing their efforts and industrious characteristics, I received a teaching on perseverance and concentration. Seeing the fleeting life that many of them have – sometimes only days or weeks – as well as the fragility of that life made me realize how destructive my indifference was.

I had to work on softening my presence in the garden immediately. Observing their life cycles and busiest times in the garden helped me to coordinate my work in the garden a little more conscientiously so as to be less intrusive. Sounds crazy? You would be surprised how simple it is once you work on the hard part of the indifferent mind.

I then thought about how each and every one of them had been my mother in a previous life, perhaps for countless lifetimes. Each one had protected, fed and cared for me as a mother does many times over. They were in an unfortunate rebirth at this moment. How could I help them? I began to say mantra when I met them and would gently try and relocate them somewhere safe out of harm’s way. Mantra recitation is a powerful way to help animals gain positive imprints in their mind streams. It also gave me an opportunity to take a good long look at them face to face, as it were, and to see the impermanence and fragility of life in general.

Karma is the mirror that reflects back most powerfully for me. Due to my motivation, my actions in the garden were frequently pointed toward achieving my goal without regard to their effects on others. This apathy toward other sentient beings was wrapped in self-absorption and the eight worldly concerns and would inevitably cause me suffering in the future. I was creating causes to experience the animal realm myself through ignorance and grasping at the eight worldly concerns, mostly due to my strong attachment to sense pleasures. I am addicted to beauty in all forms – in particular vegetative forms – and beware those who despoil this experience!

Slowly, my awareness of my impact on the animal realm is increasing. I started doing purification practices as a protective measure, in the event I do harm or kill other sentient beings, and I work on reducing my attachment to my version of a “beautiful” garden. Prostrations to the 35 Buddhas, as well as the Vajrasattva practice, keep me on my karmic toes and are continual reminders that purification is crucial in maintaining awareness of my actions. These practices have also helped me to recognize when my regret is sincere or manufactured.

When it comes to growing vegetables and discovering insect infestations of fruit trees, I have to admit I am still trying to work on those specific challenges. Trying to remove all the little creatures on your kale leaves, so you don’t either steam or eat them can be unrealistic at times. When in doubt, I leave those for other garden critters, or I make the commitment to remove the leaf surfaces where they are and keep the rest for the Abbey.

For large infestations of aphids on broccoli or nasturtiums, I leave them the whole plant. It actually helps free up the other vegetables in the garden. But this is not a proven way to handle every situation. I take things on a case-by-case basis. In this world, we are likely to harm some little critter, even without knowing or meaning to, regardless of what we do.

Someday I may walk away from gardening altogether, because I will not be able to bear the possibility of harming others through an activity that is not a requirement in the human realm. But for now I try and see the gardens I tend as the homes of the animals and insects who live at the Abbey. I am the steward of these homes. And I try to care for them as I would a child of the Buddha.

I have no ready answers to every variety of challenge that a gardener who wishes to practice non-harm in her garden will face. These are the ones I have chosen to listen to. But I know that a serious commitment to patience, slowing down, getting acquainted with the rhythms and life forms unique to your garden, and turning to the Dharma for guidance can transform your gardening into an act of greater loving kindness and virtue.