Not long ago a friend of mine and a teacher at Zen Center gave me an old, unpublished teaching from Suzuki-roshi. This piece of writing has been working on me ever since I received it.
I think most of us study Buddhism like something which was already given to us. We think what we should do is preserve the Buddha’s teaching, like putting food into the refrigerator, and that to study Buddhism is to take the food out of the refrigerator whenever we want it—it is already there. Instead, Zen students should be interested in how to produce food from the field, from the garden, should put the emphasis on the ground. The joy of Buddhism is the joy of taking care of the garden, and our effort is to see something come out of the ground, out of the nothingness of the ground.
As a gardener I know this “nothingness of the ground” when I work the soil that is the pulsing web of life and death under my feet. Within a single teaspoonful of fertile ground in the Green Gulch Garden, up to three billion microscopic bacteria live and die. Under the best conditions they double their populations every hour, feeding the soil and plant community with their sloughed-off debris. All around the bacteria a thriving sangha of soil micro and macro organisms fills the ground. Fungi, actinomycetes, algae, nematodes, rotifers, mites, springtails, sowbugs, millipedes, spiders, ants, beetles, centipedes, slugs, snails and earthworms are all working the ground. Like the nothingness of the ground of being, this nothingness seethes with relationship, and in the dirt beneath my fingernails vast communities of beings live and die.
When I am confused or upset it helps me to sit still on the bare ground, to come back to the fundamental. In Buddhist practice, the ground is fundamental. The ground is where we walk and sit, where we stand and lie down. It is the living support of our life.
Ground means bottom. The word has its roots in Old English grund which means foundation or earth. It is also a cognate of grynde, meaning abyss, and thus is linked with death and mystery. A grounding was originally a fish living on the bottom of ponds. And meditation is all about getting to the bottom of life, about grounding ourselves in the nothingness of the earth and not turning away from what is fundamental.
At Green Gulch Farm early every spring we welcome a new group of farm and garden apprentices who come to live and work and meditate with us. After the niceties of introduction and orientation are complete, our first meditation assignment is to fan out over the bottomland fields of the Gulch and find a spot of earth that calls to each of us. Then, forgetting all the elaborate details of zazen instruction—how to hold the spine and thumb tips while meditating—we sink down and sit still on the ground.
“Buddha tried to save us by destroying our common sense,” said Suzuki-roshi.
“Usually, as human beings, we are not interested in the nothingness of the ground, not in the bare soil itself. But the Buddha’s teaching is not about the food itself but about how it is grown. He was interested in the ground from which various gardens appear.”
It is fundamental that we forget what we know and see, stop fussing with crops and credos, and sink down onto the earth and sit still. Our real work is to face the abyss. We are joined by our common love for the nothingness of the ground, bound together by the invisible hyphae of the fungal net that pervades the bottomland soil where we sit.