While Karen Maezen Miller’s new book, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden, was a pleasure to read, I was plagued by one question as I turned its pages: for whom is this book intended? Despite the title, it’s not really a guide for gardeners, at least not in the classical sense. Most of the Buddhist thought included talks about basics such as the Four Noble Truths or what it’s like to sit next to someone wearing overbearing aftershave in the meditation hall. And while the book contains memories, it’s not exactly a memoir. Ultimately, it feels like Paradise is more of a song—or a cycle of songs—than a book. And it’s Miller’s stark and yet lyrical voice that makes the whole of it sing.
On its surface the book is largely a collection of personal tales, dharma stories and facts about the natural world—most of them involving the century-old Japanese-style garden Miller inherits when she buys a house in Los Angeles. Appropriately, she escorts the reader into the book as though she were writing a botanical guide to her yard: opening chapters of the book fall under the section heading “Coming Here,” and boast titles such as “Curb,” “Gate” and “Path.” Once on her path, the book’s second section, titled “Living Now,” introduces the contents of the garden with “Rocks,” “Roots” and “Pine.” Each chapter begins by describing one aspect of the garden, and then the author skillfully weaves in bits of dharma, pithy tales and stories of her teacher, the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi.
The parts of the book add up to a powerful whole, and the author’s musings on gardening and life reveal a mind that has pondered deeply what it means to be alive and make mistakes in the world. In one short chapter on oranges (and the juice squeezed from the fruit), she manages to speak volumes about human behavior in a few sentences:
If you were offered a glass filled with life at its undiluted prime, would you refuse, preferring to gnaw on the bitter rind? That’s what we do when we cannot move past the past: we keep swallowing the sour and never reach the sweet.
That passage reads to me more like Chuang Tzu than a twenty-first-century mom toiling in long-neglected soil in the heart of LA.
Such epiphanies abound, as in the chapter “Flowers: Love Is Letting Go,” where Miller covers the subject of—what else?—impermanence. She takes the reader on a roundabout stroll from discourse on flowers to reminiscence on Maezumi Roshi. One of her strongest messages seems to be that our lives are like gardens, and our sensibilities and skills as gardeners in life often determine how we grow or wilt on the vine.
In the middle of the book, Miller lays bare one element of her own life, as seen through the eyes of her six-year-old daughter, when the girl is asked what it was like to have a Zen teacher for a mom. The youngster replied, “She screams a lot.” As simultaneously candid and hilarious as that story is, the fact that Miller lets us eavesdrop on such a moment reveals the keys to the charm and heart of the book: profound frankness, humor in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges, and a wheelbarrowful of humility.