A Student of the Earth

– Posted in: Dharma Farmer

Notes of a Dharma Farmer © Tarchin Hearn, Green Dharma Treasury, 2010

You are the soil of my being.
I am the soil of your being.
We are the ground support of each other.
A good farmer is someone who grows soil.
A good farmer is a student of the earth.
A good farmer is the land looking after itself.
The same things could be said of a student of dharma.

For the last 15 years, Mary and I have been associated with 2 acres of land on the eastern lea of the Kaimai Range, a few kilometres southwest of Katikati, in New Zealand.  When we first saw this small section, cut off from a larger farm by a land owner who needed quick cash, it was a neglected cow paddock with mixed grasses, copious amounts of blackberry and clumps of intimidating gorse.  We began planting native trees for wind shelter and found the soil to be amazingly compacted – nary an earthworm to be seen.  Underneath five centimetres of  hard, grass-root matted top soil, the light-brown volcanic ash seemed to go on forever.  We found out later that the substance of our land fell from the sky about 26,500 years ago.  In those distant times, a volcanic eruption blew a massive hole in the centre of Aotearoa creating the lake known today as Taupo, and raining ash to the north and east to depths, in places, of tens of metres.

We planted native trees and shrubs on half the property, choosing plants that birds like to eat and nest in.  We let the gorse (which fixes nitrogen) and blackberry run wild, doing only the minimum to clear space around the trees until they grew tall enough to shade out the prickly squatters.  Five years ago, after tenting and making do with garden-shed shelters, we built a small house.  This was an amazing shift for two people who had lived itinerantly for many decades.  Much time was freed up from the basics of survival and we are now able to put more efforts into gardening.  In doing so, I have an increased appreciation and understanding of how colossally ignorant I am!

In spite of being educated in Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice, along with various other disciplines of science and art; dharma teacher in many countries; well read and widely travelled; I am discovering how little I know about how food comes to me.  About which plant lives well with whom.  When to sow. When to harvest.  How to sow.  How to harvest.  Who pollinates what.  Which bugs are ‘friendly’ and which are ‘pests’, and what do you do, or not do, about them.  In addition to such specifics I found myself wondering in a very visceral, almost muscular way, what is soil and what is plant?  Where does one begin and the other end off.  What am I and how am I connected with the soil and the atmosphere – and what is community?  All these questions, and more; quivering, blown open with awe and wonder.  I realised that left to my own devices, I’d likely starve to death. Wondrously humbling, blessed yet again, with a fresh glimpse of beginner’s mind.

To get started, I bought a lot of books on organic gardening and fed my newly discovered enthusiasm with the words and understandings of others.  I built raised vegie beds and a four metre long compost bin and then, wanting quick results, ran off to the local farmer’s market to buy seedlings and bung them in and then water them like mad.  I had a vision of what an organic garden/farm should look like and I did what I thought would bring about these looks.  Amazing that in spite of teaching the necessity of caringly and discerningly observing and learning from our direct, here and now experience, I so easily failed to apply to the relationship I found myself entering with the land, what I had urged others to do in their own lives.  Ah – so!

I think my initial approach to gardening paralleled many beings’s approach to dharma.  Instead of books on organics and one acre natural farming, they buy publications on dharma practice and spiritual affairs and feed their hopes and aspirations with the words and understandings of others.  Through study, reading and listening, they might visualise what healthy living could, or should, look like.  Then they would do what they assume would most quickly produce these looks in the gardens of their lives.  Does any of this resonate for you?  Did it work for you?

Perhaps due to the misused and unloved condition of our land, I became curiously obsessed with compost.  Although we were planting flowers and vegetables, fruit and nut trees, I had a sense that what we were really doing was growing soil!  I think this will take quite a few years, if not generations.  Of course, in the most inspiring gardening books, there is much talk about no tilling, about farming or gardening in ways that don’t disturb the soil.  It sounds a bit like the pointing out instructions of Mahamudra or other advanced forms of meditation that sing praises to letting everything be as it is, celebrating the merit of effortless not-doing.  These hints are direct and profound when the ecology of our living is rich in diversity and harmonious balance.  They can be problematic however, when we discover that the soil, the earth or ground within which and from which we grow, is either a mat of kikuya grass or so compacted, that water and oxygen cannot penetrate.  People can be like this; compacted with defensiveness or a snarly weed-lot of cherished opinions and confused understandings to the point where no subtle feeling and sensation can penetrate.

Eventually, I found myself giving away my gardening book ideals in order to address the reality of the land as we found it.  In farming and dharma farming, at the beginning it’s sometimes appropriate to work roughly; to loosen the ground, turn it over and break it up;  to let in light and moisture and air.  Over the years we have accumulated an armoury of forks, spades, mattocks, hoes, machetes, loppers, secateurs and so forth.  All of them, tools of destruction and mayhem that we use in the name of growth and fecundity.  It’s amazing.  I say we are growing fruit trees, flowers and vegetables but all we do is wield these weapons of mass destruction.  We chop and churn and encourage a little space for fresh understanding to creep into the compacted soil of our lives.  Then nature does the growing!

I think modern monks, yogis, and dharma practitioners, academics, scientists, and professionals, we could add to this list pretty much all people living in urban situations, all of us would be blessed by rediscovering the dance of learning that comes to us by way of honest dirt under finger nails.  Gradually, working with and in the earth, we begin to actually realise, in ways that books and meditation are rarely able to teach, that everything is alive. That living beings are weavings of relationship, lives flowing through lives.  It slowly dawns that gardening is about facilitating flow, not about obstructing or controlling.  Meditation is also like this.

Gardening or meditating, we learn many things we never initially sought.  We discover the secrets of patience and timing.  Every ripening being, whether plant, creature, thought or feeling; each one is a fluid multilayered web of responsiveness.  Atoms, molecules, cells, creatures, clans and ecosystems; the wild internal mystery of living bodies, intermeshing with external conditions and communities; streams of relating, a complex merging of myriad rhythms and timings.  It’s what we are.  It’s who and how we are.  It’s the is-ness of your experience, of my experience, of our experience, of all experience.

In contrast with this rich complexity of interbeing, it is painfully clear that the 24/7 schedules and timetables of urban living, the expectations of instant gratification, the relentless, clock driven demands of modern life, obscure the rhythmic ways of the natural world.  Last year, we had the worst drought in living memory.  You can’t schedule your way out of a drought.  Throwing money at a field doesn’t make a bountiful garden.  There are seasons of being and becoming, and activities that are appropriate to those seasons.  The dawning of life affirming patience is grounded in this knowing, this deepening appreciation of time and timings.  Healing and awakening have their own timings as well.

In Buddhism it is said that all beings live by nutriment.  There seems to be a common tendency to assume that this means that all beings live by eating.  But this is only half the story.  The reverse is also true, that all beings are simultaneously nutriment for others.  In gardening, we eat the fruit of our communion, a symbiosis of earth and sky and sun and rain and farmer and living creatures, all of these flowing with and through each other in a miraculous dance of relating – and the result is nourishing.  The substance of our bodies, our thoughts and feelings and understandings, flow back into the world around us.  Through eating and being eaten, we weave and re-weave ourselves deeper and deeper into the fleshy fabric of our living world, our nowful here-ing, sensing, feeling, home; the only home we have.

Gradually, we begin to enter the flow of ‘do-nothing’ farming, in which we learn from what is happening, rather than thinking that learning is about begging, borrowing or stealing ideals from others and then aiming at these ideals.  A story of ends justifying means.  As we learn, our observation becomes more refined and discerning.  Learning the exquisite art of being a participant, with the humbleness of appreciating that we are nothing special – beyond the extraordinary uniqueness that we and each living being already is.

Gardening and meditation are both arts.  We begin looking for rules and techniques, concerned with results and the ego gratification of being seen to be successful, or at least good at the task.  Gradually, moulded by the needs of the living moment we soften expectation and enter a phase of wonderment with everything we find.  We experiment with this, and learn from that.  Who is doing the gardening?  What is the garden?  This earth growing itself.  This union, or harmony, of ‘no-self’ and care filled engagement.

You are the soil of my being.
I am the soil of your being.
We are the ground support of each other.
A good farmer is someone who grows soil.
A good farmer is a student of the earth.
A good farmer is the land looking after itself.
The same things could be said of a student of dharma.
May your garden flourish!

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