Paradise Lost and Found: A Review of Karen Maezen Miller’s Paradise in Plain Sight

Paradise in Plain Sight

Paradise Lost and Found: A Review of Karen Maezen Miller’s Paradise in Plain Sight

By Michael Isshin Spiller

In the interests of full disclosure, I have known the author since 1998. We are Dharma friends, which means she knows nothing about me, and the only reason I know anything about her is that she has published three books and maintains a blog that I visit sometimes. Whatever connection we share has been forged through doing what Dharma friends do: logging hour upon hour in a meditation hall, facing the wall in silence. It’s a curiously powerful bond that can form there.

I confess that I come to this new book predisposed to liking it: I’m a big fan of her writing, and this new one did not disappoint. I overheard her say not long ago that one of her friends had found this book to be the most personal and intimate of the three. I am inclined to agree.

Her previous books – Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold – deal with the topics of motherhood and housekeeping/family maintenance, respectively. This book is about her garden. She does here what she has done in her other writing: She uses concrete, three-dimensional things, people and activities as a platform to talk about nearly everything in her life and her practice– and by extension, the reader’s life and practice. So in the course of reading her books and blog posts one not only learns about her involvement with deep transcendental issues, one actually learns interesting facts about motherhood and household chores, for example. Now, we get to learn a lot about vines, trees and flowers of various types, weeds, stones, water ecology, Japanese architectural styles and, yes, gardening. As she states in the preface: “Everything in this book is a metaphor and nothing is.”

Her usual cast of characters appears here: parents, grandparents, husband and daughter, first teacher, the great Maezumi Roshi, who died a year and half after she met him, and current teacher, Maezumi’s last successor, Nyogen Roshi. But the central character – which comes to feel like a living, breathing entity– is the garden, and her journey with it.

I saw her garden once – in the summer of 2002, five years after she had acquired it – and seeing it in the flesh after having heard about it for a while took me by surprise. On this day I committed the unforgivable Los Angeles sin of showing up unannounced and knocking on her gate. She let me in and showed me her house and the garden itself – which took me aback, because I had heard about a lovely, century-old Japanese garden, but what I beheld looked to be a total mess. It is no longer so, and therein lies a tale.

In the summer of 1997 she and her new husband were looking for a house in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles. As an afterthought, the realtor showed her a historical oddity that had remained unsold for years: a modest, somewhat dilapidated house with a monstrous Japanese garden in the back– originally commissioned by an heiress in 1916 – that had not been touched in years. But she and her husband were dumbstruck. As she says: “I knew that I was home.”

The four years that preceded her encounter with the property had been dizzying, life-shattering ones. In her mid-30s, she suffered what in the “Mad Men” years might have been called a “nervous breakdown.” She came to question everything she had worked for her whole life– career, love, fundamental values. In the midst of this maelstrom she found herself attending a meditation retreat at the Los Angeles Zen Center, where she met her teacher, Maezumi Roshi. And from there everything began to shift.

A solitary trip to Europe introduced her to her new husband-to-be, who happened to be based in the Los Angeles area. She sold the public relations business she had created from scratch in her early 20s in Houston, and suddenly, for the first time, she had nothing but time on her hands. She found herself with a depleted bank account, a house that needed a new paint job, a new roof, a new bathroom, along with the ruins of a spectacular Japanese garden in back. For as long as she could remember, she had managed people, solved problems and done a fair job of making the world yield to her will.

But this “garden” refused to yield.  There was no aspect of it that did not throw her for a loop. Each problem seemed more intractable than the next. One morning after having a good long cry at the kitchen table she went out, bought herself a big sun hat and began pulling up dead vines. But that was just the beginning.

Soon a succession of authorities entered her life. She got a yard guy, tree guy, fertilizer guy, fence guy, fish guy and finally a pond guy. This last one, the water guy, studied the scene for a long time, checked out this and that, then came back to her asked: Now what exactly is the problem? She: Well, it’s ugly and dirty and muddy. He: this is the most perfect example of a naturally purified pond I’ve ever seen. He proceeded to explain how each of the elements of the ecology work together – not always pretty, but fully alive.

So the pond guy ended up offering her “turning words,” as we say in Zen. Gradually she came to see that it is the same with everything in this environment. She must allow each aspect of the garden to show her what needs to be done. So the weeks and months and years go by, and the dollars are spent, and the result is today what I was expecting to see those many years ago: a spectacularly magical scene hidden behind a modest house on a modest street in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

Her interaction with various components of the garden inspires insights into a whole variety of life issues. An unexpected encounter with the garden’s original stone path leads her to a meditation on faith:  intuitively she tears out ubiquitous dead ivy, revealing long-forgotten rock underneath – clearly placed there by the original designer of the garden. It’s so obvious: Clear the vines and find the path. The solitary oak tree with its acorns reminds her of the power of ancestry and lineage. The relentless force of bamboo speaks to her of the wisdom of picking your battles carefully–or, better yet, giving them up altogether. An ancient Sago palm, or the “time machine” in her backyard, blossoms into an extended riff on that “essential business of Buddhism”:  time itself.

The chapter on the eternal challenge of weeds probably speaks to me more than any other feature of the landscape. Here she addresses the question any spiritual practitioner eventually confronts: Why is it taking so long for me to make progress? Answer: Because I’ve been practicing the wrong things forever. I’ve been cultivating stress, fear, anger and inattention instead of peace, faith, compassion and mindfulness.

So: This is a lovely book. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.


Read more about Karen Maezen Miller’s Paradise in Plain Sight