What is it like when the universe calls directly to us? It is intimate, warm, and deeply supportive. And it can’t be explained. Which is why we grow tomatoes.
Pablo Neruda gives us some hint in the opening to his “Ode to Tomatoes”:
The street filled with tomatoes,
light is halved like a tomato,
its juice runs
through the streets…
Weeding and watering in my garden last week, and finding again the Neruda poem, I knew it was time to revisit tomatoes as koans. So I re-read some of my past tomato blog posts, and was a bit surprised at how much complaining I had done about growing tomatoes:
Some seasons ago, I wrote a sarcastic note called “One Ton Tomato”, which whined that my whole tomato patch had produced only a single cherry tomato by early September. I accused the garden of lacking in passion, of not following the red thread. A couple seasons later, I sprayed my young and promising tomato plants from a can upon which I had marked “Organic Fertilizer” in large letters. The next day, they began to wilt pitifully and die. I smelled an oily poison inside the can; apparently a departed gardener had used it to mix the weed killer Roundup. And then there were notes on slugs and snails, dozens of which I ushered onto the “stairway to heaven.”
This year, I don’t really have any complaints at all. In a strange and beautiful way, I have been feeling more intimate with the garden. It has been calling my name, and I have been going to it in response. That itself is enough. The great Master Dharma Eye (Fayan) had an exchange with a monk about this:
A monk (named Wisdom Surpassed) asked Master Dharma Eye, “Wisdom Surpassed asks the Teacher, what is Buddha?” Dharma Eye said, “You are Wisdom Surpassed.”
That is not to say the garden is without challenges. My dog dug up the zucchini plant, so I let the lemon squash go, and it ran wild, flowing into the lettuce and beets. The heat wave stunted the brassica: broccoli and cauliflower are not forming good heads. And for some reason, my garden peas and beans are too tough to eat. But they are problems only if I name them as such. When they call me, they are somehow familiar and welcoming.
Recently, sitting in the afternoon garden, the wind was gently blowing, making a juniper tree, which rubs up against a wooden pergola, give a woody groan. In a deep sonorous voice, it was calling my name: Jon, Jon. I looked across the yard at the redwood tree and rhododendrons, and as they too swayed in the wind, in their own voices they called: Jon, Jon. I was surprised, but also felt supported and held by the community of the many beings in the garden, and beyond.
A monk once asked Master Visitation Land (Zhaozhou), “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” Land answered, “The juniper tree in front of the garden.” The monk replied, “Master, don’t teach me using external objects.” Land said, “I’m not teaching you using external objects.”
The nature of Zen is so much simpler and more intimate than we can imagine. It is our ideas and words which separate us from that fact. But that is not a problem, either. Which is why we have koans, the stories of our lives, the gates, that allow us to open into and enter the garden.
Before dinner, I went into the twilight vegetable patch to pick a few tomatoes. The yellow-red Brandywines and large Romas were still warm from the setted sun as I cradled them in my palm. Without speaking, they were teaching me. Not as external objects; saying internal and external uses too many words. Just call them by their name: tomatoes.