A monk once asked Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”

Zhaozhou answered, “The juniper tree in the front of the garden.”

The monk replied, “Master, don’t teach me using external objects.”

Zhaozhou said, “I’m not teaching you using external objects.”

The monk asked again, “Why then did Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”

“The juniper tree in front of the garden.”

~ Case 9, Entangling Vines

In Zen, we come to know, directly, that we are not separate from our environment. That is what struck me most about the above koan: the cypress tree, and indeed all living things, are not an external object.

In late January, I set up a grow-lamp in my warm basement and trained it on several flats filled with potting soil and seeds. The seeds I had harvested and kept from the previous fall: Brandywine and San Marzano tomatoes, pickling cucumbers and Japanese eggplant. By early May, the starts were large enough to stand up to the snails and slugs, so I transferred my two-dozen, or so, plants to the garden. The days lengthened and warmed, and the tomato plants grew taller and stronger, but they also attracted insects. I got out my hand-sprayer, labeled “Organic Insecticide”, and mixed up an emulsion of Captain Jack Dead Bug Brew, which contains a bacteria, safe to humans, but deadly to bugs that eat the plants. I sprayed the whole garden.

The next morning, I noticed all of my plants had a pitiful droop, especially when the sun came out. Suspicious, I smelled the inside of my sprayer, and it issued a stinking odor of petroleum. Going into the shed, I found that one of my occasional gardeners had bought and used a can of Roundup weed killer in my sprayer. To my horror, I realized I had broadcast a killing herbicide over all my garden. I had poisoned the tomato plant in the garden.

Though most of my plants pitifully withered, and I was forced to pull them out, one cherry tomato plant limped along and accelerated the process of bearing fruit, to push its DNA from the dark and into the light of the world. I will not eat that poisoned fruit. But I will save its seeds. And next year, they will become the tomato plant in the garden. That tomato plant, and I, have a relationship. And it is not external.