Gentle Gardener

Each fall, over the Thanksgiving holiday, we host an urban Weekthün with our resident Acharya Allyn Lyon. The program includes a full Thanksgiving feast in our shrine room and concludes on Sunday with a Buddhist vows ceremony. Jennifer Gilman sat the entire program and took her bodhisattva vow. She shares some of her experience here.


Trying to take Acharya Lyon’s words to heart and mind:

“Don’t try to make thoughts go away. Notice where they come from, where they dwell, and what happens to them if you leave them alone. Don’t whack them when you notice them!”

A call to gentleness is always a good and necessary reminder for me. My tendency is to try so hard to do it right that I get tangled up in a tight knot of frustration. It’s always so eye-opening to see that you bring to the cushion what you bring to your life (usually because a perceptive teacher says “Seems like you might be trying too hard.”)

Really? Me?! Ha. Caught again! And with that, a great breath of freedom, acceptance, calm, I’m breathing again. Big, open, loose, relaxed breaths. This is what it means to let go. But not yet. Not this day anyway. Sometimes it takes days. It has to be learned from the start over and over again.

She said “peace doesn’t mean no thoughts, it means at peace with the thoughts that do arise. It’s like weather. You don’t try to make weather go away.”

So today I sit with the frustration, judgements and petty irritations. I know from my previous retreat experiences that these will evaporate eventually, and I’ll be left with an open, humble, and tender heart.


Had planned to be at the center today to practice, and celebrate Thanksgiving with everyone, but my cat had an emergency and I spent 5 hours in the animal hospital. I attribute my cheerfulness, calm, and patience to the weeks practice. Rolled with it really well until the last half hour when I began to fray around the edges. No answer to what’s wrong with him. Consolation was a really lovely thanksgiving dinner out with my love, and James Bond.

Not very Buddhist?

As my Zen teacher would say, “James Bond is in the world.”


Today Gil talked to me about the body. The body can only be in the present. It can’t be in the past or the future the way the mind can, so the body can teach the mind to be in the present. The breath, the senses, this is where our basic goodness can be found, and we can really trust it. This is where our confidence lives. This is where we can learn to truly accept ourselves, and through that, others.

Back on the cushion, calm and present, I am struck by the extraordinary beauty of the shrine as it is caught upside down and warped by the bowls of water. Almost completely abstract shapes with intense color and shadow, distorted and surreal like Dali, and heartbreakingly gorgeous.


Good sitting, but surprised to find a few stubborn irritations still hanging on. But our closing party is tonight, and with a simple smile the resentment is gone. Just like that. And in it’s place, empathy, and humility. Another reminder that the aggression we feel towards others is a mirror on the aggression with which we treat ourselves. When we can let it go, there’s enough love for everybody, absolutely everybody.


I practice placement of my mind on my breath, and then when I notice myself thinking, returning. And returning. Somehow “returning” seems gentler to me than “thinking.”

I don’t “whack” the thoughts, or evaluate, and in saying “returning” I’m focused on the fact of already being awake again, rather then scolding myself for thinking.

I look up at the incredibly delicate, complex painting over the shrine, with its clear, subtle colors. Into my mind pops “I am a wild garden” and the world cracks open.

I am as complex and beautiful as the painting. As full of intricacy, layers, order, chaos. I don’t have to control, change, fix anything. I am a living being, and like all other living beings magic and profound.

Rather than try to fix myself­—the endless (and useless) emotional surgery, trying to cut out the bad parts—I can be a gentle gardener, tending and nurturing.

I am weeping with stunned gratitude for all the teachers, therapist, lovers, friends, family, the sangha, who have offered me wisdom and kindness. For the first time I can relate to the chants that are offered to the teachers, the lineage.

I turn my mind to something that has been plaguing me for many months, my sense of inadequacy and anxiety at work, and instead of resentment, and the terrible need to quit, I think “How can I be of service?”

Something breaks, and a great bubble of fear, like swamp gas wells up in me. I practice Tonglen, breathing it, feel it in my quivering stomach and clutching throat, and it flows out, dissolving into the air. And I’m free. Now I need to calm down, so back to the breath. “Returning.”

The Umdze rings the gong for walking meditation. I go outside to catch my breath and wipe my wet face. I step out onto the concrete pathway over the pool and am stunned to find that it is the most glorious feeling, the rough and warm surface on the bottom of my feet, cool in the shadows, as if I was feeling the earth for the very first time.

The drops of water on the grass catch the light and shoot it in tiny arrows of gold and silver. Everything is marvelously fresh. I walk around and around, drinking in my joy.

Back inside, I grab a hold of Imelda, the angel, and hold her tight. And then I go back to sit again.


Back in the “real world.” Funny that we call it that when actually what we suffer is that it’s not the real world that we live in most of the time. I have the feeling of being back in the parking lot after having spent a week climbing a great mountain range. Looking back at the peaks, towering in the distance, thinking wow, did I really climb all those? Was I really on the top of that one, and that one?

Each day a new journey, varied and difficult, and magical. Each one a world unto itself. And now I’m back in the car driving away, as if none of it ever happened. Changed. And yet the same. And yet changed.

jennifer_gilmanJennifer Gilman is an Artist and Designer of Architecture. She has been practicing with Shambhala since 2010, and began Buddhist practice in the Rinzai Zen tradition in 1999.