Review by Zen Master Peter Taylor of The Garden of Flowers and Weeds
There is a scene in the cult classic movie Animal House that depicts a ritual hazing where the pledges, stripped to their underwear, get spanked by the fraternity brothers with a paddle and each time they get hit they have to say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Reading Matthew Sullivan’s The Garden of Flowers and Weeds is something like baring yourself and getting spanked 100 times, once for each account of the Blue Cliff Record. The big difference is that each time you move to the next chapter you really do want another.
Practicing zen is a lot like pledging a fraternity except that the hazing is not done by sadistic college students but by compassionate, enlightened sages. Humility comes not by being paraded through public in your underwear, but by glimpsing the magnificence of the universe and being awestruck.
Anybody who tends a flower garden knows that part of getting the flowers to flourish is Pulling weeds. You don’t just pull the weeds once, you pull them again and again though Spring and Summer until the whole garden dies off for the winter. For centuries, zen students and teachers have used the stories of The Blue Cliff Record to pass on the essence of zen to each other.
There have been many books and countless commentaries written about the stories in this collection. Still, weeds grow, so Matthew Sullivan has written another one. This book is written for these times and specifically for your condition as somebody interested in finding out what life is really all about and how to make it hurt less. Like the shape of a stream is formed by it’s banks, the shape of zen is formed by the culture of its practitioners. Matthew Sullivan’s tradition flowed down to him from India, through China, through Korea, and eventually found him, centuries later, in Canada. Modern Canada shaped these teachings just as much as ancient China. As Matthew’s teacher, the venerable Hwasan Yangil Sunim lamented, “In Korea, I could hit students with a stick. If I do that in Canada, they call the police.” So the teaching adapts.
In order to make these powerful teachings accessible to the zen curious today, Matthew Sullivan studied the cultures and languages of ancient China and helped cut through so much obscurity that the stories actually make sense to a modern reader. The work he did to prepare this opus is like a mother bird catching a worm, chewing it up, and regurgitating it into the mouths of her offspring so that they can ingest the life sustaining essence. As readers, all we have to do is open our mouths and receive this offering. Because readers bring such complex baggage to the task of living their own lives, these commentaries use a vast variety of tools to help us cut through our notions of how things should be and to see things, in this moment, as they are. Matthew Sullivan uses great intellectual power to cut through intellectualism, he uses humor to cut through seriousness, he uses China to cut through Canada. He uses images of swooping and pooping bats to wake us up to the majesty and messiness of ordinary experience. He takes the magic and mystery of a fabled iron ox, to do the real world work of digging canals to alleviate flooding. He uses his own personal stories and humility to make these ancient stories resonate in modern times.
I recommend reading The Garden of Flowers and Weeds in your robes or in your underwear. Let yourself go into the history, the mystery, and the prose of this book. Each record contains the wisdom of the ancient masters, Matthew Sullivan and you. The shared purpose that you all bring to this reading is to experience the joy and wonder of our shared existence. Each time you get the opportunity to lose yourself in flashes of insight and experience your essential nature, appreciate that moment, bow to the Buddha, and read on so that you may have another.
Zen Master Peter Taylor is the author of Taste Poison: A Zen and Mindfulness Approach To Life and Hear Now: A Way of Zen and Mindfulness