Zen Herbalism

Posted by Nathan on 30th Apr 2014

We are being soaked right now with early spring rains here in Minnesota. Already, the nettle patch in my garden is bursting forth, bigger than ever. Soon, the dandelions will come, and then the clovers, plantains, and thistles. I'm anxious to get cracking on bottling more medicine. Even though it's cold outside, visions of green fill my entire body and mind.

Sometime in the middle of the 8th century, a Zen hermit living in China penned a now famous poem entitled "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage." It begins with the following lines:

"I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.

After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.

When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.

Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds."

Whenever I work with the plants, I try and remember these words. The relaxed attitude about it all. The lack of fixation on certain things having value. The surrender to the fact that no matter what, there are always weeds.

I try and remember, but more often than not I forget. Or loose track while I pick, pluck, and hack away, claiming the burdock roots for their liver health giving properties, while thrusting away the overgrown grape vines that have no clear use.

If we truly want to be healed and liberated, we need to bow down to the mystery of it all. To recognize that every plant that comes before us is so much more than a body of beneficial (or not beneficial) chemical constituents. That just as we are, each plant is a vast ecosystem, ever changing and ever unfolding even after it's been picked and turned into the medicines we consume.

About 6 weeks ago, I filled a large planter tray with seeds. Some herbs, some greens. Including Chamomile that wonderful calming, digestive herb. As the seeds grew into seedlings, it became abundantly clear that I had over-planted. With the weather not warming enough to place them into the garden, I made an effort to thin, to keep the watering balanced, to make sure they were getting enough sun. But nothing worked, and a few days ago, the last of them died.

Sometimes, what we build and nourish flourishes. Other times, despite all the right effort, it doesn't last.

Later on in the poem, Zen master Shitou writes:

"Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.

Open your hands and walk, innocent."

This is what the plants are truly trying to teach us as well. As they detoxify, recalibrate and strengthen the body, they also speak to our heart/mind, calling us witness their endless comings and goings. Birth in spring, growth in summer, decay in fall, death in winter, rebirth in spring. Just like each of us.

We are just as they are. Vastly diverse and all the same.