What happens when an impulsive Irish-born Canadian tries to embrace the patient

vision of the Japanese Zen masters?



by Kieran Egan


At the beginning of BUILDING MY ZEN GARDEN, Kieran Egan muses about what he will do upon completing his grand project. Perhaps he will sit in his new Japanese teahouse and read the Zen sages, who will probably tell him that, rather than toiling away, he should have cultivated wan wei--the acceptance of the world as it is. "I will have to manage the irony that if I had not done it, I would never have learned that I should not have done it," writes Egan. Luckily for us, Egan both built his garden and wrote this unique book about his experience--for the amusing tale of his trials, tribulations, and triumphs is filled with this rich sense of irony. It is also brimming with his hilarious wit, his apt insights into the differences between Eastern and Western ideals, and sound advice for anyone interested in undertaking his or her own similar project.


It all started with a simple enough idea: Inspired by a friend's Japanese garden, Egan wanted to build a similar garden in his own backyard, a "garden of Egan," as it were. Of course, as a college professor, Egan also conceptualized his undertaking in a more complex manner. "A theme of much Zen writing, as of the Bible," he explains, "is that human beings are aware something is not quite right in our relations with the natural world. The garden is an ambivalent areana in which we try to somehow cure or disguise the problem."


Egan's "ambivalent arena"--located in wet, fertile Vancouver, Canada--was an overgrown patch near the fence in a back corner of his yard. It had also been invaded by the neighbor's breeding thicket of blackberry vines. "It was a wreck," writes Egan, "because the fence at the back was one of those old green plastic mesh affairs and it backed onto the one neglected corner of our neighbor's otherwise well-tended garden. Their shrubs had spotted my reluctance for confrontation and invaded with manic enthusiasm, carrying the mesh fence with them as a cunning disguise of just how much ground they were expanding into."


Egan was determined not to imitate too closely his garden-obsessed friends in Japan, who were not above stealing choice rocks from roadsides and rubbing them down with yogurt, which, explains Egan, "encourages bacterial growth and so the illusion of immemorial years of serene repose on their seventh-floor balcony of the modem highrise." His idea was to dig a small pond that would be pumped into a purifying bog, which, in turn, would drain via a small stream and gentle waterfall back into the pond. Soon, however, the plan expanded into building a little teahouse/study where he might write beside his peacefully gurgling waterfall. And the adventures seemed to expand from there.


With a humorist's instinct, Egan tells of "Moby Rock" clogging the hole for his pond, of raccoons plotting against his goldfish, and of the water mysteriously draining from his bog while he sits at a school meeting unable to think of anything else. Egan's tone is unassuming and forthright. He casually admits his blunder in lining up the sides of his teahouse with the fence. He doesn't hesitate to admit to haggling with the local hardware-store owner. He shares his unique version of a mantra ("I don't know what the @#*! I'm doing!"), recited while crawling beneath his teahouse to install insulation.


But BUILDING MY ZEN GARDEN is not simply a comedy of errors. It is also a book of reflections--on Zen philosophy, on the human response to challenge, on man's relationship to nature--and a guide not only for building a Zen garden, but also for forging a peace in one's own life. Photographs taken throughout the process illustrate Egan's stories and demonstrate some of his building techniques.


Here is a book that falls into no easy categories, written by a man who knows when and when not to take life seriously.


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