Driving with the Buddha, or Creating a Meditation Garden

by Elisa Ross Robinson

Because I am a landscape designer, friends often give me garden related gifts: everything from pruners to red-​​capped gnomes (which reside in the vegetable garden). This last Christmas a dear friend gave me a statue of a seated Buddha. It’s rather large, so it took two of us to load it into the back seat of my car. Being an especially snowy winter and I came down with the flu shortly thereafter, the Buddha sat there in the back seat of the car for weeks on end. Everywhere I went the Buddha went too. It didn’t take long before it became a common joke amongst family and friends that I was “driving with the Buddha.” And I must say that every time I glanced into my rear view mirror, no matter how stressful the traffic conditions, he maintained the same blissful expression, reminding me to calm down too.

As useful as this might sound, it was obvious that the Buddha couldn’t stay in the back seat of my Mazda forever. Sooner or later I’d have to put him someplace in the garden, which was still littered with the debris of two huge oak trees that came down during Hurricane Sandy.

A landscape designer’s job is primarily to recreate outdoor spaces. As anyone in the profession will tell you, this covers a wide range of objectives, but primarily it means making a space more beautiful than when you initially encountered it. Prior to Christmas I was presented with an especially interesting project: a Catholic Church in the Bronx wanted a meditation garden for its parishioners. The clergy, headed by the monsignor and a board of directors, had a variety of ideas and I was asked to implement them all, leaving the committee to make the final choices. The list included: a Rosary Walk, a fountain, a statue of the Virgin Mary, an arbor, a collection of plants mentioned in the Bible, The Stations of the Cross, and a rock garden, all related to the theme of “A Meditation Garden”. Though together the elements seemed to point to a kind of religious theme park, the project really was exciting, not to mention a bit of a challenge. After weeks of chasing my pencil around a huge sheet of white paper, I’d composed a landscape that united all these components in an aesthetically pleasing way. The church’s multifaceted committee was impressed and, like all committees, is now occupied with the endless task of decision making.

Of course this project inspired me to create my own “Meditation Garden” for the serenely smiling seated Buddha. It would not do to simply prop him between the driveway and the front door of the house; he would need a more discrete setting. Some place quiet and private. Without much thought it became apparent that the obvious place for him was the shady northeast corner of the garden where we’d put all our kitties to rest. The thought of meditating in such an already hallowed space filled with memories seemed apropos and I’d read that, in Tibetan Buddhism, charnel grounds were considered sacred spots of transformational rituals. So, why not?


Rhododendron macrophyllum

A border of rhododendrons, andromeda, a huge American holly, and delicate vinca vine keeps my chosen area evergreen all year round. In the spring a variety of woodland plants emerges, predominantly hayscented and cinnamon fern, trillium and jack in the pulpit. The question became, how should I turn this shady spot with unmarked pet graves into a meditation garden?


andromeda (Pieris japonica)

The seated Buddha should be the focal point. But it would not do to place him front and center. Discretion was called for. First I asked my husband to build him a little hut from some branches of the downed trees. We  nestled it towards the back of the space at the foot of the large holly. Then I placed a meandering stepping stone path leading from the more accessible part of the garden, past the andromeda and skirting the rhododendron at even intervals through the fern and vinca vine.



Other elements were called for, some additional plants and some useful accoutrements. Since the space is mainly shade, it called for woodland plants, but since this garden was meant to be special place that would be visited periodically throughout the seasons, they needed to be chosen with care: I selected hellebore with speckled burgundy flowers for late winter and epimedium with starry lavender flowers for spring alongside nodding yellow bellflowers called uvularia. Fragrant viburnum would fill the air for a few weeks in May. For early summertime, I chose astilbe with pink plumes to be followed by orange turks cap Lily in August and then, finally, speckled toadlily for autumn. The changing canopy of maples and oaks would add to the autumnal color and finally, red berries from the skimmia would have to satisfy quick visits on cold winter day— if the birds and chipmunks didn’t eat them all.


Skimmia japonica,

The accoutrements were needed to be both useful and beautiful. Five small cast iron lamps fitted with candles set alongside the stepping stones (each on its own bed of pebbles), a pretty old bowl filled with sand to place smoldering incense before the seated Buddha, and a small Japanese bell with its paper tag to catch the wind and suspended by a cord from the peak of the hut all contributed to a sense of peace. Finally, a low wooden bench set in front of the shrine would provide the necessary communal atmosphere to sit and perform mindful breathing exercises and visualize a world as peaceful as the meditation garden.

Of course, even before the garden was complete, I found myself continually drawn to the spot, at first tending to the new plants and watching their progress. Then I noticed that a spider had built her web in the Buddha’s hut. Soon I realized that it did not take much of a breeze to make the small bell ring. With windows open I could even hear its “ting-​​ting” from inside the house. Hence, even when I was busy with other things, I was drawn to the idea of the place throughout the day.

Once drawn to the shrine by the sound of the bell, I saw that the same breeze had blown the chartreuse flowers from the maple tree on to the grey stepping stones. It seemed that every day the garden changed a bit. It now had its own life, which it shared with me. From this I learned something new and unexpected: that this too was the meditation.



Comments are closed.