Re­viv­ing Druid Hill’s ‘Zen Gar­den’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Craig Phillips

Ihave a great pas­sion for Druid Hill Park, and in re­cent years, I’ve been spend­ing time med­i­tat­ing on a com­fort­able bench in a re­mote cor­ner of it. It’s a lovely, serene spot now, but a year ago a por­tion of it was a mess of bram­bles, poi­son ivy and piles of dumped stones. Few maps note it, but the area is of­fi­cially called the “Zen Gar­den.” It may have been so once, but when I found it, there was noth­ing “Zen” about it. It was over­grown and un­tended.

One day, I was scrolling through an on­line auc­tion and found three oak pan­els, to­gether de­pict­ing a beau­ti­ful bas-re­lief face of The Bud­dha. I had an in­spi­ra­tion, made the pur­chase and bolted them to a large tree be­hind “my” bench. Ahh — or should I say Omm — it felt right. But af­ter that, ev­ery time I looked around, the mess dis­tracted my fo­cus.

It was about that time that I was read­ing about “samu,” the Zen prac­tice of mak­ing phys­i­cal work a med­i­ta­tion. And what could be a bet­ter samu than build­ing a labyrinth one stone at a time, with more than 1,000 stones?

I found a pat­tern, started mea­sur­ing, and laid out a 40-foot de­sign. No one could pos­si­bly say that my plan wasn’t an im­prove­ment. Yet I fig­ured it might be eas­ier to ask for­give­ness than per­mis­sion. (I herein humbly ask for­give­ness from the good peo­ple who man­age our parks.)

In mindfulness I started mov­ing rocks, one by one. But it wasn’t very long be­fore my sup­pressed Type A as­serted it­self. I re­ally over­did it. Over the next two weeks the lift­ing landed me in Ur­gent Care twice, fol­lowed by a der­ma­tol­o­gist ap­point­ment for poi­son ivy. So I aban­doned that path to en­light­en­ment and hired a young man to do the lift­ing. (I don’t think he found it to be med­i­ta­tive ei­ther.)

Within this space was a round, 3-foot high, 2-foot wide con­crete pil­lar, per­fect for the labyrinth’s cen­ter — an ap­par­ent rem­nant from an ear­lier ef­fort to turn the site into a med­i­ta­tion zone — along with what ap­peared to be a dozen or so loose grave­stones.

I had de­cided to ded­i­cate this cre­ation to the con­cept and con­tem­pla­tion of im­per­ma­nence. And what’s bet­ter sym­bol­ism than a head­stone? I found one of a per­fect size, with no mark­ings, and in­cor­po­rated it. Also, deep in the pricker bushes I found two mar­ble obelisks. They were per­fect for the en­trance! I had to lie on my back and push them one turn at a time for 100 feet. That must have been quite a funny sight.

Fur­ther sym­bol­ism in­cludes two con­crete foot­prints at the en­trance and two more go­ing to­ward the grave­stone. Along the path one en­coun­ters Chi­nese sym­bols for spring and win­ter.

With ev­ery­thing in place, I added and raked 140 bags of mulch. I thought it com­plete, un­til I re­mem­bered that I had an old Ti­betan prayer wheel ly­ing around the house (doesn’t ev­ery­one?). The wheel rep­re­sents the cy­cle of birth and re­birth. Spin­ning it (clock­wise) and recit­ing the mantra in­scribed on it “Om mani padme hum” (beauty and truth in the lo­tus) brings good karma.

In­stalling the wheel at the labyrinth was quite an­other ad­ven­ture. But with the help of friends, vis­i­tors may now spin it and gain merit.

Lastly, there’s a lovely bench do­nated back in 2010 by the TKF Foundation. And un­der it is a pocket with a note­book. It be­gins: “This too shall pass. Leave your thoughts be­hind.” What a joy it has been to read how many peo­ple have been touched by the sense of peace they find here.

To find your peace, go to the end of Park­dale Av­enue. Walk through the gate, and 50 feet on the left is a sin­gle track dirt trail. Go up the hill 200 feet, and it’s in a clear­ing on the left. Prayer flags in­di­cate you’re in the right place. A keen eye may find less con­spic­u­ous tal­is­mans in the area.

I hope the labyrinth re­mains for a long time. But I ex­pect that 50 years from now the Em­press trees within its cir­cle will ab­sorb it all. But that’s fine. It’s about im­per­ma­nence.

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