Laura Gibbs ponders the art of quiet observation in her review of Stefan Geyer’s book, Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design.

Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design opens with a quote from a Zen teacher:

“For Zen students a weed, which for most people is worthless, is a treasure,” and just like the Zen student, permaculture students also have the ability to see the potential in an ordinary weed, and so stands to learn a lot from Zen teachings.”

Originating from the Chinese adaptation of Buddhism, the concept that was later termed Zen spread through Korea, Vietnam and across to Japan, where it finally settled and developed into a separate strain of Buddhism altogether, but with many roots of the tradition still lying in the school of Mahayana. The form of Zen that made it to the western world came from the Zen practices today, and throughout the late 20th Century, Zen and its components of self control, meditation, contemplation, insight in daily life and the focus on a still mind and ‘buddha nature’ were brought to us by philosophers such as Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki.

Writers followed suit with countless works from literature to poetry, all drawing influence from Zen. In 1974, Robert M. Pirsig released his masterpiece Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which documented his life and presented readers exactly what the book’s subtitle offered: An Inquiry into Values. In this best selling book, Pirsig highlights his relationship to quality, spirituality and meaning throughout the chapters and hidden beneath the narrative of a motorcycle trip across America are his thoughts on how to live a better life. The book brings up profound personal questions ranging from the meaning of existence to the smaller everyday happenings that we often overlook.

It is from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that Stefan Geyer, an artist and hotelier with many talents, models his book Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design on. The book, a light, bright blue novelette, is Geyer’s meditation on a life of permaculture and meaning, and hints how to use permaculture design to shift one’s perception to both the natural world and our own human nature using the lens of Zen Buddhism techniques. Originally from London, Geyer describes himself as a jack of all trades – from beekeeping, to artist, former Shiatsu massage practitioner and permaculture teacher – but currently he runs his family business and childhood home, a hotel in Bloomsbury, London that is the capital’s first (and only) Green B&B. Back in 2010 he co-founded the London Permaculture Network and was chair of the UK’s Permaculture Association. So while he calls himself an irreverent teacher of permaculture, his credentials alone make this book a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the subject.

The back cover of Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design offers the following paragraph: Everyone is looking for answers. Permaculture is not only brimming over with answers, but also offers far-reaching, sustainable solutions to many of our modern day ills. Replace the word ‘permaculture’ with ‘zen’ and we can see why the two topics have been intertwined into a book. Zen was the obvious, simple and accessible solution to late 20th century problems, and permaculture is the obvious, simple and accessible solution to today’s woes of food production, environmental destruction and loss of species and habitats.

But while solutions might be simple and obvious, they aren’t always considered, since Zen, as well as permaculture, require an honest look at one’s life and the ability to sit and evaluate daily actions, and gauge the deeper meanings beneath the seemingly small events. Just as Pirsig had to deal with the profound questions arising in Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Geyer starts to explore the deeper themes of the characteristics of permaculture and what spirit underpins it all. Where do we want to get to in life, and if permaculture design is the key to repairing the 21st Century, how are we going to apply it? But he leaves the reader to interpret the connection between these questions and one’s own life.

Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design rightly models the classic permaculture design process known as SADI (Survey, Analysis, Design, Implementation) and Geyer applies each section to Zen concepts. He starts by defining his topics, what is permaculture and what is Zen, and then asks the reader to survey the world around them – wherever you find yourself. Geyer asks us to “observe things as they are, not as you want them to be”, and reminds to reader to take time, to listen, contemplate nature and look for patterns.

pile of stonesZen asks us to observe the breath and the body, to look for patterns within us and to observe our natural state, without judgement. In meditation, even our thoughts should be observed, although no judgement or conclusions should be made from the thoughts. As we start to understand our lives better, and the world around us, we can start to see the connections and patterns, and the way of nature that permaculture follows. For readers new to meditation, Geyer offers an introduction to Zazen (how to sit in a meditative state).

Deeper into the book, Geyer offers further guidance on reflection, and a chance to analyse, and look at more than the sum of what we have.

“How can we use the information that patterns give us to understand what is going on, and where they may help us in our designs?”

Geyer, just like Zen buddhism, asks the reader to look objectively at the world around us, to see it without judgement, and only then to (slowly) change things. Using the basis of Systems Thinking, permaculture design asks us to look at an element as a whole, interconnected and then slowly work down to the smaller elements that will strengthen or adjust the outcome of a situation. Geyer goes on to state:

“If, as permaculture designers, we imbed this fact of constant change into our thinking, not only will our designs become more resilient but they will also become future-orientated, leading us to build in or nudge toward Succession – a term used to describe the natural sequence of change that will happen in a system over time.”

As an author he is asking us to think big, and think to the future, while still understanding that nature will move naturally.

As an avid reader, this book lacked the depth and questioning that I would expect in the bold claims on the back cover: ‘Permaculture design as a modern method of great liberation’. While it touches on a few of the deeper themes in permaculture, the book doesn’t get to the heart of the questions – what should we do? How do we know? What is the right action? And what exactly needs to be done? For readers new to permaculture design or Zen this book might spark more questions than answers. While Geyer hints at linkages and offers comparisons, the ability to root the concepts in real life experiences, even the most routine and mundane, as Pirsig does, is what Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design misses.

That said, Zen is the most nihilistic of all the buddhist traditions and perhaps the spaces that this book creates between the two topics don’t need to be filled, and the reader should be comfortable with the space between. Or perhaps the spaces should be filled with our own personal reflections, and the short sub chapters of this book used as a guide though permaculture design, as well as a guide to looking at our lives and the connections between us and nature.

buddhaAs we move into the final chapter of implementation, Geyer starts by calling on taking action and doing nothing, a subtle but strong facet of the Zen buddhism and a difficult thing to do in today’s world. He calls on the reader to create their own enquiry of their values and the origins of their ideas, and even the reasoning behind their personal stories and that of the world.

“When designing, thoroughly examine your own sacred assumptions and opinions rigorously, and look carefully for disconfirming data.” 

While the book lacks a rooting in Geyer’s world, it offers the reader a chance to root it in their own personal life and to integrate permaculture design techniques into day to day living, exploring possibilities and mundanity.

While this book is better suited to those familiar with its core topics, readers new to permaculture design (or Zen) will also find wisdom in it. A book to read slowly, paragraph by paragraph, with lots of application into real life, the beautiful, clean layout offers ample space on the pages for notes. In his conclusion Geyer dares us to think abundantly. Not just for ourselves, but for the world.

This is perhaps the most important link between Permaculture and Zen, their beliefs in ‘abundance’. Not in monetary terms, but rather that there is enough for everyone’s needs on this planet, a call to accepting the present and an appreciation to what we already have.

While Geyer sees ‘permaculture design as a modern method of great liberation – a gateway and catalyst enabling a shift perception that can change everything’, Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design has not been written to spark that vision. Instead the little book should be used as a guide, so that readers can come to their own conclusions, and their own unique embodiment of Permaculture design. Perhaps Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design is a subtle catalyst for change after all, and will offer each reader a personal reflection of Zen and the implementation of permaculture design in their own lives.

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