Reviving Druid Hill's 'Zen Garden'

I have 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 cement 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.

Craig Phillips is a retired corporate exec who now spends his time volunteering with hospice when not tending the garden. His email is

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