Debra Seido Martin and her husband, Bill Booth, operate Hortan Road Organics in Oregon, a working farm and apprenticeship program for people seeking to learn organic techniques. Seido is also a Dharma heir of the late Kyogen Carlson in Jiyu Kennett’s lineage, and the farm is the location of her Zen West Empty Field zendo.
“Which came first?” I ask. “The farming or the Zen?”
“Farming,” she says.
She had grown up in Massachusetts under difficult circumstances and fled to the west coast where she eventually found work on a farm in the Santa Cruz area. “I just felt found. I fell in love with it. Just bending over picking tomatoes, being out in the natural world, getting out of my head. I began to experience a whole other way of being, a full-bodied way of being. My anxiety fell away. Sometimes I joke that my first Zen teacher was really a tomato. A ripe, juicy tomato completely expressing the moment.”
She met Bill – who had an agriculture background – and moved with him to Oregon to establish their own farm.
She describes this period as a time of healing. “Without understanding it at the time, I was trying to heal my body, heal the past. I had a yearning to reconnect with something fundamental. You know, I grew up in a typical family, very meat and potatoes, but also having its unspoken trauma including alcoholism and violence. I developed an inner life at a very early age in that environment. The organic farms were magical places full of welcome, of the mystery of the natural world, and good wholesome food. My body and mind completely changed immersed in that environment. Later, after many years into the farm, I once again felt pulled towards something new. That was my entry into Zen.
“For the first six or seven years, farming was all absorbing. You eat, sleep, breathe it. If you’re trying to build a farm, it’s your whole life. It’s a bit of an addiction in a way. Perhaps a healthy one; but sometimes unhealthy. After some time though, that earlier sense of dukkha – if you will – reasserted itself. That sense of nameless unease. ‘Is this it?’ The seeking emerged to resolve that anxiety, an existential anxiety that one can’t outrun. And so after working so hard to establish a good life through farming, I saw that was still there. Having been a bit of a seeker prone to self-help books and other types of alternative spiritual traditions, I bought a book one day that trumped all others. It was Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen. The first statement that grabbed me was, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ And that’s the line I needed. That was the koan, and I didn’t know how that could be. It was so outside everything I believed, and the way I’d been living. Joko Beck said you should sit, and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ So I was reading in my kitchen, and I just closed the book and sat on the dirty kitchen floor. I just sat down there. And nothing happened!”
“How perfect,” I say, and we both laugh.
“I know! I know! Now I know that, but at the time, I thought, ‘I think I might need some direction here.’ I decided rather than head on down to San Diego, I’d seek out a group in Eugene. And I was very wary of joining a spiritual group. I was a well-guarded person and didn’t want to become part of some strange cult. I remember down in the Bay Area, when I was working in a produce room in San Francisco, we’d get these produce deliveries from Zen students from Green Gulch farm. They always seemed so inordinately happy. I was really suspicious of that. I’m like, ‘What are you guys on?’ being a rather cynical politically-minded person. But they were just so full of life and sincerely generous. That was just my east-coast cynicism in the lead. So I sought out a local group in Eugene. I remember driving by the front door of this house for a couple months before I actually parked and knocked on the door to go in. And my rule of thumb was, ‘If they’re at all solicitous of me . . .’ If they’re like, ‘So good to see you! Are you coming back?’ I was not coming back. And they ignored me! They ignored me. It was great. I sat. It was like, ‘Okay. I can do this.’”
For Seido, farming and Zen are the same practice.
“To be a farmer is to be constantly shown a world ‘beyond self.’ In the fields, there is nothing but constant change – death and dying, birth and living, and letting go. If one surrenders to the condition completely, there is the same spirit of practice in the field as in the zendo. You eventually let go into a life of service. If you talk to long-time farmers, you see they have a practice. Attachment to gain and loss takes a backseat to being. Close to the earth, a life force comes through you. Day to day farming is very much like sesshin. You must show up, whether you like it or not. Whether you like that period of zazen or not; it doesn’t matter. You keep showing up. Keep showing up. When you realize farming as this kind of practice, the roles become reversed. You stop doing something to the land and allow the land to farm you. You are being gardened. The soil literally becomes you. You are basically composted by your farm over time. Like my hands, I’m thoroughly saturated with the waters and life of this landscape. It offers a kind of mystical experience if you give yourself to it. And resistance, too, is part of it. To show up and care for one place on this earth – to actually touch one corner of the land in the ecological crisis that we are in – is a profound practice. There is an intelligence within which we are embedded, and if we are listening through the body, that is a deep communion. That’s Zen.”
 Operated by the San Francisco Zen Center.