Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

One step on the Buddhist path has always (or at least for a very long time) been the Ceremony of Taking Refuge in the Bodhisattva Way. The ceremony involves a series of vows, held in different ways by different lineages. At the Pacific Zen Institute, each vow is held as a koan rather than as a rule or even guideline, and whatever arises in response is, quite simply, the response for you. The following is my attempt to capture in the form of words what rose up in my world while taking refuge.



I take refuge in awakening.

I dream I am leaving town on a vision quest, to the wilderness. I feel unprepared, mystified. I turn back to the room where I started off, to find the things I think I’ve forgotten.

Inside the dream, I trust the dream.


I take refuge in the way.

I have a key to the room, which unlocks the door, but behind that door there is a second that I have to slide open. Behind that door is a third, unlocked.

I step into the room and see that it is open on three sides. It has no walls at all except the one I walked through.


I take refuge in my companions.

The room is open to a city park, on a warm, blue lamplit night. I stand there and feel the air and watch the people, who are both familiar and strange, strolling in the dark.




I vow to do no harm.

Sometimes I chase the white owl.
She’s not always what I think or want her to be.
I still think she’s beautiful.


I vow to do good.

The white owl led me to the dark owl, and now I hold and care for them both.


I vow to do good for others.

And the white owl and the dark owl dance, and their dancing makes a coin I offer freely to the world.




I vow not to kill.

Bodies are amazing, I tell my son.
And then I feel my way into that.
Bodies of flesh, of so many colors.
Bodies of thought, bodies of dream.
Bodies of burnt metal, fiber optics.
Bodies of shivering leaf.


I vow not to steal.

I chip away at myself. I chip away at my own experience,
trying to build Flower Mountain.
I want to steal the universe and make it me.


I vow not to misuse sex.

Turning and looking right into my own desire,
the rain falls,
and the front door blows wide open.


I vow not to lie.

I want to tell you about the scent of thyme on the way to the burn pile.
There is so much I want to tell you.


I vow not to misuse drugs.

The delusion is that I will break, with or without the reaching.


I vow not to gossip maliciously.

There is a crowd of mean girls in the corner of my mind.
When I listen to their chatter, I feel fearful, clenched.
I am trying to keep them company.


I vow not to praise myself at the expense of others.

This is the vow I thought I had to get right.
I thought I was clear who was everyone else, and who was me.
Turns out, my confusion is surprisingly sweet.


I vow not to be stingy.

I feel stingy when my children wake me in the night, and I don’t want to follow and take away their bad dreams. Yet when I do follow, I get to walk through the door of small hands and ragged breathing.


I vow not to indulge in anger.

When I walk open-eyed into the performance of it, my anger falls around my shoulders like a satin cape, like clouds. It falls around my family’s shoulders, too.


I vow not to disparage awakening, the way, or my companions.

Waking up is
like velvet
like forgiveness
like bright metal
like loss
like the green cascade of spring grass through the firs
that just today you are realizing will end
Like an itch
and a rumbling
and a sadness
you want to carry inside of you
just because it’s real
And you want the forlorn people on the subway to know it
And the squirrels in the oak branches, too
So you’ll hold its brightness deep inside you
with a fierceness
like a secret
the whole world already knows
and deserves to hear



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