Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

In ancient times it was the custom when a building was finished to place a charm on the ridgepole for its protection. One day someone asked a teacher, “Our new temple has just been built, won’t you write a charm for the protection of the building, so it will never be destroyed?”

The teacher then asked for ink and brush and paper and wrote a single word. What is the one charm?

I am one of those people whose job it is to weave together the world. I’m not alone, there are others, I can recognize them without asking. I can also tell that there aren’t many of us doing this particular task, which can lead to misunderstandings.

It’s like this: someplace in my mind, I sit in a hut on the outskirts of the town, and I weave together the strands, forward and back in time, all the while they are changing in my hands. I have to pay attention, even when I’m sleeping, to what is going on with the strands of spider webby silk, to tie and knot and untie and tie again. I listen carefully, I keep my ear to the ground, and my nose to the wind. I observe the coming and going of the seasons. There are moments when nothing much is happening, when the baby is asleep, when the seeds under the ground germinate and the sun shines and the threads of the world are at peace with themselves. But we haven’t had so much of that recently.

There’s something of magic in this kind of caring, in the weaving and the knotting, the tying and untying. We do it with words, with pictures, with a hand or a chair in the right place, with something given or taken away, with a tear or a shout or a warning growl, and in our minds, through understanding. Sometimes we do it by waiting, in waiting rooms, or for the right time. Sometimes we take a step into the river, which won’t be the same river after that.

When I put my nose to the air now, my ear to the ground, I can tell you that this world is changing. The baby isn’t asleep now. There are some clues. I’ll tell you a few: At night, the smell of fire. It might be nothing, but there’s the wind, too, gusting fast like a race car. Fire and wind are old friends. They like each other. People rarely get to see this, what happens when the gods of fire and the gods of wind begin to play together. There’s nothing so permanent that it can’t melt, or vaporize at such moments. People can’t afford to see this, there is too much at stake, and our eyes, our hair, our skin, make us a poor audience.

Another clue is water, in needles, in pellets, in sheets, filling the rivers to the edges and beyond, out into the flatlands, up to the roofs. Water dynamics, people call them, by which we mean, water has its own rules and people don’t know them, until they’re taught, and that’s when we realize that water is from the realm of the gods as well. It is not tame and it is uninterested in what we thought it was like, or could do, or in the limits of the engineering of our dams and our roads and our lungs. It is more powerful than we could have imagined. And when it plays with earth, suddenly what we relied on to be solid and immobile reveals another face.

There is a reason why every culture has gods, the women and men and other beings above us and below us who play by different rules, and stories of the gods that tell how things got to be how they are. The reason is that these forces we are seeing are of a different scale from the forces of us living creatures, the small ones. From our perspective, these forces are too large to be comprehensible in any other way than as gods. When we become aware of this perceptual mismatch, we have the chance of finding our place in the world of creatures, we find our human scale, our animal scale. We have the chance to know who we are as individuals. And we have the chance to stand up for ourselves, and ally with each other, with the living, with cultures and with our animal selves, and to make a stand for our scale. We can choose to do other things, we can fight for our separateness, but all that does is make sure that we will die alone.

As one of those who weave the world, I’d like to say something now about the one charm. The one charm is not a cure for mortality, and yet this is still important: We all will need to become weavers, spinners, tiers and un-tiers of knots. It’s time to wake up. We have the forces of the gods inside us, vestigial, but real. When we wake up we can see: doing what needs to be done isn’t a choice we make about courage or cowardice, it’s simply standing in the world and discovering what we are.


Sometimes voices and words and images come to visit from another time, perhaps because we need them in this time, or perhaps for no reason we can explain.

Weaving, sewing and spinning show up throughout ancient mythologies. In many cultures, including ones as distant from one another as ancient Egyptians and the Dogon in Mali, myths speak of weavers as the ones who the have the responsibility of  bringing form out of formlessness. For the Egyptians it is Neith, goddess and prime creator, who creates matter with her shuttle (the verb “to be” is related to her name), and the Dogon give credit to the spider Dada for the weaving of the world.

In Japan the goddess Amaterasu, the heaven-shining-one, in the shrine at Ise, is still given a loom and thread every twenty years when the temple is rebuilt. The goddess is responsible for the never-completed project of creating the heavens and the earth, making a brocade that is sky and mountain and ocean, permeated with her spirit.

In Greece and Crete, Nyx, the goddess of night, has three daughters—the Moiroi, the goddesses of fate. Their names are Klotho, the spinner, Lachesis, the apportioner, and Atropos, the inevitable. Collectively they are known as the spinners. They spin the days of our lives and determine the length of them. They are so powerful that even the king of the gods can do nothing to change their minds.

Athena is the goddess of crafts and of weaving. There was a mortal woman named Arachne who was also a great weaver, the best, she claimed, better than the goddess. Athena was angered and challenged her to a contest, which Arachne won by weaving the most beautiful piece of fabric. For her presumption, Athena turned Arachne into a spider, the first spider, weaver of webs.

There is another very old story of Demeter’s daughter Persephone, hidden in a cave by Athena when being pursued by Hades, the king of the dead. While waiting for her mother to return, Persephone began weaving a cloak, a giant web into which she wove a picture of the whole world, from the “birth and ordering of the elements” to the shores of the river Styx, to the “limits of the deep” before the web began to unweave itself at dusk, and she blushed.




Field Notes

I have been reading a lot of creation stories lately, and inspired by the equinox, I turned to Chichen Itza, a Mayan temple in the Yucatan. When the sun shines on the temple during the equinox it reveals a feathered serpent sun god, returning to the earth.  Even with our modern technology that attempts to explain everything….. I’ve been wondering why we don’t build temples for the gods anymore?  Witnessing and honoring the elements and rhythms that are beyond us and yet are us might help us wake up.  

Whenever I stitch by hand or weave a basket, I enter a timeless space and feel my human form connecting to a source, and then I look down into my hands and it’s like a gift from the gods.

– Shelly Hughes


I’ve been thinking a lot about the metaphor of weaving, and its mystery.  When it is finished, a woven fabric seems tight and straightforward, but it’s not  something that you build by adding a bit at a time to what is already there.  It begins in isolated threads that don’t reveal anything, but they have to be placed precisely—there has to be a plan, an imagining, a tracing that follows a pattern that has no imprint yet in the material world. I wonder, what do the early threads know of the final design? When do they discover who and what they are? Who is the weaver dreaming the pattern? 

Last night, I was preparing yarn to knit, allowing it to pass through my hands as they guided it on its way to the winder; every inch will pass again through my hands on its way to whatever it becomes.

-Judy Swan

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