I’d like to talk a little about the great robe – the o-kesa – in our tradition.
I’m a little hesitant to approach this subject, because it feels very advanced somehow. It’s like a secret teaching hiding in plain sight. Here some of us are wearing these things, and I sometimes wonder what people must make of it. I wonder what I make of it! The ancestors tell us the robe is really important, but maybe not for the reasons we might think. Or not-think.
This talk was inspired by an artist I just met who is sewing the small robe “vestment” (rakusu) some people are wearing, as “art”. As an artist myself, and as a robe-wearer, I have real questions about converting the robe into what we might call an “aesthetic object.” The robe is a functional thing, but it goes beyond how and what we normally think of as functioning. It certainly goes beyond any idea of art. It’s not that it’s possible to be sacrilegious in making a facsimile of the robe. It’s just that it seems a bit senseless, (quite understandably) a little ill-informed, potentially a little disrespectful. The fact that she (as a European American non-Buddhist) is also having someone write haiku on these dozens of rakusu gets into issues of cultural appropriation and whatnot, and the whole thing is actually quite nuanced and complex. When she brought this up to me, I felt like I was suddenly plunked in the middle of the ocean in a small boat. I take this with what I feel is an appropriate gravity and seriousness – both the tradition, and her calling as an artist to do this thing. I still have questions. But we needn’t lose our seat in a fundamentalist reaction.
I practiced for many years in a Buddhist tradition that, like most Buddhist traditions, had the robe in more or less the same arrangement as our robes, but with something of a different spirit. For instance, we did not sew our own robes. If for some reason we had taken precepts and didn’t have our robes with us, we could simply borrow a “temple” robe. There were usually a few hanging in the closet. A group of experienced Soto practitioners hearing about this for the first time would probably emanate a collective gasp in shock! If anything, our tradition can go to the other extreme, of making the robe into something a bit precious at times. Which is actually ok, too. Both are ok, but there are good teachings in our robe tradition that point beyond these attitudes (of attachment or indifference) – and that after all is the point.
So, we sew our robes completely by hand. And with each stitch we say a mantra, or prayer. We are usually taught to say “Namu ki-e Butsu” with each stitch sewed, which is Japanese for taking refuge in Buddha. I’ve said that, but I’ve said other mantras too, just going with the spirit of sewing as I found it. I think “I take refuge in Buddha”, since we mostly speak English, is an excellent mantra. I really love sewing. I think it is one of my favorite practices in our tradition, if we get to pick those.
Dogen said that the robe is itself the very body of Buddha; not other than zazen. He wrote what I just keep finding to be a really compelling essay on the robe, called the Kesa Kudoku. I read it somewhat regularly, and (mostly) just feel “yes, that is how it is.” He breaks down these ideas about things just being inert matter that we manipulate for our own ends. So no, the robe is not just a “symbol” of Buddha. Properly understood, it is Buddha herself. And of course, still just some cloth. This has to be an intuitive, even emotional understanding, not an intellectual thing.
Buddha outlined what kinds of cloth were good for this important garment; you can imagine perhaps silk brocade, or fine linen. Actually, the list starts off I think with “shit-wiping cloth” and sort of goes down hill from there. Leather was permitted if you couldn’t find cloth (in Mongolia for instance). “Rat-chewed” and “corpse-cleaning” are some of the other better cloths listed for the robe. They were all cleaned and trimmed and died ochre of course, essentially sewn into a quilt, as designed by Ananda per Buddha’s instructions to resemble the rice paddies around them. So much teaching here, I can’t even start to get into it.
As “Modern Americans”, we may feel quite far from an intimate understanding of what all this could possibly mean. “It’s just a symbolic blanket, right?” “Sure…” we say, “but not exactly.” Most of us here keep coming back. None of us appear at a glance to be religious fanatics. No one is clamoring to get their hands on one of these things the priests are wearing; we’re not going online to buy our kit and set up shop as teachers (which happens, sadly). Yet we come and we sit, and appreciate the rhythms of practice, the etiquette, our modest, simple forms. Something already intuits what the robe is, or might mean, or do or be.
Dogen has this wonderful list of all the possible designs of a robe: five panels, 7, 9, 21, 28, 84, and then he goes up to like 84,000. What is he talking about? It’s like that Willy Wonka elevator; it just keeps going up until we break through the glass ceiling of our conventional view. I think what he is saying here is that we are each a panel in this robe, and we are each made up of panels within panels. Endless panels in this one great Buddha robe. So it is important to realize that those of us wearing robes of various numbers of panels have simply found ourselves in the position of helping to facilitate zazen for the community. That’s it. Without zazen there is no community – hence, no robe and no priest.