Sewing Buddha’s Robe

Apart from one occasion, the shuso ceremonies have been the first time I have worn my robes since the last shuso ceremonies in December. As I settled onto my cushion at City Center then, David had tucked the edge of the okesa that was over my left shoulder into place more securely (as priests often do for each other), and we both noted how many stitches were missing at that place which had seen a lot of fabric friction.

I had seen gaps in the rows of silver stitches come up in recent years, and thought that perhaps I would have time at Tassajara last summer to repair them. That didn’t happen, though I did manage to wash my okesa, which is not a common thing to do, having received guidance from Tim the sewing teacher for the proper form. And so, not wanted to feel ashamed of the shabbiness of my robe, I sat down the other evening and started stitching.

I did most of the original sewing between 2004 and 2006, and a large part of that while I was away from Zen Center and the expert sewing teachers – most notably Blanche, who taught everyone in those days. When I had put all the panels together (having pulled apart one or two entire rows of stitching because the fabric had not lined up correctly), I had the definite impression that I had not made it into a perfect rectangle. I remembered how, sewing my original lay rakusu, that I had worried about the stitches not matching up – I had sewed it in two distinct periods, while I waited for Gaelyn to complete her dharma transmission, and that there was a noticeable difference in my style between the face and the borders. And then, I had noticed, people really don’t pay any attention to the stitches; they just see the whole thing.

To be sure, if you examine someone’s rakusu closely, you can usually see a close correlation between the fastidiousness of their character and the meticulousness of their stitching, but I have consoled many people over the years who disparaged their own stitching by telling them no-one would notice.

There are a lot of stitches in an okesa; it was more enjoyable for me to sew than a rakusu, because what I termed the ‘stitch-to-faff’ ratio was much higher. Once you had pinned things down, because it was much larger, you could spend much more time sewing than you could on a rakusu. In particular, I sewed most of the long borders in afternoon-long sessions during a stay at Great Vow monastery, when the other monks disappeared at the weekends and I had no other distractions.

Picking up my needle and thread now (in 2012 when I had last done some fixing, I remember having trouble focusing on threading the needle, now I cannot do any of it without glasses), I found, after a little warm-up, that the movements were still in my body, just like all the forms I practised over the years at Zen Center. With each stitch, the silent refuge taking, ‘namu ki-e butsu‘. Looking back over my handiwork, I can see that the new stitches stood out, less fluid and regular than the old ones, no matter how well I thought I was doing at the time. But that is okay. At least I am taking care of my most treasured possession.

Okesa sun

Looking for helpful pictures in my archive for those who have no context, I came across these, which may not be that helpful. This is the inside of my okesa, so the top stitches are the back side of the border stitches, and the square section is one of the ties, with the ‘front’ of those stitches.

Rakusu face

This is the face of my priest rakusu, without the backing or the borders, showing the five jo, or panels. The okesa is similarly constructed, with seven panels, and three sections to each panel, but much larger. This rakusu was made from my first sitting robe, a hand-me-down made of Thai silk, which flowed beautifully but was not very robust. It was also very hard to sew in straight lines, as you can see above.

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