‘Once when I was in Song China, practicing on a long siting platform, I observed the monks around me. At the beginning of zazen in the morning, they would hold up their kashayas, place them on their heads, and chant a verse quietly with palms together:
Great is the robe of liberation
the robe beyond form, the field of benefaction!
I wear the Tathagata’s teaching
to awaken countless beings.
This was the first time I had seen the kashaya held up in this way, and I rejoiced, tears wetting the collar of my robe. Although I had read this verse of veneration for the kashaya in the Agama Sutra, I had not known the procedure. Now, I saw it with my own eyes. In my joy I also felt sorry that there had been no master to teach this to me and no good friend to recommend it in Japan. How sad that so much time had been wasted! But I also rejoiced in my wholesome past actions [that caused me to experience this]. If I had stayed in my land, how could I have sat side by side with the monks who has received and were wearing the buddha robe? My sadness and joy brought endless tears.
Then I made a vow to myself: However unsuited I may be, I will become an authentic holder of the buddha dharma, receiving authentic transmission of the true dharma, and with compassion show the buddha ancestor’s authentically transmitted dharma roves to those in my land. I rejoice that the vow I made has not been in vain, and there have been many bodhisattvas, lay and ordained, who have received the kashaya in Japan. Those who maintain the kashaya should always venerate it day and night. This brings forth most excellent merit. To see or hear one line of the kashaya verse is not limited to seeing or hearing it as if we were trees and rocks, but pervades the nine realms of sentient beings.’ (Shobogenzo Kesa Kudoku)
This passage is about as personal and emotional as Dogen gets in the Shobogenzo, reminiscent of his earlier words in Bendowa and Shobogenzo Zuimonki. For sure, being in a zendo early in the morning and hearing all the monks chanting the robe chant is a wonderful experience, as any visitor to Zen Center or Tassajara would hopefully attest to.
Recently I was asked what my most prized possession was; after a moment of reflection I replied, ‘my priest robe’, by which I meant my okesa (the kashaya refered to here). I then thought to add, ‘though it wouldn’t necessarily be the thing I grab first in a fire.’ It is the object that feels most central and important in my life, but having sewn one, I know I could always sew another, and would enjoy the practice.