Every Breath You Take 39: Putting on the Kesa

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, December 27th, 2008

gives you the information that "whoopee... you're alive!"
You still have a chance to look into this question of birth and death. 

And you do so by,

at the moment of noticing any of the knots
that call themselves a self

any moments of narrowing attention

into a story or stance 

well, in fact...

You don't have to discriminate
and say to yourself

"Do I want to practise here?"
you want to practise

right there

 that is a sense of self

with a storyline

that's trying to run the bells and whistles

and seemingly weave and keep the bodymind together
into this sense of a self. 

Any time you notice you're noticing anything,
you know what to do:

feel the whole bodymind in the whole moment.
Feel the breath,
sit up straight,
open the eye gaze.

You don't need a list to do this,
it's an action,
so take it while that breath is moving that bodymind in and out.

With every breath you take,
you can feel the clothing on your body,
and in the case of those who have taken vows,
you can feel the wagesa, the lay person's reminder of the vows they have taken.
You can feel the rakusu, the monastic's reminder of the vows that they have taken, the kesa.

The kesa is what the rakusu came from.
If one were wearing a kesa,
one would be wearing a wrapped piece of cloth,
quite big, going over one shoulder,
made up of pieces of other cloth,
which is a direct descendant of that worn
and designed by the Buddha and his merry band of monks. 

Today's verse: 

Putting on the kesa,
"May all beings

Come forward

And unfold equanimity." 

You've all experienced what happens when a contraction into a sense of self comes up
with a storyline and attention follows.
To put it simply, you go off balance.

Equanimity means flexibility,
means not falling for one story or another,
but just seeing them for what they are
and using them as a reminder to practise the whole bodymind in the whole moment.

The Buddha uncovered this reality,
which, after being asked,
he subsequently taught to those who were willing to leave their home situation
and wander around India with him...
because of course we know how it goes...
once you're out of sight...
[O-sensei laughs] 

So, there they were,
who knows what they were wearing, really,
but they must have been some kind of ragtag assemblage
which was one of many ragtag assemblages wandering around,
some of whom were thieves and heaven knows what...
I mean, it's interesting to contemplate that we may not,
had we been there,
have wanted to get involved with those other gangs.

So, the ruler in the area that the Buddha and the monks were wandering around in,
begging for their food for their survival, the ruler said:
"Listen guys, we have a problem. The citizens are scared of you." 

And I'm making this up, those weren't the words, right?
[students laugh]
But it had to be something like that. 

The ruler said:
"Look, I know that you are not running around robbing people and raping people and so on, causing havoc,
but the citizenry doesn't know that,
so come up with something distinctive,
so that everyone can know
and I can get the word out that those who are dressed in this certain way are okay." 

The story is that the Buddha,
and I believe it was Ananda,
were looking out over the rice fields and they're going
"Wow, you know, there are no fabric stores,
what are we going to do? And we don't have any money." 

So they said:
"Okay, well, let's do this. Let's gather a lot of cloth and then we'll sew it together." 

They were looking over the rice fields and noticed that the rice fields,
although different in size and colour due to the different stages of development,
had a coherency to them that was pleasing to the eye.
They said: "I know, I know what to do.
We'll collect all these old pieces of cloth from wherever,
we'll sew them together,
we'll dye them and we'll wear them.
We'll wrap them around ourselves." 

And that's what they did,
so there was a distinctive look that set them apart from others wandering around. 

So this, the first kasaya, big piece of cloth,
was big enough to wrap around the monk completely with one end going over the shoulder.
Frequently, in the hot weather, it was the only garment worn,
so it had to be quite big.
Over time, the kasaya traveled with wandering monks into Tibet, China, and eventually to Japan,
where it was called a kesa.
The wrapped robe lost its practical function as a garment to cover nakedness,
but it retained its use as a reminder of the practice of waking up and bodying forth the Way.
This is what it remains today,
a reminder of the practice of waking up and bodying forth the Way. 

Now, China had a very different climate from India, it was much colder.
To help keep warm, the monks wore the kesa over scholar's robes.
You know, adapt.
It's still going on today.
The wrapped robe was versatile and warm,
but difficult to wear over other clothing.
Walking about, working, climbing up mountains in the cold
was made easier for monastics when the kesa was knotted over the shoulder.
A hook and eye type closure was added.
The hook and eye is evident in the bone or wooden ring of the rakusu.
It's on the left of the rakusu. 

In the 700s in China, Buddhist monks were persecuted.
To avoid death, to avoid being executed,
they grew their hair long in the style of the times
and wore lay people's clothing.
(Covert action. I love this.)

A smaller version of the kesa, the rakusu,
was developed to remind them of their practice.
The smaller kesa, worn hanging around the neck,
could be worn under clothing and remain a secret from outsiders.
After the persecution ended,
the smaller kesa continued to be worn
as it allowed for much more ease of movement
and we see, hanging around the necks of the monks in Dainen-ji today, the rakusu. 

The Dharma gradually became infected by and ill with social culture.
In some schools, the modest and humble kesa became rich and ornate
and lost its value as a reminder of the practice taught by Gautama Siddartha, the Buddha.
Many monks gradually stopped practising in any real way which we would recognize
and wore their costly and gorgeous silk and brocade kesa
donated by rich patrons at ceremonies and funerals.
These ceremonies were a major source of income
and some of these kesa are indeed beautiful.

I saw an exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,
I saw them in Kyoto.
They were marvelous: hand woven, lots of gold,
like... people like their bling! 

Some lineages, including our own,
left the centres of social culture and the corruption that the brocade kesa had come to symbolize
and took to the mountains.
And in the "Raihai Tokuzui", Dogen zenji does address this topic.
The monks who took to the mountains practised in abandoned temples,
in the forests, and under waterfalls.
When tracked down by the very sincere,
they taught.
Necessarily, their robes and kesa were modest. 

Kesa, the robe of the Buddhabody,
have different manifestations in this,
the Northern Mountain Order.
The wearing of this sign of maturing practice and responsibility through the receiving of vows,
begins when a formal student, upon receiving the Bodhisattva Precepts,
receives back from the preceptor,
a wagesa, a strip of black cloth,
which the student has made.

The wagesa of the Northern Mountain Order have evolved
from a strip of cloth held together with two cords with tassels into a Mobius strip,
which is a never ending path.
I think that's great.

Wagesa are another traditional form of kesa
and are common in the Tendai, Shingon and Pure Land schools.
In our design,
the material is folded in such a way that it's a beginningless and endless Mobius strip
made by the student, by hand.
With each stitch taken, the student silently says The Three Jewels: 

This is Buddha.
This is Dharma.
This is Sangha. 

...to remind them what they are doing,
and if it freaks them out too much,
well, people do different things...

The wagesa is worn around the neck.
A formal student, preparing to be accepted either as a lay monk, or a postulant monk,
sews a rectangular piece of folded fabric,
the maneki to their wagesa,
using a traditional stitch called the pine cone stitch.
The maneki is placed so as to rest in the middle,
at the back of the neck,
just as it will on the rakusu of a novice monk.
It's kind of like... training wheels.
[students laugh] 

As part of the preparation for novice monk's vows,
the postulant sews a rakusu.

The rakusu has five strips sewn from ten pieces of fabric,
showing the rice fold pattern of the large kesa.
The body of the rakusu measures around eleven by fourteen inches
and is adjusted according to the size of the person taking the vows.
The rakusu is held in place by two strips, the halter,
which are worn around the neck.

The maneki rests at the back of the neck.
The rakusu can be made from new or old fabric.
Even new fabric is cut into little pieces.
The new fabric is marked unobtrusively with three dots of ink,
thus making it worn,
and reminding the monk that,
hey, all is recycling.

I prefer making rakusu from old fabric that comes from worn out robes and so forth. 

For the novice, a silver pin,
showing the endless knot of meditation
is placed on a strap of the rakusu,
just above the body of the rakusu.
Prior to receiving full monk's vows,
a new rakusu is made.
The new rakusu still has five strips,
but now the halter has a bone or wooden ring on the left,
holding the strap together.
The pin is retired.
So, someone who knows the code can tell the stage in their monastic training the monk is at. 

A monastic elder, a monk for five years,
wears a seven strip rakusu.
A Dharma Teacher wears a blue rakusu with seven strips.
A Sensei or Roshi, the Zen Master, wears a nine strip rakusu.

A large, wrapped kesa, still made of those patched together pieces,
can be worn on ceremonial occasions.
The kesa is hand made.
It can be from new fabric, but should be modest in colour, and again,
if preferred, old material from worn robes and clothing can be used.
As during the process of sewing wagesa and rakusu, the monk chants: 

Namu ki Butsu.
Namu ki Ho.
Namu ki So. 

...while stitching.

This is a vivid reminder of the activity and history of the robe.

So, the verse: 

Putting on the kesa,
"May all beings

Come forward

And unfold equanimity." 

Thank you for listening.