Sit-a-Long with Jundo — Sewing the Buddha’s Robes

Among the preparations for Jukai (Undertaking the Precepts) at our Treeleaf Sangha, we sew a Rakusu… a small version of the Buddhist robes.

Maybe most of the folks who sew a Rakusu have never really sewn anything before, yet almost all find it a beautiful experience. It, too, is Zazen.

[Click through for more, and to "sit-a-long" with today's video.]
Small though it is, we say that the Rakusu is “boundless,” and each stitch by stitch is all of life. We sew the world into that Rakusu, smiles and tears into that Rakusu. It is the Buddha’s Robes.

If you would like more information on Jukai through our Sangha, please look here.

Today’s Sit-A-Long video follows. Remember: recording ends soon after the beginning bells; a sitting time of 20 to 35 minutes is recommended.

To view all of Jundo and Taigu’s SunSpace posts, click here.

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  1. Ron
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Good explanation about sewing a rakusu. Good preparation for jukai. Although personally, I wonder whether this practice is alive and can stay alive for the west. Aren't we doing 'our own little thingy' here? If the form can make you live the essence, fine. But let's not mistake anachronistic Japanese practices for the heart of our zen/religious way.

  2. solidity
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Wow. I would like to be a part of this process. However circumstances in my life permit me not.

  3. taigu
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ron,

    Is this practice alive? Well, it is in most sanghas in the West. I would invite you to study the history of the Buddhist robe and its actual meaning as described by Dogen in the Shobogenzo (Den e, kesa kudoku) to understand that what you describe as an anachronic Japanese practice, is the timeless activity of Buddhas. The robe is the whole fabric of the universe and it is also something we sew, it is easy and yet extremely difficult for our hyper egos. Your "yes but…" "good practice …although personally" is a magnificent display of everybody's resistance to this process.
    Sawaki Kodo who is the teacher at the core of shikantaza revival last century used to put it simply: my Zen school is the school of the kesa. Now you may take 20 or 30 years to chew this and understand it thoroughly, it is Buddha-Dharma practice!



  4. taigu
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Hi Solidity,

    Another "yes…but" from you. What are circumstances? You have no talent for crafts? Too busy to have the time ( come to Japan I will show you what busy is), no fabric shop in your local village? Needlephobia;)?
    People may have and find real resons not to sew. And it is great to question what appears to be real before we jump to conclusions.
    Feel free to email me anytime.

    Take great care



  5. Ron
    Posted September 19, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi Taigu,

    did it once and liked it back then, wonderful to belong to the incrowd, cherished it for a while. After another 25 years of chewing, have come to see that sewing a rakusu in itself has little to do with purity or impurity of practice. One is not better than the other. I do see the danger of it becoming an incrowd thing, or the new clothes of the emperor rather than the Buddha's robes, mistaking the form for the essence. For me, playing soccer with my kids is a thousand times more important. Apart from what Sawaki said about kesa, he said some pretty terrible things about war and killing (Victoria, Zen at War). He also said 'Zazen is useless' (Uchiyama, The Zen Teaching of "Homeless" Kodo). That one I like.

  6. taigu
    Posted September 19, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Hi again Ron,

    The following articles might shed a complete different light on Sawaki as a warmonger.

    take care



  7. Posted September 19, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ron,

    I echo what Taigu said. The following is my usual response on this subject …

    This practice is not limited to any place or time … we drop all thought of place and time. It certainly is not Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French or American. But, of course, we live in place and time, so as Buddhism traveled over the centuries from India to China, Japan, Korea etc. it naturally became very Indian/Chinese/Japanese?Korean etc.

    But what of the cultural trappings?

    Must we bow, ring bells, chant (in Japanese, no less), wear traditional robes, have Buddha Statues, burn incense? … All that stuff besides Zazen. Are they necessary to our Practice?

    No, not at all!

    We don't need anything other than Zazen, any of those trappings. In fact, they are no big deal, of no importance, when we drop all viewpoints in sitting Zazen.

    On the other hand, we have to do something, to greet each other somehow, read some words, dress some way. Why not do such things? As I often say, for example, we have to do something with our hands when practicing walking Zazen … why not hold them in Shashu (I mean, better than sticking 'em in your pockets)?

    As well, there are parts of our practice which we do BECAUSE we resist (for example, when visiting a temple for Retreat, I usually put my heart fully into ceremonies and arcane rituals BECAUSE I resist and think some of it silly or old fashioned). Ask yourself where that kind of resistance is to be found (here's a clue, and it is right behind your own eyes).

    What is more, there is method to the madness, and many (not all) customs have centuries of time tested benefits … embody subtle perspectives … that support and nurture Zazen Practice at the core. Many parts of our Practice, though "exotic", are worth keeping, even if they strike someone as strange at first. Bowing, statues, rigid decorum in the Zen Hall and, yes, weird talks about Koans all fit in that category. They may seem like unnecessary "Japanese" or "Esoteric" elements at first, until you understand the role they serve. I have given talks on all these things recently, for example …

    Bowing …

    On the other hand again, it is okay to abandon or reject many practices. However, KNOW very well what you are rejecting before you reject it. For example, I wrote this to someone awhile back about which of the "Japanese trappings" are worth keeping and which can be discarded. I wrote him:

    Absorb what is useful and discard the rest. For example, I think Oryoki [formal meal ritual] is a great practice, and worth keeping.. Same for bowing.

    Some things I keep out of respect for TRADITION [the robes, the ways of doing some ceremonies]. It is important to keep ties to where we come from. Some things also have a special symbolic meaning if you look into them, so worth keeping [for example, a Rakusu]

    But other stuff, no need to keep: For example, I usually avoid to chant in Japanese or Chinese [except once in awhile, out of respect for tradition]. Tatami mats and Paper screens have nothing to do with Zen practice particularly [but I happen to live in an old Japanese building, so … well, tatami and paper screens!} Some things I think are just dumb (except symbolically), like the Kyosaku stick. Incense is great, until it was recently shown to cause cancer. Many beliefs of Buddhism are rather superstitious things that were picked up here and there. I abandon many of those.

    The outer wrap of Zen Buddhism is changing greatly as it moves West. The greater emphasis on lay practice over monastics, the greater democracy in what was a feudal institution (arising in societies where the teacher's word was law … oh, those were the days! ), giving the boot to a lot of magico-supersticio hocus-pocus bunkum, the equal place of women … heck, the use of the internet to bring teachings that were once the preserve of an elite few into everyone's living room.Those are good and great changes to the outer wrapping (you can read about them in books like this one (author interview here: … anChat.htm ). The coreless core, however, remains unchanged.

    Do not throw out the baby with the bath water. Many completely "Japanese" practices which seem silly at first are worth keeping. …

    … other things, like some of the arcane incense, bell & drum filled rituals, take them or leave them.

    Gassho (an Asian custom), Jundo (a Dharma name)

  8. Ron
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    Hi Jundo,

    You sound a lot more nuanced here than in you videos :-). On the whole, I agree, although I would keep ritual to a minimum and have the practice come straight from the heart. The one doesn’t exclude the other, though. Sticking to sewing rakusu, it’s not good or bad in itself. If anyone wants to do it, fine. I’m just not interested, and I don’t buy the ‘it’s all your ego resistance’-stance. The reverse could be equally true. It could be cultish and it could be done for all the wrong reasons, especially in western lay zen. I urge anyone that advocates or undertakes it to take a good look at their intentions. And above all, don’t forget to play soccer with your kids, the most wonderful expression and joyful realization of the Buddha Dharma :-).

    To Taigu,

    What exactly of this could be ‘very sad, very sad’?

    The exchange between Muho and Victoria (your quote) basically just shows that there is some controversy about Sawaki’s war quotes. Since it has no pivotal function in sewing rakusu, I guess we could leave it at that. I merely brought it up to point at the fact that you probably wouldn’t use those quotes (even in their mild forms) to justify any of your choices or behavior, like you did with Sawaki’s kesa-quote.

    While we’re at it, take a look at Muho’s critical review of Sawaki’s treatment of the kesa and modern day Japanese aberrations ( Written with a great deal of nuance by a sincere and dedicated person, now the abbot of Antaiji. Needless to say, what works for him in a small monastery in rural Japan may not necessarily be relevant for us lay practitioners in the modern west. I do think a lot of the Japaneseness of zen will be gone within a generation or two. I already see people in their jeans (well, maybe not too tight) and t-shirts, sincerely practicing in small groups in some simple room or small center. People with jobs and children, students, the lot. To me, this is the powerful future of Buddhism in the west, simple and unassuming, straight from the heart. No need for a special piece of cloth to go with it. If we’re not careful, that might only cover up the living essence.

  9. Ron
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Something wrong with the link to Muho's article, my apologies. Here it is once more, hope this works:….

  10. taigu
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Essence and form are not two.
    If you know better, which I sense you imagine you do, then go to another sangha. Here this is what we teach and here you are a student. If you don't want to be a student or just listen to your own mental tunes, if you are not interested, try something else. Dharma practice is not a supermarket.

    By the way, so glad you enjoy playing with your kids, and…soccer is soccer. Zen is Zen. Even if countless cool and vert open-minded people will pretend that all is in all…

    Because of some 30 years of it, I also have something to say and you would be surpised to know that your vision of the Zen in the West is very close to mine, jeans, normal clothing…as to the heart thing, spare us, please.

    As to the kesa ,you will be able to say something once you have practised. Before, nobody knows. And you are no exception.



    I won't

  11. Don
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I have begun sewing the rakusu. I enjoy the practice and appreciate the teaching provided. Here and in the sewing videos with Taigu. Also in the things I teach myself. Each time I add cho to tan and look at the result, it is not quite what I expected. With time, carefulness, patience and diligence I'm confident the practice will unfold. For now (when I see my too-tight, unevenly spaced stitches and not very straight lines) I just recite this mantra, "Hold all these things gently".
    Now? I am imperfect and incomplete. If only for this, it is all good practice.

  12. taigu
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Ron. i will also refrain from any more comments.



  13. Ron
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Just one more thing. I note that what you probably like best is people that say how wonderful it all is, as in the comments to This is human. I share the preference. But if I understand you correctly (and correct me if I'm wrong) other feedback is not really welcome. When I come to your website, should I behave like your student and agree with what you say or even swallow it? Why then do you open up the comments section in the first place? Or is it only intended as the place where students can post their thank you's etc.? In that case, I guess I just made a mistake and I apologize.

  14. Posted September 21, 2010 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    All comments are welcome, agreeing or not.

    It is just that Taigu is very protective of his sacred/dirty old rags. :-)

  15. Ron
    Posted September 21, 2010 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    I got that impression :-). Thanks for the clarification about the comments. If, in spite of my propagation of rakusuless zen, you continue to sew and will still do the ceremony (I'm afraid I cannot prevent it…), I wish you a lot of fun and the ability to take it all with a grain of salt. Don't get stuck by a needle, don't get stuck in fabric :-).

  16. Seona
    Posted September 21, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    "It is not about getting to the end …"

    Yes! I need to keep this in mind. I have a tendency to move out of the moment and become too focused on the future. I will probably return to this talk quite often while sewing.

    Very helpful. Thank you. :-)

  17. Jinyu
    Posted September 22, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Thank you Jundo for this vibrant introduction!
    With or without rakusu may will all not grasp our ideas like flags,
    deep gassho,

  18. wanderer
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I'm curious about the importance of doing the sewing yourself. I know Taigu has sewn at least a few rakusus and kesas himself, but it seems that Jundo has never sewn either himself. Is that right? Does it matter or is it only important that you wear it? Thanks.

  19. Cyril Coombs
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I'm somewhat of a traditionalist and a romantic, so I personally like the idea of sewing the Rakusu. I'm also part of the Treeleaf sangha, so I respect it's traditions as set forth by Jundo sensei and Taigu sensei.

    In any case, I would argue that since this is not an intrinsic part of my culture growing up in the US, that I may get more out of (or appreciate more) the sewing of the Rakusu. What I mean is that my culture is primarily Judeo Christian, and it's very focused on immediate gratification. This zazen practice and more specifically the sewing of the Rakusu lend themselves to the opposite of what I'm used to, and they evoke my attention simply by virtue of it being something different for me.

    So I think from that perspective, it creates an atmosphere of specialness. It's like chanting before a meal, or reciting the Heart Sutra. How foreign it is to me and my experience! But SNAP, it brings me here to the uniqueness and specialness of this right now.

    From another perspective the to sew or not to sew reminds me of an argument when I used to practice martial arts. To where sweats and a t-shirt or to wear a Gi (the traditional uniform in Karate). I was all for hte Gi. Did it make me a better practitioner? No, but it broke my mind out of habit and into a rhythm of treating my training time as special. Appreciating it.

    I don't know if one way is better or not.. it could be personal preference, but to me following the practices of the Sangha in which I'm a member makes the most sense.

    I love this practice, and I am very thankful that I am able to participate.



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