Sewing is very cosmic, and in Zen it is a practice in itself: one for which I have an extraordinary lack of talent. I thought I would share with you my experiences of sewing, and in doing so make a cunning analogy with practice in general.
I started sewing a rakusu some three years ago, a rakusu being a miniature version of the monk’s kesa, the Buddhist outer-garment designed to resemble the rice-fields of India in which Buddhism first burst forth in shoot. All around me, Sangha members sported these, and so I could see what mine was going to look like. The material was cut for me, and I began to sew, stitch by stitch.
I think I appear to the world to be a patient person, but I’ m not. In starting the rakusu, the trouble was that I had in my mind the “finished product” and yet I was light-years distant from it. I am not a person of precision, but the making of a rakusu requires many, many points of precision. When someone is hovering over you and kindly instructing you in the precision, that is doubly bad. I am also not very good at being instructed.
I would become hopeful at certain points when a milestone was nearing; but then my hopes would be dashed terribly if forced to go back and unpick something. I kept saying to myself “I don’t mind working at it, so long as I can always progress.” You see the analogy, right? Anyhow, one of the main reasons for sewing a rakusu is so that you can take the Bodhisattva Vows, in a lay-ordination ceremony which welcomes you into the Sangha.
I think I secretly came to think of it as a Zen promotion, and I had many wonderful Zen-dreams in my head, where I would become a super Zen master whom everyone would be very fond of. I spent hours reading koans and trying to think of spontaneous answers to them, because you never know when some errant monk might approach and ask to see your Dharma. I cut my hair short (not razor short though), and was greedily devouring anything to do with Zen: I think I literally spent whole days with the word “Zen” going round and round in my brain, and would have purchased a second-hand pebble if someone had scratched that word into it.
But after plunging keenly into zazen for a while, I began to have the feeling that this is going nowhere. I couldn’t bend it to my will; there was no nifty fast-track available. The sewing equally was going nowhere, and I was starting to dread picking up needle and thread.
At this point I would like to tell you something that I was told at the beginning of my sewing odyssey: the material, the bits of black cloth, and the thread and so on, these are already a rakusu. Even from before the beginning as we might recognise it, this assemblage of whatnot is a garment of the Buddha’s, and benefits from being treated as such. In struggling with practice, in struggling with sewing, it was all about my efforts and what I expected from them. I already knew what my rakusu should look like, and wasn’t able to think “Aha! This grubby, creased and badly-sewn piece of rag has distinctly rakusu-like tendencies.” I would just get frustrated with it, and want to hurry it along. To be honest, any hope of taking the Vows had disappeared, as I didn’t consider myself to be Bodhisattva material. I didn’t go to enough sesshin, the intense Zen practice sessions, and I didn’t have a very regular zazen practice either. The numberless sentient beings, whom one promises to save in taking the Bodhisattva Vows, would have to look elsewhere. I had given up on them.
I wrestled with Zen for quite a while, and at one stage thought about quitting Zen altogether. I then suffered an injury that meant that I couldn’t sit for some months (I won’t go into the details, something you should be grateful for). During this time, the thought circulated in my head that not doing zazen makes no difference. I put my Zen books away; I stopped wearing my mala beads, and generally questioned myself thus: what am I without Zen practice? Is it even possible to “give up?” and man what’s with all these italics?
I drifted for a while, thinking perhaps I would find another teaching or an inspiring teacher. My mind was saying “Zazen isn’t necessary,” but something else in me missed all that sitting, staring and intriguing knee pain. I had to admit it: I liked zazen. No one was making me do it, but I liked it, and that was reason enough to do it. Appreciating life meant facing life, and running away from zazen felt like I was turning away. I started again.
You have to go stitch-by-stitch. Whilst it’s important to make effort, similarly you can’t get hung up on that effort. Zen absolutely leads nowhere, and in that, it is utterly, utterly unique. The one activity which is of no consequence whatsoever is only oppressive if you are constantly trying to get one-up on life itself. It dawned on me that there is no way of doing it wrong. Suddenly, I was no longer bothered about “being Zen” all the time, or trying to model myself on some monk, teacher or whomever. I had decided to be kinder to myself, realizing that I was my own worst critic by a long shot. The important thing is not that we aren’t doing as much zazen as whatshisname, or that we aren’t some super-spiritual type about whom people say “How wise! How calm!” I had realized that my practice was not intended as a way for beating myself up.
It is one thing to be stuck in the tiny spaces between stitches; but this funny old Buddha Way has a habit of dragging you out by the scruff of your neck and dangling you out over vast spaces. So it was that I found myself saying to Heather and Jay, my teachers, this very strange thing: “I want to take the Vows.” I was as surprised as they were to hear that. I had thought I wasn’t ready. My rakusu was far from done, and my practice had been up and down like a Dharmic rollercoaster.
This utterance which came from nowhere, this desire that expressed itself caused a thousand helping hands to appear, all of which encouraged me on towards ordination. A thing dawned on me: my practice was but a shabby thing, and my plans and desires had become as tattered as old rags. But this practice was never mine, it was always much huger than that! When I first had raised the possibility of Bodhisattva Ordination with our Godo, he had said “Make your mind now that of a Bodhisattva.” He is French and so uses a slightly strange word order, but what he was saying was this: already you are a Bodhisattva. Just like a rakusu is already a rakusu, since infinitely long ago.
Ordination is a bounding leap towards the web of existence: it is realizing that we are not an isolated speck but rather a beautiful jeweled node in a sparkling intra-universal net. The Sangha is the actual bodily manifestation of this*, and will propel us wholly towards interconnectedness. Zazen with its great pointlessness and frustration of our little Selves allows this connected responsiveness to flow, and allows the Sangha to hang so fruitfully together and points to the fact that all our activity is in the direction of all things and beings anyway. We go from I sitting alone on a cushion to Ah! All beings getting down with everything! They are the new wearer of the clothes The only choice is whether to go in the direction of this realisation or not, and given that it’s not possible to run away from anything (because the very thing you run from has given you the impetus in the first place and therefore determines your direction) all that’s left is go, go go! Until you’ve gone beyond!
I haven’t yet finished my rakusu. For the ceremony, I obtained one from the Sangha which had come via Argentina, so my practice now has a South American thread to it. That black rectangle of cloth with its white stitching has been a battleground for me. I have sweated over it, sewn my thumb to it, cursed and implored it. However big the picture, however vast the web, it still comes down to stitch after stitch, and no-one else can do it for you. However much money one offers, apparently.
* For more on this, see this super article also by me