A minimally edited transcript

sewing sesshin

Sunday, June 20, 1971
Sesshin Lecture No. ____
San Francisco

This sesshinwe call it “sewing sesshin”and actually, rakusu-sewing, okesa-sewing sesshin. Our okesa is not just a symbol of our teaching; it is actually dharma itself. Unless you have a proper understanding of it, the rakusu is something which you wear as a Buddhist symbol. But that is not a proper understanding.

The proper understanding of our zazen and rakusu is the same, not different. Proper understanding of zazen is, at the same time, proper understanding of rakusu. So unless you have real zazen experience, rakusu is not actually rakusu; it is just something which you wear. It is not dharma itself.

You may think I told you yesterday1 about the okesa and the okesa Buddha made. Gathering various materials and sewing them together and designing it in this way after the shape of a paddy field. But here2 Dogen Zenji refers to ten names of okesa.

By the way, Dogen Zenji wrote more than 95 fascicles about transmitted teaching. And two of them are about the okesa. “Kesa-kudoku” nomaki and “Den-e” nomaki.3 So you may understand how important the okesa is for us, and those two fascicles are very long in comparison to other fascicles.

“Kesa-kudoku” means the virtue of okesa, and “Den-e” nomaki is about transmitted robe, “Den-e.” He refers to ten names of okesa or funzo-e.4 Funzo-e means,  fun is dung , something dirty. Zo is “rubbish” or “dust.” E is robe.

And one5 is goshaku-e: robe bitten [chewed on] by a cow or animal. And the second is robe made of material which was bitten [chewed on] by rabbits. And third is a robe made of burned material partly destroyed by fire. Like if someone smoked, there may be many holes in the material, so eventually he will throw it awaythat kind of material. Fourth, gassui-e is material which was thrown away by ladies because of menses. And fifth is childbirth. Made of the material tainted by childbirth and thrown away. Oh. Do you understand [laughs] what I mean? And sixth is material which covered the altar of a shrine, some old material which was used on the altar of various deities. Seventh is made of material which is thrown away in a graveyard. And eighth is material which was offered to a god, when someone prayed. Ninth is some material which a king used. Tenth is material which you pick up on the street. Those are materials that could be an okesa.

So, the material which a usual person throws away, we pick up and make into an okesa. The point is not that the okesa is made of some dirty material. Whether it is dirty or not dirty is not the point. But the material which people have thrown away could be our okesa. This is the point. So Dogen Zenji says whether it is beautiful embroidery or silk or leather, it doesn't matter. We should not say the okesa should be made of some dirty material. Whether it is dirty or clean, or beautiful or not beautiful is not the point. This point is very important, but it may be rather difficult for you to understand.

From here, from two pages, he talks about this spirit which is rather difficult to explain. You could understand only through practice. Only if you understand what is zazen will you understand this point. You may say your zazen is sometimes good and sometimes your zazen is not good [laughs]. Sometimes your zazen will be sleepy zazen [laughs], drowsy zazen. “Oh, this is not zazen,” you may say. You may understand your zazen in that way, but true understanding of zazen cannot be like that. Zazen is not sleepy zazen or drowsy zazen or good zazen. When you are free from the idea of good zazen or bad zazen or sleepy zazen, then you have right understanding of zazen. Anyway, you must practice zazen. If I say so, it is okay to sleep in zazen [laughs]. You may understand in that way.

If you say, “Whatever you wear, that is okesa,” Dogen Zenji actually says so in here. He referred to the Third Patriarch of India.6 He wasno one knows whether this is true or nothe was born with a robe [laughs]. When he was born, he was already wearing an okesa [laughs, laughter]. Dogen Zenji said, “What kind of robe is it? Is it silk? Is it leather?” [Laughs.] “What kind of robe is it?” And his robe was not a traditional robe. Before he became a Third Patriarch in India, it was usual to wear it, so he was wearing it always. After he joined our order, his robe became robe.

So understanding the robe is something more than what you understand. If you understand the robe as just some material to wear, it is not perfect understanding. This morning I said you should be concentrated on every stitchevery stitchas you are concentrated on your breathing. “Concentration,” we say, but that is not actually the point. The real point is to become one with what you doto become one with your practice. So anyway, in your practice, you should try to be concentrated on each stitch, and someday you will understand what it means. Not immediately [laughs].

I think you are lucky, very lucky, to have a robe like this, which was brought by Bodhidharma from India and which is transmitted from Bodhidharma to the Sixth Patriarch.7 And that robe is now in Obai-zan Monastery.8

Various kings [emperors]for instance, King [Emperor] Daiso, at the end of the Tang dynasty, sent his messenger to the monastery and asked for the robe. And Dogen Zenji referred to the letter which was presented by the king [emperor] to that monastery. And he referred to the many various events which happened at those famous monasteries. Not only do we have the transmitted robe, but also, at the same time, we have proper understanding of the robe, based on actual practice of zazen transmitted from Bodhidharma and the Sixth Patriarch.

Usually if I say “teaching” or “practice,” it could be one of the many practices. If I say “religion,” it could be one of the many religions. But if you really understand what zazen is, it is not so.

Recently I am putting emphasis on this point. What kind of practice do we have at Zen Center? This is a very important point, not only for us, but also for all the people who are interested in religious practice. If we lose this point, we will end up sectarians. If we really want to be free from sectarianism, we should know this point. We should get this point. Until you really accept this point, you should continue our practice. Then, all the people who are practicing religious practice will be your good friends, and you can help them a lot, instead of fighting [laughs]. Even though you do not fight with your mouth, your mind is always fighting. No good [laughs]. That is not religion.

All religious people already notice this point, and they know how bad they are [laughs]. Still, they stick to some idea. Some of them, in a disguise of non-sectarianism [laughs], still are developing sectarianism. Even though they say, “We are not sectarian.” But actually, they are sectarian from my viewpoint or to my eyes.  I can tell [laughing] quite easily whether they are sectarian or not. They may say, “Oh, Suzuki Roshi is a terrible sectarian [laughs]. He sticks to the Soto way.” Yes, I stick to the Soto way [laughs], but I am not so bad a sectarian as they are [laughs, laughter]. My mind is always open. They are my good friends. Although I wear the Soto robe, although I respect Eshun Yoshida Roshi's9 special robe, I am not sectarian. I wish you to understand this point. At least my disciples should understand this point.

Dogen refers to, also, various okesa like gojo-e10seven-strip robe, five-strip robe, nine-strip robe. A five-strip robe is the robe for when you work, a small one. That is the five-strip robe. And the seven-strip robe you use when you practice zazen with people. That is seven-strip. And the nine-strip robe you use when you practice formal practice for some special person, or for your nation, or for your teacher, or when you take service. And there are many more kinds of robe, but nine strips up to one hundred are very formal ones [laughs].

You should know that the reason why he refers to many kinds of robe is that the robe should be always with you. He put emphasis on wearing or having the robe always with you. It is not some special thing you wear. That is the wrong idea. It is something which you always have with you, like the Third Patriarch in India's robe. He was born with a robe, so for him it was not possible to take it off [laughs]. His skin was already a robe.

Those are the most important points when you want to have proper understanding of the okesa.

This kind of lecture is maybe too specialized, and it may be difficult for you to understand, I know. If I have some more time, I can answer your questions. That would be better, I think. If you have a question, please ask me, and if you have wrong understanding, I will correct you. Hai.

Student A: What is the meaning of the rice paddy? Why is the rice paddy mentioned?

SR: Rice?

Student A: Rice field related to the rakusu. What does that mean?

SR: Oh. When Buddha was asked to make some robe like uniform for his disciples, by King Bimbisara,11 he was thinking about the design and he saw a paddy field, and he thought, “We should design our robe in that way. Big patches and small patches. Big and small. We can use various kinds of material if we design in that way.” That is how the robe originated.

The spirit of making robes was not too ordinary a viewpoint which we human beings are liable to have. We have many weak points. Because of that we will create wrong understanding of things: not only robes, but also whatever you see because of our human nature. We create many misunderstandings. So, how to be free from that kind of misunderstanding or attachment, and to develop human nature properly was his point. But the design was just made when he saw a paddy field.

Student A: What is the meaning of the design on the maneki?12

SR: Oh, that is just to keep two parts tied together. It is a pine leaf. In Japan, pine symbolizesA pine tree, first of all, is always green, and a pine tree lives a long, long time, and it doesn't change its color all year round. So we have some special feeling about pines, and that pine leaf we use in various waysthat design. When you make furoshiki,13  we put pine leaves on them. I think it is maybe better to ask Yoshida Roshi [laughs]. She may have some reason, but I think that it is very common in Japanese culture to use pine leaves. You notice we have many pine-tree designs and pine-leaves designs. We like bamboo also.

Student B: Where does the rakusu ceremony originate?

SR: Originate?

Student B: Yeah. How long has the form that we are using now been practiced?

SR: Maybe in Japan it originated with Dogen, or older maybe. Every school has this kind of ceremony. Each school. Dogen Zenji studied various schools, and he had some confidence in the way he observed those rituals and the background of those rituals.

Student C: Roshi, why do we use new materials?

SR: Hmm?

Student C: Why do we buy new material to make robes?

SR: That is wrong understanding. He says, in his book, “Sometimes you can use new material. Don't be caught by new material or old material or beautiful or not beautiful.” Okay? New material is okay; silk is okay [laughs].

Student C: Even synthetic?


SR: Synthetic is okay. That could be his understanding. We are liable to go to one extreme. That is something Dogen Zenji didn't write. That is maybe our human nature. We want to rely on something: this extreme or that extreme. If you do not care for something beautiful [laughs], you stick to something dirty [laughs] and feel better. If you cannot afford to have gold or a diamond [laughs], you will collect some stonesomething. That is human nature. That way we lose our freedom.

So when we see things-as-it-is, then any material can be a robe. The colorwhy, you may then ask, why do we use subdued colors? [Sentence finished; tape turned over.]

color is. Buying new material and cutting it without using the whole material is to put emphasis on non-attachment: to destroy, or get rid of, or to be free from our human tendency which will create problems for us. That point should be rejected. Human nature is good, but because of one weak point, it doesn't work [laughs]. If we can take care of that point in some way, any material can be a robe. That is how you make a robe with various materials. Do you understand?

So there is some point which you cannot change [laughs]. Whether you are Christian or Buddhist, this point cannot be changed [taps on something repeatedly]. If you change this point, a Buddhist cannot be Buddhist. A Christian cannot be a good Christian. Everything will be mixed up and destroyed just because of this point, which we sometimes call “attachment.” You see? Do you understand? That is our enemy, maybewhich does not exist, but which we create because of idleness. Because we do not work hard enough, we create this problem. Okay? So you can buy material. This is okay.

Student D: Roshi?

SR: Hai.

Student D: I'm trying to understand this point. Sometimes it seems like what you said was because human beings have a certain nature of attaching to things, that we set up some rules or some forms. For example, when Lisa asked what should be made out of robe materials. The first thing is that human beings have a funny nature, and there's always attachment to things. So one of the things we do to destroy that kind of attachment is to set up a rule.

SR: Set up? Destroy? Not destroyingafter destroying that attachment, setting up a rulethat is wrong, you see? Big difference. The difference between after destroying attachment to set up rule. To only take care of destroying is wrongif you say “destroy,” that is wrong practice. Human nature has some weak points, but we must take care of them. That is what I really meannot destroy.

But anyway, after taking good care of this point, to set up some rule, it's wrong. To take care of this weak point we have rules, and if we only take care of this point, there is no need to have rules [laughs]. Whatever you weareven your skin like the Third Patriarch of India. Even your skin could be a robe. That much freedom we have.

To really be a Buddhist, it is not necessary to have rules for wearing robes. Eventually you will forget all about what you are wearing. If you come to that point, a robe is not always necessary. You see? It is not that after you become a real Buddhist is when you wear a robe. That is wrong [laughs]. Before you become a real Buddhist, you should wear a robe [laughs]. Before you can take care of yourself, you should follow, you should incubate [laughs, laughter]. When you are strong enough, you should get out of the hospital, and be where there are no rules. I don't know when you can do that [laughs]. Do you understand the point? If you get the point, it is okay.

Student D: I still don't understand. It seems like you say even though we have a rule, if you really understand yourself and sometimes even though the rule says use old material, you can use either old or new material. Doesn't make any difference, which is fine from the point of view of somebody who understands themselves. But from the point of view of somebody who, you know, is trying to follow the rule, let's say. I mean, when I see a rule that says “okesa should be made of old material,” then it seemsof course, you know, whatever material I get, I'll take, but it seems that if I were going to actually make it on my own, I'd go out and get old material. Otherwise, I can be very lazy, then, with all the precepts. I could say, “Well, uh, there's the precept that says don't kill, or a precept that says don't speak ill of others,” let's say. But I say, “Well, in terms of real understanding, of course I can. It doesn't make any difference.” So that intellectual understanding of precepts sometimes is just an excuse for my being lazy, you know, and it's very difficult for me to know when I am having a broad mind, you know, when I'm having a big mind, and when I'm just being lazy.

SR: Yeah. I understand. You are feeling that something is missing [laughs]. That is really what I want to say. If what I say will discourage you, I don't want to say it, but if you really feel that way, I have to say it [laughs]. The point is, in comparison to Buddhists in Japan, you are in an easier situation to practice Buddhism. Maybe we should know this point.

I know what kind of difficulty Japanese Buddhists have and what kind of life Zen Center students have. If you compare Japanese students to Zen Center students, I don't know what to say. It is so different. You may criticize young Japanese Buddhists. You may criticize them because they do not practice zazen as you do in Zen Center. But maybe young Japanese Buddhists may criticize us, for having too easy a practice [laughs]. You know, if you want to practice, you can do anything here. You are well supported. You don't have to worry about anything. And so, maybe for you it is too easy to practice our way.

You said, it is better if we do not try to find old material and make robes. Just buy old material. Actually it is much more easy to buy something. Under these circumstances, you can also collect old material. It takes a [laughs] long, long time but you can do it. If you must support yourself by working in the city, if you are always collecting old material [laughs] for your robe, you cannot work in the city. So you lose your income. The same thing is true in our management. You can sew your okesa. Japan is not poor any more, but [laughs] if you were born in some poor country where you should always work, that is not possible. It is much better to buy some material at the store. It is very hard even to buy new material, but that will be what you can do. In a poor country, even though you want to find some old material, you cannot find any, because they use it all [laughs]. You see?

Student C: Actually, Roshi, what I meant though was that, like, you just go down to the basement of this building in the laundry room, there is a [one word unclear: “corner”?]

SR: There are a lot!

Student C: where everybody throws away their clothes.

SR: That happens only in America! [Laughs, laughter.]

Student C: But there's enough material down there for about at least five okesas. And it wouldn't take very long to put it together.

SR: You do it! [Laughs, laughter.] You just do it, you know? When after learning exactly how to do it, you can do that. You see? But to learn it is already very difficult. Unless you use new material, it is almost impossible to teach you. When you eventually teach other people how to sew rakusu—there will then maybe be a paper pattern, which is much better. It is best when you take a pattern, and when you learn how to measure.  With old material, it is now not possible.

In some ways, your practice is very luxurious. I feel that way. You are, children who were born into a rich family. Whatever you want to do, you can do it. But that doesn't happen [laughs] in some poor countries. Americans cannot be always rich. It is not fair! [Laughs, laughter.] You do not notice this point. So I am afraid about whether you could be a real good Buddhist. I am stuckI am. I am thinking about this point a lot. That is my worry.

So maybe [laughs] that is the reason why I couldn't support okesa sewing in the practice so much before. It is too luxurious a practice. In Japan, only in the Heian Period and people who were born in noble families could do this. They did it before the Kamakura Period, but because of that, Buddhists were lost in their practice, because it was too aristocratic. Even though they gathered old material and spent a lot of time on each stitch, when they made one stitch they bowed many times and took up the needle and sewed okesa stitch by stitch in that way. That was good practice, they thought, but because of that, Buddhists were lost. How about that! [Laughter.]

So, after that, in the Kamakura Period—the Zen Buddhists, Nichiren, and Shingon were angry about that kind of luxurious practice and stood up and opened a new Buddhist way to city people. That was how a new Buddhism arose in the Kamakura period, after losing their practice in the Heian Period. So sometimes I feel as if [laughs] we are practicing, in the Heian Period practice [laughs] instead of Kamakura Period practice.

So you shouldn't be lost in that kind of practice. You feel very good. You feel you are very devotional, good students, but that is your feeling. Do you understand? So we must see what we are doing from various angles, and we must feel the crisis of the world, by our skin. Otherwise you are not Buddhist. Okay? To feel resistance to the old cultureI can agree with that, but to be lost from this world is a terrible mistake.

You were born in this country, and this is your motherland. You should not be lost from this motherland. I am not a nationalist [laughs]. I would feel terrible, if you were lost from this world. Okay [laughs]? That is my feeling.

Student D [?]: I understand how it applies to the rule about material, but I'm not quite sure how it applies to other precepts as given [?].

SR: Yeah. Maybe, anyway, you are trying your best. And we are trying our best, so something will result. Don't be too idealistic or too luxurious [laughs], okay?


1 SR-71-06-19 (transcript only; no tape).

2 Probably the fascicle "Kesa-kudoku," in Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō.

3 nomaki: fascicle.

4 Also nō-e. Eihei Dōgen: "The usual method of the buddhas … is to see rags as the best material" ("Kesa-kudoku," Shōbōgenzō; G. Nishijima and C. Cross, ed., 1994, Vol. 1, p. 127). From the footnote to that sentence: "'Rags' is … (FUNZOE). … (FUN) means excrement, and … (SO, pronounced ZO) means 'to sweep' or 'to be swept' [as in sōji]. … (E) means robe or clothes or clothing. … (FUNZO) represents the Sanskrit paṃsu-kūla, which means a dust-heap or a collection of rags out of a dust-heap used by Buddhist monks for their robes. … (FUNZO-E) has been translated either as 'rags' or as 'a robe of rags,' according to the context" (ibid).

5 Dōgen's ten types of rags are: "1) rags chewed on by an ox, 2) rags gnawed by rats, 3) rags scorched by fire, 4) rags [soiled by] menstruation, 5) rags [soiled by] childbirth, 6) rags [offered at] a shrine, 7) rags [left at] a graveyard, 8) rags [offered in] petitional prayer, 9) rags [discarded by] a king's officers [footnote: suggests uniforms discarded by promoted officers], 10) rags brought back from a funeral" ("Kesa-kokudo," Shōbōgenzō, Nishijima and Cross, Vol. 1, pp. 145-146; see also "Den-e," ibid., p. 163, for a similar list).

6 Shānavāsin, the third Indian Patriarch.

7 Daijan Huineng (Daikan Enō): 638-713. Sixth Chinese Zen Patriarch.

8 Mt. Ōbai (Huangmei) is where the Fifth Chinese Patriarch, Daman Hongren (Daiman Kōnin), received transmission and established his monastery. In the "Kesa-kudoku," Dōgen wrote that the robe was deposited in the Pao-lin-ssuu (Baolin, Hōrin-ji) temple, built in 504 on Mt. Caoxi (Sokei-zan) of Southern China.

9 Eshun Yoshida-rōshi: Teacher of okesa sewing in the lineage of Hashimotorōshi. Abbess Blanche Hartman and others studied with her at San Francisco Zen Center. The "special robe" is probably the Nyoho-e (True Dharma Robe) style of okesa. Eko Hashimoto-rōshi (teacher of Katagiri-rōshi) learned the Nyoho-e pattern from Kōdō Sawaki-rōshi. Sawaki-rōshi in turn had studied, at Koki-ji temple, the style of okesa sewn by the 18th -century Shingon and Ritsu master
Jiyun Sonja. Jiyun Sonja had reconstructed the traditional pattern for the okesa from the Mahavagga and other Vinaya-pitaka texts. [Source: "Notes on Okesa Lineage at Zen Center," an interview with Shohaku Okumura-rōshi, 23 February 1996, recorded by Shōsan Victoria Austin.]

10 Also gojō-gesa. Gojō-e is the five-strip robe; shichijo-e is the seven-strip robe; and kūjō-e is the nine-strip robe

11 King of Magadha and lay disciple of Shākyamuni Buddha.

12 The square patch of fabric, sewn onto the uppermost part of the rakusu's neck strap, upon which the pine stitches are made.

13 Square piece of cloth used for wrapping items such as gifts.

Source: Original tape transcribed by Joe Galewsky (3/26/99) and checked against tape by Bill Redican (12/20/00). Miyagawa Keishi-san kindly provided assistance with the translation of Japanese terms. Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (4/2021).


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