Monday, January 30, 2006

Kesa, Okesa

I am now busy finishing sewing a nine stripes Buddhist robe, a kesa. It is black. It took me far too long to make it. According to Dogen’s instructions, a kesa should be made within a few days. Four long years were needed for this one…

I would like to express my gratitude to have met with all my heart this tradition and style. In Japanese, it is called Nyoho-e, the robe-garment of as it-is-ness. Thanks to the work and life of the Shingon teacher Kaiju Jiun Sonja (1718-1804) who loved being grasped by the still state, to the dedication of Mokishutsu Zenji and later, to Eko Hashimoto and Kodo Sawaki, we have now the opportunity to study, sew and wear the Buddhist robe.

Originally, it is said that one day the Buddha was peacefully walking in the country with Ananda. All around them were valleys and fields, clouds and sky, air and mists, and birds, and beasts. Ananda asked the Buddha : “ we need a special garment that will show to the rest of the world that we are your disciples”. With a wave of his hand, Buddha indicated nature all around them and said : “Our garment will be like this”. Buddha was just pointing to the paddy fields, so Ananda thought that he meant the paddy fields, the rice fields. Buddha was just pointing to the whole universe, formless, ever changing. Ananda understood the paddy fields. Shakyamuni Buddha had a complete free mind, an open mind. He could embrace the whole view with a single glance, he did not choose, did not fix any boundaries, a consciousness without a single choice, no judgement, just the recognition of things as they are.

The kesa is a patchwork made of small or medium patches sown together (it is not always the case though, some kesas are made of a big piece of material folded in order to create the pattern of horizontal and vertical stripes and lines). Its surface is made of vertical stripes that are themselves divided horizontally. The number of stripes is always impair and can vary from 5 to 25, with all the possible variations in between. Each stripe has a short patch and two or more longer patches. The whole body of the kesa is surrounded by a border and four squares of similar size (kakusho or shiten) ornate the four corners. Most of the time, the kesa has a rectangular shape. Its size can vary accordingly to the person wearing it (the measurements of the kesa has to be established accordingly to the proportions of the body) and to its nature: the small kesa called rakusu is used for samu, travelling and other activities, the big kesa of seven stripes is used for Zazen and the nine, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-three or twenty-five stripes are used for ceremonies or more formal occasions.

Why does a bloke like me have spent so much time studying this, sewing this, doing this? I don’t know. I can’t tell. My understanding of zen is very very shallow and as far as I remember, I have always sown kesa after kesa, rakusu after rakusu, giving them away. Sometimes keeping them, protecting them, wearing them.


What is it? It is the robe of IT. It is the robe of the ineffable, the robe of Tatagatha. You wear it when you sit. In my shallow understanding, a monk has to shave his hair, wear the kesa and sit. Nothing else is required. No proper posture is required but allowing the right direction to become true in one’s life.

In a few months’ time, I will be walking slowly the streets of Kyoto singing, carrying the begging bowl and wearing the kesa.

Later, I shall enjoy the water of an onsen, naked and happy. Still wearing the kesa. All things always surround me. I owe my life to tatagatha’s compassion. Naked or dressed, this is the kesa.

Whatever I do, wherever I go, this place never leaves me. Kesa. Simplicity. Black-Brown-Grey-dirty-dye.

Whoever you are and wherever you go, please, let me know if you are interested in sewing-wearing and protecting Tatagatha’s robe. When I am in Japan, I will spend some time to study the nyoho-e kesa but also other kesa of different schools. Eventually, I would like to create a website that would make teachings about the kesa available to everyone.

You’ll always find me not too far from the blue mountain.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


What I do most of the time is to fiddle with the physical form of sitting, adjusting this, correcting that, I do what is taught in the whole Zen world: Deshimaru sangha, Dogen sangha, San Francisco Zen Centre, Japanese Sotoshu... I view zazen as a body form and bodywork that I have to get right: to sit in a beautiful upright posture, have a nice mudra seal, put my head in the right position, my tongue touching the upper palate etc. The list goes on and on, the list is what one calls the proper way to sit and all my years of Zen practice come to this: follow the guidelines, copy the model. Duplicate it. Repeat it.Now, two very clear and simple observations:a) Dogen never gives a clear and precise description of how to sit.b) He also says that Zazen has nothing to do with sitting.WHY?I am a complete beginner on this path and, nevertheless, I would like to say that one can only fool oneself by trying hard to sit properly. It is clear that the enlightened godos of Deshimaru Sangha, the great Brad, all the copycats of the Zen world and myself when telling you how to sit or not sit are deluding ourselves into thinking we have got it right.WHY?the body-mind is originally neither one nor two. It is. One piece. Adjusting body or breathing to control the mind is deluded practice. You may" act" it, "perform it" ( I am talking about my own sitting too), it might look good but it is not the real thing. In fact what years of Zen practice give you is the subtle ability to pretend that you have got it right. Mind of the expert. Mind of the fox. The beginner's mind is open, not in the way, not filled with habits and pre-conceived ideas.All these experienced sitters proud of their ability to fake true sitting do correct others. They will touch and correct the body as they correct they own sitting practice, generating habits in beginners and they call this Zen transmission.Last Autumn, when I visited Daijoji in Kanasawa, I was shown how to sit by a young and very rigid monk. He was correcting my way to do gassho (my hands where not up enough) and desperately trying to show the fool I am to sit on the platform. As he asked me to put my shoes properly under the platform and as I could not do it being like a fat and clumsy bear failing to reach the dam sandals, I started to laugh. I thought it was just funny to find myself trying to catch the shoes-fish in all this dignified environment. So did everybody around me, entertained to see such a ridiculous gaijin who could not put his paws on the shoes. And eventually, the twenty years old monk, straight like a iron pole, started to shake with laughter and what did I see, stupid bear making a fool out of himself? I could see his rigidity fading away with laughing, tensions disappearing and suddenly he was standing like a beautiful grown up Buddha child. This is how Buddha teaches through a nobody like me, this is how Buddha manifests himself in the form of a young Japanese monk laughing . Unfortunately, he managed to resume his original composure very quickly, teaching how to do this and that. The real teaching this monk gave me was his bodymind free of his idea of what Zen behaviour and conduct should be like.What I experienced yesterday in the hands of this good old bloke-friend-teacher of mine is pretty close: during an Alexander lesson, in and out of a chair, I experienced that only when, getting up or sitting down, keeping the direction of going up, I didn't mind, didn't care anymore about the result and stopped trying, only then...IT was doing ITself. IT is something I don't know. All I can say is that it happens. No feedback to tell me what it is. No need then to correct my own sitting (doing it, it is I, the foolish and deluded guy victim of his false sensory appreciation that acts, not IT). I don't want anybody to do IT for me (fixing me from outside). All I can do is to trust, allow and accept the self and IT is without minding anymore about what it looks like or if IT is following the holy guidelines. When the real thing does ITself, no need to check, correct, adjust.

As Mike puts it, zazen means to wake up.

To wake up is to make the conscious decision to allow IT and not be in IT’s way.

When IT sits you, then Zazen appears in the phenomenal world.

Neither moon nor body.

IT. Just it.

Neither one nor two.

Remember the poem of Nagarjuna quoted in the chapter Bussho of Shobogenzo:

(My) body manifests the roundness of the moon,
By this means demonstrating the physique of the buddhas.
The preaching of Dharma has no set form.
The real function is beyond sounds and sights.

Toying with breathing, physical stuff is bodywork.

IT , circle of the moon, is expressed in this form (sitting).
IT, voice and body of the Buddhas has no set form.
When IT is, this is.
When IT is not, what is this?

The only Zen I understand is to allow IT to be. Unfortunately, the Zen I practice is mostly a crude and very deluded form of adjusting this and fixing that.

End gaining is my activity: I am always busy chasing something: thoughts, mental movies, social recognition, people, bottoms, proper posture…

Aren’t you?

I am constantly in the way.


I make the vow to allow IT more and more in my life.



Sunday, January 01, 2006

Broken bowl

There is a great poem written by Tosui and reported by Menzan Zuiho in his "Story of master Tosui", it goes like this in the translation of P. Haskel:That is what my life is likeThis is what it's like, broad and freeA worn-out robe, a broken bowlhow peaceful and calm!When hungry, I eat, when thirsty, I drinkThat's all I knowI've got nothing to do with the world's "right and wrong"You certainly know it. Fabulous stuff. I've heard it countless times and everytime, it sounds different. Like clear and refreshing water. Typical uncomplicated direction of the good old and new ancestors. In fact, that's what my whole life points at, that's what my eyes are made of and long to see, that what my clumsy hands trace in the mudra-seal of sitting and so on and so on. That is also what I spend my time resisting, repairing my bowl, filling it up with notions and potions, ignoring the good old kesa of the whole thing that covers every corner of this. Funny, isn'it? Sometimes, very sad. when i read these lines, I just don't read something that has got to do with the romantic picture of an unsui, a homeless monk floating like cloud or water in medieval Japan, I see a provocative statement challenging people like me, now, here.When I allow myself to stop trying to be right and avoiding being wrong, what is left? Who is left? When I give evrything a rest including the good old me-mine, what then shines in the empty treasure-room?I still don't know and this is the direction of my dirty-dusty practice.