by Jean Selkirk
This exploration of my practice as a sewing teacher began, as often is the case, with a student’s question: “How do I maintain the flow of chanting “namu kie Butsu”1 if I have to also pay attention to all these other directions?” Though sounding like a ‘how?” question, the “why” was also being requested. Neither the simple answer that “both are important” nor the explanation about the lessons embedded in the directions hit the mark exactly. What was I really asking of the students? I had simply accepted and engaged in this practice for over 15 years. Perhaps the time had come to reflect on the true heart of the activity of chanting while sewing Buddha’s Robe: devotion.
Exploring this through my own experiences and seeking out other sources shared here deepened my understanding and has given me greater appreciation for the value and meaning of taking refuge as well as its effects. How devotion may arise wherever support and interest meet intention and activity is also described as well as situating the devotional practice of using words in the realm of silence and how this may help bring zazen into all aspects of life. Witnessing the effects on myself and my students provides endless sources of transformational potential to share; I am indebted to the many people who have sewn with me. Verses I have written for my students are included, inspired by them, to both encourage their growth and honor our time spent together of taking refuge. What follows also gives the story of how this practice came here, found fertile ground, and continues to grow and evolve.
Returning to the source, the practice of taking refuge reflects Dogen’s emphasis on devotion to Buddha: “Vow to respect and dedicate yourself to the three treasures even if our life or body changes. Asleep or awake, think of the merit of the three treasures. Asleep or awake, chant the three treasures.” Dogen continues to emphasize that even “[w]hen your life ends . . . be determined to chant, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha.’ Then, all buddhas in the ten directions will show compassion to you.”2 “’If you want the effect of being a buddha, recite one verse of praise, chant one refuge, burn a pinch of incense, or offer one flower. Even with such a small practice, you will certainly become a buddha.’”3
Sewing Buddha’s Robe by hand and as a devotional practice first came to San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) with visits by Eshun Yoshida-roshi in 1970 and 1971. She had met one of Suzuki-roshi’s students he’d sent to her nisodo temple Kaizenji in Japan where she was abbess, and she wanted to find out what was happening in America. Yoshida-roshi and Katagiri-roshi both spoke with Suzuki-roshi about giving the precepts to lay people, hand-sewing both rakusu as well as okesa for priests,4 and sewing began. Besides the techniques and understanding of making nyoho-e, robes sewn in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching, she brought the practice of chanting5 with each stitch: Namu kie Butsu: I take refuge in Buddha.
What is taking refuge? Refugees are most often seeking safe haven from persecution or fear of physical or emotional violence. However, this type of refuge is toward full responsibility for our own lives and the lives of others. Even when this may be challenging, and possibly we are fleeing harm ourselves, we vow to save all sentient beings. While neither escape nor separation from pain and suffering, nirvana may be found in this life within the complete effort of trying.
This effort and how to approach refuge is encouraged through the “kie” in the chant. Transliterated, “plunging in” is useful preparation for bodhisattvas as is simply practicing devotion as Dogen advocates. The first two powers of a bodhisattva include devotion: “One is devotion to the Buddha’s teachings and no attachment to anything else. The second one is increasing one’s devotion.”6
The ninth power of a bodhisattva is also worth noting: “making people turn towards Buddhism.”7 Once completed and worn, Buddha’s Robe encourages people to engage in practice. While not visible, the devotional effort of sewing and taking refuge, even before the robe is worn for zazen, imbues the robes with a quality that can be felt. People are not always sure just what this might be, only that they notice something that draws them.
Expressing devotion through dedicated activity, whether by sewing teacher or student, finds affirmation in the role of devotion described across many traditions. While the importance is stressed more in some than others and the meaning varies, devotion is integral to the very fabric of all spiritual practices, whether theistic or not. While perhaps neither the visible warp nor woof, where the vertical urge to the heavens meets the horizontal manifestation of life, devotion is the unseen tension and pattern weaving the threads of practice into cloth. Turned into robes, the devotion truly expresses shin, heart-mind, the intersection of feeling and thought embodied in activity.
Devotion though is multi-faceted, really a collection of dharmas, as both the attitude and the activity manifest. First, setting a mindful approach toward the chosen activity, similar to a short pause before bowing, or an offering itself, meant to gather our own and/or others’ energy for the task. Second, the respectful energy continues into the activity. Third, maintaining intention while engaged in activities even without an objective. Intention may serve as the “object” usually associated with devotion that may also be a person, transcendent idea, feeling, or practice. Fourth, leaving nothing out, not the mind, not the heart, not the body, but bringing every part of onself into the experience. Finally, continuing in a dedicated, faithful way: offering the merit without gaining mind.
Combinations of these may look like nembutsu practice in the Pure Land School or prayer in any setting; either has the classic meaning of entreaty.8 Yet here where self and “other power”9 meet, zazen expressing enlightenment and devotion allowing in the entire buddha field and ancestors for support, something quite different may occur. The aspiration of “coming from within the real”10 of way-seeking mind connects with inspiration, encouraging the potential of the formless field of benefaction11 to arise.
Engaging in continous chanting or prayer, or listening to the Dharma, may however be the only possibility of finding stillness and expressing devotion for those for whom the silence of meditation or even prayer is simply too daunting. Although single-minded focus on just one activity, whether prayer, chanting, or breathwork, may actually lessen awareness of surroundings and lead to slightly altered states of consciousness, sewing students are asked to chant and sew while continuing to breathe. Chanting wholeheartedly our wishes and intentions may or may not lead to beneficial experiences, but devotional sewing’s point is no special state of mind, only making our “best effort on each moment.”12
Yet, words are powerful. Though letting go of discursive thought is beneficial in bringing about wordless experiences of presence when the babbling stops attempting to fix moments in time, words play an important role in directed thought. In combination these modes may assist in desired transformations such as in the repetitions of lojong13 and are likewise necessary to set the very intentions needed in devotion while sewing Buddha’s Robe, of taking refuge, over and over again, while releasing attachment to the outcome.
Lightning storm flares neurons
Words cascade, flood, ebb
When breath settles darkness
Mind heart’s pool
Practice in taking refuge may not be the only benefit. After reading that the “basis of kind speech is chanting” the name of Buddha,14 I began asking my rakusu students after they finished sewing: “Now that you’ve taken refuge about 1500 times, have you noticed being affected in any way by this practice?” What I hear often confirms that a new set-point15 is internalized. Just as zazen practice increases the potential for the small gap necessary to allow a breathe before making a choice and acting, students tell me that “namu kie Butsu” would come to mind at a difficult moment, or just in time to prevent ill-advised action.
Though many aspects of Zen express devotion, in both stillness and activity, zazen and chanting, here the words namu kie butsu are combined with the devotional ritual activity of stitching. This has the potential to bring about “a state of mind or being that extends into all activities. . . . [everything is] zazen practice. . . . “moving Zen” . . . highly ritualized so as to promote concentration in all things.”16 The focus on effort to release thoughts with each breath until no thoughts seem left is reflected in the practice of detaching into refuge from the feelings brought up by stitching: just this breath, just this stitch.
Activity balancing rest
Past and future meet
Combining the tiny movements of stitching with an atmosphere of quiet mindfulness may give students their first experience of “zazen outside of the zendo.” Finding that place of concentration just once in the midst of activity and they may find it elsewhere. Layering directed thought/chanting onto stitching, we have a unique opportunity to see how taking refuge in daily activity is possible. As we then go through our lives, we might see that movement is not separate from seeing activities have within them the space and care to minimize the types of contact that create difficult karma for ourselves and others.
Wave roars in
Froth whispers out
Leaves tracless trace
Yet for many the role of devotion in Zen is a koan. “I thought Zen wasn’t a religion!” “I didn’t come here to worship!” “Didn’t the Buddha ‘discourage excessive veneration’”?17 Respect and reverence still have their place even in this philosophy without a deity. Sojun Mel Weitsman frequently speaks of how Suzuki-roshi dedicated his life to zazen, bowing, and offering incense. Dogen specifically saw zazen “as a ritual of devotion and gratitude for this practice, an offering to all buddhas and ancestors.”18 The transformative effects of a practice “while not generally devotional . . . may express . . . love for the whole world . . . maybe it is enough the offerings of the heart simply be made.”19
Sweet well brimming
Loving kindness world-wide
While many Zen students are refugees from religious practices, as with any desired belief or behavior, acting in accordance with its attributes can lead to the belief itself. The activities of devotion: respect, consistency, and constancy, each found in sewing practice, can bring about the genuine experience. As well, sewing Buddha’s Robe is a complete expression of love and devotion when given as a gift.
Devotion in sewing practice has both expression (form) and experience (function). One side is the activity: the marking, cutting, and then sewing and chanting.20 Within this is the constant effort (virya (Skt.)), one of the six paramitas, or virtues of mindful intention and manifestation. In sewing as well as in zazen, continous instruction still happens. Where does the needle go next? Exactly where do I decide to insert and direct the needle to exit? Evaluation is present: How did that stitch go and is my consistency okay or do I need to concentrate and adjust a little? Where was I in the chant while I was making these decisions? Where is my breath now? What’s next? Sewing instruction co-arises with the effort.
Precision of mind meets form
Needle wanders, finding mind’s mark
The other side is how this effort is experienced. Along with mindful devotion to each of these activities may come frustration, disappointment, exhultation, relief, exhaustion, complaining body parts, even pricked fingers. Yet, as in zazen, moments shorter or longer may arise seamlessly when all of these necessary activities occur seemingly without thought and effort. But that complete no-effort of the chanting occuring naturally and the stitches happening like magic contains and comes through effort.
Rice field’s graceful curves
Straight lines on cloth
Pattern reality’s limitless experience speech cannot grasp
Wordless vision remains mysterious
Asked about effort, Suzuki-roshi actually returns to the role of entreaty, giving as an example (though laughing as he often did): “’Let me have pure practice’ . . . even though we don’t know what it is” as an “invisible relationship” that supports the acceptable “effort to make our practice pure.”21
Sewing Buddha’s Robe as devotional practice helps prepares for taking refuge in the Three Treasures during ordination. Paying attention, stitch by stitch, seeing how refuge in times of difficulty may help embody compassionate intention, even when at first this difficulty may be the very sewing before us.
Yet increasing numbers of students arrive and complete robes as the lineages of dharma teachers grow. To be able to offer this practice to support ordinations is a great privilege. We might say about sewing practice flourishing now what Dogen expressed about witnessing the monks placing their robes on their heads in an act of veneration before zazen: how fortunate to live in this time.
For this to happen took the concerted and devoted efforts of myriad people over many years. Beginning with those first teachers and students in 1971, following Japanese monastic practice, they sat on the tatami mats and sewed until finished. Many lay people as well as priests sewed robes, chanting and stitching, as they prepared to receive the precepts and their robes from their teacher. But Yoshida-roshi could not return.
Fortunately, present to receive these teachings were both Tomoe Katagiri and Blanche Hartman who each became mainstays of sewing practice in the USA. While at that time, Blanche was only attending the sewing session held in 1971 as a participant, Tomoe-san had been asked by Katagiri-roshi to help the visiting teacher and learn everything possible. This she did, and maintained her relationship as disciple to Yoshida-roshi, later visiting her in Japan. At Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, teaching for forty years, Tomoe-san established the legacy of sewing Buddha’s Robe for future generations, and provided the teachings of nyoho-e in her book.22
Meanwhile, after a few years, a new Japanese teacher started coming to SFZC to support the sewing practice started by Yoshida-roshi. Kaisai Joshin had started in the same lineage and with the same teacher as Yoshida-roshi, Eko Hashimoto-roshi, who taught the practice of chanting while stitching. He had helped recover authentic practices of sewing contemporaneously with Sawaki Kodo-roshi. Joshin-san had met Sawaki Kodo and she decided, not without great difficulty23 to become his student. While the practice of taking refuge while stitching was optional in Sawaki-roshi’s sewing lineage, the practice had continued at SFZC. Joshin-san supported and continued this when she came almost annually during the period of 1973-1984.
Joshin-san chose Blanche to teach sewing because, as Blanche describes this, she already understood parallel and perpendicular. Joshin-san felt, given the language barrier, she could teach sewing to a person but not the principles needed for construction. Blanche faithfully carried forth the practice of chanting while stitching, and in later years, added the last two refuges: “namu kie hō, namu kie sō.”
Joshin-san taught Blanche more than how to sew, or even her belief that every robe was the whole body of Buddha, and that robes must be finished. Blanche relates that although she was not a person of faith and devotion, “more inspired by logic and reason,”24 seeing Joshin-san’s devotion to sewing Buddha’s Robe led her to understand what faith meant. Blanche always made sure to remind us that “devotion” meant “of vow.” As she related the story of finishing by herself, as she had promised Joshin-san, making the 56 corners on the first seven okesa and seven zagu they began together, Blanche’s devotion was evident, not just to the practice but to Joshin-san.
This brings to the forefront another aspect of devotion, the role of the heart in heart-mind. Asked during a shosan ceremony about the “role of love and devotion in our practice,” Suzuki-roshi replied:25 “Both love and devotion . . . very important. But, you know, love or devotion should be . . . defined. It is not—love or devotion in its usual sense . . . must be something which . . . could be recognized by others.”
Exemplifying this were Joshin-san and Blanche. Many people who never knew Joshin-san, did know Blanche. We watched her express her devotion by the hour, day, week, year in and year out. Blanche did say she would have done anything just to hang out with Joshin-san, and true to her teacher, we loved to hang out with Blanche. As her student Joan Amaral presented this quote during a talk on devotion at SFZC/City Center on May 18, 201126 perhaps Blanche heard this and I hope smiled because these qualities she exemplified: “One of the best forms of devotion is to pay attention, to be passionately interested and continuously engaged in the process of learning . . . being receptive and opening ourselves.”27 Or as Joan expressed: “wholehearted engagement in THIS!”
Blanche’s acceptance of people just where she found them, combined with her enthusiam, undiminished by decades, inspire us still to fulfill her request that we continue this practice.28 She was always clear about the role of the people she helped, saying to us: “teaching sewing is a wonderful way to practice with people.” An observation I found succinctly offers why this is so powerful: “Letting ourselves be touched in the heart gives rise to expansive appreciation for others. Here is where heart connects with big mind.”29 Part of this she saw as continuing Joshin-san’s encouragement and happiness that people were sewing Buddha’s Robe. Joshin-san was known for saying “sew with heart.”
We have inherited her legacy of not only teaching and sustaining the devotional practice of sewing and chanting, but devotion to the people who come to sew. Balancing all of this with the need for correctness in construction is the on-going challenge for any sewing teacher in working warm hand to warm hand with people of all different skill levels and stages of practice. This I soon discovered was at the core of “practicing with people.” After having a good laugh when hearing about efforts assisting people with following the exacting steps of sewing, to help us understand the challenges, one of Blanche’s favorite quotes to cite was by Katagiri-roshi: “Americans very hard to teach Zen!”30 So in homage to her years of helping people with this devotional practice, I must include this: “And devotion helps the ego to overcome its own resistance.”31
Now arrives; mountain shakes
Rock finds new balance
Leaves dance with wind
My devotion to Blanche’s request that we continue this practice is sustained through seeing lives change as they prepare to receive the precepts. The effort of following specific directions about how to stitch consistently, to be constant in placing the stitches, all while taking refuge, prove the reason the main center piece of the robe is called “kagami” (mirror). People do see their difficult tendencies reflected, not always liking what they see: their inability to accept and love their own stitches, manage the thread and materials. Yet moments of grace can be found.
Great still Naga, true aim protects
Fire at hand, silken web arises
Heart’s breath pause
Whether perfectionism or carelessness, other attachments and hindrances of all kinds arise continuously. The value of what is asked, to pay attention with the mind of refuge to the exterior world, may allow the giving of complete effort and help with self-governance through learning to connect intention and manifestation through effort.
Neither weeds nor flowers know growing came
Nor where growing goes
Only the gardener builds the trellis
When asked how I specifically see transformation manifest in my students, the mirror is key: In order to receive the gift of change, first seeing what needs attention is necessary: bringing awareness to habits of mind and body. Students do see themselves reflected in their sewing as much as the teacher but may need a little help knowing what to do. Tendencies to allow focus to become so concentrated that stitches and spacing contract may be addressed with requests to allow a little more space. Or the reverse: not placing enough stitches, allowing too much space, meets requests for a little less. Wandering lines may reflect inattention or challenged eyesight but could also reflect persistence in finishing; either may need additional encouragement and support.
One student’s anger and lack of patience showed in their spiky stitches, angles going in every direction. As we sat together, we absorbed and acknowledged the expressions of frustration. Other’s may simply give over to the process, letting go of living up to their own expectations of perfection and accepting help.
Intention meets matter
Technique finds expression
Persistence paves the way
Guidance accepted, completion
Perhaps the most powerful example I witnessed of how “other power” may work was this one. Through the experience of sitting together with the other students, sewing week after week, participating in the short-term dharma group experience of discussing the precepts, one student had a break-through. Realizing that there was no need to contain their apprehension and outright terror from the pressure of sewing, that the container of the sewing sangha could hold this and more, this student opened up to us about their painful experience, and let in our support. The buddhas and ancestors rejoiced with us as this person relaxed.
High desert light
Shimmers silver pink
Reflects gray stone
Inmost jewel blossoms
While actual change may not occur, often the potential for this becomes a real possibility. How I as a teacher respond to the concerns, fears, and delights expressed may give a student an opportunity to see and experience patience with the efforts and love for the outcome, regardless of how they feel about this. As sewing teachers, part of the challenge is how to support the students through these struggles. Encouraging them without finding fault, holding close knowing the mirror needs no dusting, and challenging them to love their own stitches first takes accepting and loving them ourselves. This single act is often enough inspiration to support the student’s aspiration to finish.
Many principles of practice embedded in sewing endlessly present rich metaphors that can also help with shifting points of view for understanding and finding compassion, even if their basis is not explicitly stated. Identity-action: “How would you feel if someone kept stabbing you with a needle as you’re stabbing the thread?” Absolute and relative: “We all sew the same stitch and we all sew it differently.” Opposites make each other: “Now pay attention to both sides.” Karmic consequences of contact: “Give each stitch its own space.” Wisdom of hierarchy: “Every stitch is different AND equal.” “All things are alive” takes on new meaning as thread strands clearly have a mind of their own. Compassion may come through respect and care for the materials, and finally caring for our own struggles, leaving nothing out.
“Everything has Buddhanature.” “You must treat a grain of rice as if it were your own eyes. . . . we treat things very carefully.”32 “[A]ctually respect practice of respecting things.”33 [However,] “things which exist outside is actually exist inside of yourself.”34 “. . . if you should respect, you know, pay homage, you should pay homage to yourself, and it means to pay homage to buddha and to the dharma.”35
Keeping throughout the focus on refuge, taking what’s learned in the zendo about breath, expanding this into joining every activity with the mindfulness of Buddha, a way appears to meet difficulties. By offering the merit of the practice, holding an intention to finish AND letting go of the idea of finishing, stitch by stitch, the robe comes into being.
When giving a talk about sewing Buddha’s Robe, I often end by asking: “Who wears Buddha’s Robe?” As the silence increases, I simply say: “You do.”
Salmon struggle upstream
Karmic nirvana awaits
Newly born trace tributaries to rivers, to ocean
Returning again and again to awaken
1 “Namu” includes the meaning “homage” in this phrase: “I take refuge in Buddha.”
2 Heart of the Way (Doshin), Shobogenzo, Tanahashi, p. 887
3 Ibid. Making offerings to Buddhas (Kuyo Shobutsu) (Dogen quotes Nargarjuna), p 828
4 In alignment with the egalitarian nature of Zen, experiencing the devotional aspects of sewing Buddha’s Robe is a practice for both the laity and priests. They each travel the same pathways of other aspects of practice together, side-by-side, until diverging to continue on different yet parallel tracks.
5 This was taught at Zuioji, Hashimoto-roshi’s temple, where Yoshida-roshi and also Katagiri roshi participated in sewing practice. Monks there today still receive this teaching, to chant softly or silently, as well as all three refuges. This also continues in Yoshi-roshi’s lineage. For this information and other particulars about the origin of chanting practice, much gratitude to Tomoe Katagiri, Yuko Okumura, and Diane Riggs. Any errors in presenting what was shared with me are my own.
6 Suzuki-roshi lecture archive, 68-08-25V (“V” means verbatim version)
7 Suzuki-roshi, ibid
8 Suzuki-roshi was quite clear about the difference between dualistic practices that developed during the time of mappō (when reaching enlightenment was determined as impossible, and chanting was proposed to transcend karma and reach heaven) and what Dogen taught. While being clear that nembutsu was intended for everyone, he reminded that Dogen taught Zen was for everyone. He lectured upon the 6th power of an arhat (free from karma) more than once, making clear this was no special power at all (Suzuki-roshi: 68-07-21V, 70-07-10V, 70-07-11V ).
9 Zazen as Other-Power Practice, Taigen Dan Leighton, 2005, provided insight into the tension between these two powers and commentary on their development in America as well as providing sources on devotion as seen by Dogen.
10 The Third Rank. Zen Dust, Isshu Miura & Ruth Fuller Sasaki, p. 63-72
11 Buddhas Robe Is Sewn, p. 6, contribution by Shosan Victoria Austin
12 This appeared, quoting Suzuki-roshi, in the article by Blanche: Living a Life of Vow, Shambhala Sun, May 2003. This appears edited by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel in the book of Blanche’s lectures referenced later.
13 Greatly simplified, repeated variations on “may all beings be happy”, or the practice of extending to others, even enemies, what is wished for oneself.
14 Kosen Omichi, head priest of the Soto Zen School in an official notice regarding teaching activites in 2010. “Kind speech is the practice of a bodhisattva that guides people to the Way of Buddha—always thinking of the other person, always working to bring out the best in others.”
15 Scientific homeostasis is relevancy to mental and emotional activity: “[t]he capacity to maintain a functional equilibrium” (p. 34) and “the constancy of the interior environment is the condition of free and independent life” (p. 30) with the possibility of adjusting setpoints. New Yorker, January 8, 2018
16 Nothing Holy (a Zen Primer), Norman Fischer. Shambhala Sun, March 2008, p. 38
17 This and the article by MacPhillamy provided background and offer much insight: Devotion in Buddhism, Nyanaponika Thera, 2004
18 Leighton, ibid, from Jodo 522, Eihei Koroku.
19 Tunnel vision: the surprise of devotion in Zen, Daizui MacPhillamy
20 Along with, for the teacher, much preparation and instruction: offering words of guidance may be seen as an activity of taking refuge.
21 Suzuki-roshi, 70-02-22V
22 Tomoe-san’s book: “Study of the Okesa Nyoho-e Buddha’s Robe”
23 Zen Women, Grace Schierson, p. 49
24 Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, p. 44. Zenkei Blanche Hartman, 2015
25 Suzuki-roshi: 69-07-08V
27 Lama Suya Das, ibid.
28 Tomoe-san’s authorized sewing teacher disciples also have many wonderful stories of how she endeared them to continue through her strong Zen practice and heart.
29 Awakening the Heart: East-West Approaches to Psychotherapy and the Healing relationship, John Welwood, p. ix. “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” is listed as a reference.
30 This is also re-stated: Katagiri-roshi, Windbell, Summer 1971, Vol X, No. 1,
31 Lama Suya Das, ibid.
Jean Selkirk received Lay Ordination from Sojun Mel Weitsman at Berkeley Zen Center in 2000. She continues to teach sewing there since first being asked to help with rakusu sewing in 2002. Then training with Zenkei Blanche Hartman in okesa sewing, she documented this with Blanche’s guidance. Jean is also the compiler of the collection of quotes about sewing practice: “Buddha’s Robe Is Sewn” and contributed to Kaz Tanahashi’s translation of Shobogenzo. In 2012 she coordinated the founding of Zen Buddhist Sewing Teachers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, dedicated to continuing this practice “warm hand, to warm hand.” Currently she is studying with a group of lay Buddhist leaders under the guidance of Shosan Victoria Austin.