I once managed to read a book on zen without understanding any of it. It was Peter Matthiessen’s zen diary. The only thing that stayed with me was the scene where his dying wife asked for her rakusu. He describes how she was propped up in bed, proudly wearing this garment that reminded me of a bib, made of cotton strips, with her dharma name written on the back. It did not make any sense to me, but for some reason I remember it.According to many scholars the buddha made his robe from discarded pieces of cloth found at burial sites. He dyed them with saffron, for disinfection. Nowadays, when we see a monk in brilliant orange robes or in zen you-can-have-any-colour-as-long-as-it’s-black attire, we often feel awe, but I don’t think that’s necessary. I know that Bernie Glassman asked the Zen Peacemakers to sew their robes by hand and use only second hand cloth. And if Lin Chi (the founder of Rinzai zen) could have his say, he’d add:
“Don’t get so taken up with the robe! The robe can’t move of itself; the person is the one who can put on the robe. (…) Because of mental processes thoughts are formed, but all of these are just robes.”
The rakusu is said to be a miniature buddhist robe. Chinese monks used to wear this garment underneath their clothes in times when they were closet buddhists. There are lots of other stories surrounding the rakusu. If you would like to make your own, there are detailed instructions on the internet. People generally associate wearing a rakusu with having taken the buddhist precepts. (More on this some other time, perhaps.) Now, I’m just concerned with all the ideas surrounding these humble pieces of cloth. I’ve watched people having a very serious discussion about whether it’s allowed to take the thing into the toilet or not.
Two years ago, I was in a zen monastery for what we call Rohatsu. It’s the most intense meditation period of the year, taking place in early December. Somebody had generously lent me a black robe and I wasn’t happy to wear it. Every time I walked passed a window this vision of a crow popped up in the corner of my eye. And then there’s the hazards of eating soup when wearing these very long kimono-type sleeves. Or hearing some cotton rip in mid flight and finding you’re stuck to the door handle while there’s only one minute left to get to the zendo.
At the end of this intense sesshin, we took a picture of all the people there. In the middle was roshi, our zen master, wearing a long, ceremonial purple robe and a rakusu made of gold brocade. Just when we are all trying to smile, one of the students got up, told the photographer to wait and went to get the rakusu that she had prepared earlier. It was a brilliant piece of work. Sewn by hand, out of thin strips of very light grey material, held together by a ring … I suddenly noticed that the ring was made of cardboard and the rakusu of toilet paper! It even had the embroidered triangle on the back that identifies the wearer as part of the Rinzai school. It was a brilliant piece of work.Roshi loved it. She wore it with pride and she did not hesitate to pose for more pictures.
This week, I saw that yet another zen school had popped up in my home town. They promise you the “zen that gets you results”. I would not say they were in it for the money, but you can buy an original Japanese rakusu in their shop. It costs 350 USD. I think we might have come full circle.