Friday, May 02, 2008

This robe that I am wearing is called the kesa. The small Rakusus that we wear sometimes refers to the whole object including the neck strap but are also kesas which we can wear when eating and working without damaging them.

The kesa is the Buddha’s robe. The (abridged to say the least) story goes that when he came out of the forest, sick after 7 years of asceticism, living naked, fasting in austerity, he was given a kind of milk pudding to eat. He also sewed together rags to make a covering for his body. Then having eaten enough, warmly clothed in the robe, he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, he experienced contentment. Practising zazen, sitting in balance, he realised the middle way, the way itself of balance. When he saw the morning star, he experienced it as if for the first time, as something incredibly real.

This is why Buddhists revere the ordinary activities of life, of working, sleeping and eating, wearing clothes, cleaning and looking after ourselves enough that we can maintain our health and more our wellbeing so that we can not only practise zazen, the way of the middle but that our real life expresses this middle way.

The kesa is the symbol of the Buddha’s teaching but beyond this, it actually is the Buddha’s teaching. Sewing the kesa is something we cannot do with the mind that strives after the future or worries at the past. It takes a long time, a lot of simple stitching to make a robe, on we go, one careful stitch after another, after another. We can imagine the finished kesa but it doesn’t help us, if it is ever to be realised we must maintain a pure attention on just this next stitch. Eventually, a kesa appears, somehow. This is our life, attending carefully to each instant, our real life emerges.

We make the kesa of no particular colour, not definite but a broken colour, like mud or stones. We don’t choose special material but just use something that will suffice. We are not proud of the kesa or imagine that it has special powers as an object of worship. But we revere it the same way we revere work, food and sleep, lying down, sitting and standing-up again.

It is both the symbol of our Buddhist life and it really is our simple Buddhist life. A chair is both the symbol for a chair, the one we construct in our minds when we think of a chair and something real, something to sit on and beyond that something completely inexpressible. The kesa is both the symbol of the law and the real substance of the law, a real robe that covers us, revealing our wholeness with all of existence.

It is formless because like everything else in our lives undivided by the discriminating mind, it is empty of the form we give it yet has the unnameable form of itself, beyond dimension, beyond conception.

Then again, we can say ‘Here is the kesa!’

‘Form is emptiness and emptiness is form’ as the Heart Sutra so famously states.

The Takkesage is the verse of the robe which we say every morning and sometimes just whenever we put on the robe. One translation is like this:

The great robe of freedom is limitless
The robe without form is the field of happiness
Wrapping ourselves in the Buddha’s teachings
We vow to save all sentient beings

Itinerant monk Kodo Sawaki said that the kesa is the garment of "drizzle and dew, mist and clouds." He means that the kesa encompasses all things, that, as the symbol and substance of the law its’ microcosm contains everything - even past and future like Blake’s infinity in a grain of sand.

Dogen said:

"Wearing this robe, one transmits correctly the skin, flesh, bones and marrow of the awakened ones of the past present and future........All the sutras, all the Buddhist teachings, the whole universe, the mountains, seas, trees and flowers, even rocks, all express the merits of the kesa."

There is a famous poem by Daichi Zenji:

I am happy in my kesa,
Calmly I possess the universe.
I stay or leave as it wishes.
The pure breeze drives the white clouds.

(Given as a talk, Bloomsbury Zen Group 1/05/2008)

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