Having been born to meet the spread of this Dharma, if we cover our body with the kasaya only once, receiving it and retaining it for just a ksana or a muhurta, that experience will surely serve as a talisman to protect us in the realization of the supreme state of bodhi.
Dogen Zenji, Kesa Kudoku chapter of Shobogenzo (Nishijima/Cross translation)
Some of us from Glasgow Zen Group recently began meeting monthly on Zoom to practice our zen sewing. Our small friendly group started on Sunday afternoon, with two sewing periods. These were interspersed with time in the middle for the Takkesage Robe verse chant, a brief chat about Master Dogen’s Kesa Kudoku (Merit of the Kasaya/ Okesa) and a break for a cuppa.
The sewing periods are peaceful times of practice where we can carefully attend to whatever task we are working on, and still ask for help when we need it. Michael Tait and Margaret Kerr were on hand to give detailed advice, with Margaret expertly guiding us in the warp and weft of the fabric 🙂
Most of us are just beginning our sewing projects, either a rakusu (5 row robe worn over the neck), or seven row okesa (worn over the shoulder) and also zagu sitting mat which is often used for prostrations. Some of us have sewn okesa before whilst others including myself have sewn a rakusu or two but are now preparing for the okesa. And some of us are at the exciting stage of getting ready to sew their first rakusu, with the plan to receive Jukaie precepts after completing their sewing.
Each stitch, each moment of sincere, committed action, one cause in many from which the completed okesa emerges. It can be said that the work of sewing the okesa is never finished. The stitches of the okesa are the actions of our Buddhist life, dedicated to all beings. At the end of that life, the okesa of a lifetime of actions are unfolded and spread out.
Michael Kendo Tait
We have been enjoying chatting online (using Slack) about fabrics and stitching and what equipment is best to use, but it was really nice to have some time together to help each other and discuss in more details about the practice. It is a friendly and easygoing group with practitioners from Glasgow and other places further afield – wherever you are you are welcome to join us 🙂
In the Mountains and Waters Sutra, Dogen says that when human beings see water, fish and dragons see palaces. He doesn’t say that the fish and dragons are mistaken. He also says that although human beings see mountains as still, they are always walking.
Within this ocean, are there palaces, or not? Within this mountain, is there movement, or not?
This being moment is completely manifested, like a mountain. It isn’t dependent on past and future. This being moment is completely liberated within interconnectedness. It flows in all directions, like the ocean: from past to future, from future to past, from present to present. This manifestation and liberation is our life.
Our first online Shakyo 写経 practice event saw us come together from Scotland, and elsewhere such as the rest of the UK and Canada, forming a lovely group of sutra tracing and copying practitioners. This was a joint event I led for the D+P Studio and Glasgow Zen Group.
Beginning with an introduction about the history of shakyo and the development of it from Tang dynasty China to modern day Japan, with descriptions of experiences and process in Japanese Buddhist temples such as Zen and Hossou schools, and then we discussed the meditative as well as practical techniques, demos and tips to prepare us.
We also talked about the Boundless Life Ten Phrase Kannon Sutra 延命十句観音経 and its connections to other sutras, looked at particular kanji characters and phrases, and how the sutra has been popular and cherished over the centuries as one that aids wellbeing in times of sickness or difficulty.
After our tea, we lit the incense, rang the bell, chanted and began quietly tracing or copying, working from the short but meaningful and energetic sutra, assisted by worksheets with the kanji and meanings. Some people simply used pens with plain paper whilst others had brush pens or shakyo brush with suzuri inkwell and Japanese paper. It was great to see the the sutras of everyone, here are some examples.
The Odaimoku お題目 chant – repeating the title of the Lotus Sutra Namumyohourengekyou 南無妙法蓮華経 – is principally associated with the Nichiren-shu school but was originally part of a Tendai chant, the school in which Dogen Zenji grew up with.
The Boundless Life Ten Line Kannon Sutra is chanted at various times such as by monks at Takuhatsu ritual begging while they walk in all weathers. It has a lot of energy and you can try it walking, or even running slowly!
Towards the end of the year as the dry leaves rustled across the pavements, Blair practiced Shakyo Sutra tracing at temples in Tokyo, working mainly from Genjo’s version of the Hannya Shingyo – Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.
You can see the hanging scroll of Genjo / Xuanzang in the Soto Zen shakyo hall, he is beautifully pictured sitting and beginning work.
Macha tea and a snack are given to practitioners at certain temples, a lovely way to settle, connect with your senses, as well as give some much appreciated energy. There are different sutras and versions of each that can be traced or copied in the temples.
After zazen when we chant the Heart Sutra we are chanting the short condensed version – heart/essence – of the massively longer Great Real Wisdom Perfection Sutras (an early Mahayana work begun around the 1st Century). The Japanese title is Maka hannya haramita shin gyo. What we chant is the most common version chanted in China and Japan, translated by Xuanzang (Jp: Genjo) into 260 Chinese characters.
The first lines in our chant copy is an introduction to the sutra and expresses our zazen practice.
In the title –
Maka is vast or great. Hannya is prajna or intuition or wisdom, beyond what can be intellectually discriminated (the sutra is about this, encourages us to investigate the way things really are, to explore our experience and existence), haramita is paramita or perfection, shin is heart-mind but in this case essence, gyo is sutra, which as a kanji character expresses spaciousness (eg can also mean longitude).
The start of the Hannya Shingyo –
Kanjizai bosatsu – Kannon/ Guanyin/ Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva – gyo jin hannya ha ra mitta ji – through (or going/ impulse) the deep prajna paramita practice time – sho ken go on kai ku – sees with illumination the five skandhas empty – dou issai ku yaku – with a single cut saves beings from pain/ suffering.
So zazen practice is dwelling profoundly in and dynamically enacting prajna.
“A teacher and his student were standing by the shore. In the distance was a boat. The teacher said to the student ‘forgetting about your mind for the moment, point to the boat’. The student pointed to the boat. The teacher then said ‘forgetting about the boat for the moment, point to your mind’. The student pointed to the boat again”
In dualism, we imagine the mind comes first, occupying an unspecified space, within which the world then appears. But truly, mind and world are the same illumination. But it is not the great illumination.
Dogen said that when we see water, fish see shimmering palaces. Demons see blood. Gods see strings of pearls. But the eyes seeing ‘water’ are without limit, and so the powers of expression of ‘water’ are without limit. This is the great illumination. Likewise, ‘mountains’. Likewise, ‘thinking’.