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Ironing Buddha’s robe

April 29, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Yesterday, while preparing for our first half-day retreat, I decided to iron my okesa, or priest’s robe.  Placing it carefully on the ironing board I noticed how the wrinkles of the cloth had made it difficult to make out the carefully stitched panels of Buddha’s robe.  I took a moment to take in the impression of how the wrinkles of my life had made it a little more difficult to discern the patterns of the scraps of cloth that Buddha’s attendant, Ananda, had devised twenty five hundred years ago.

According to legend, Buddha was asked by Bimbasara, one of the kings of India, to make a distinctive robe for his disciples so that he could recognize and pay homage to them. Walking by a rice field in Magadha at the time, Buddha asked Ananda, his personal attendant, to design a robe of discarded cloth based on the orderly, staggered pattern of rows of the rice padi fields. Since then Buddhist monks, nuns, and priests of different schools have worn paneled robes.   In several lineages of Soto Zen, a person is required to sew his or her robe while training for priest ordination.

Looking at the robe I remembered how difficult it was for me to sew the twenty thousand stitches while I was training for my priest ordination. I remembered the kindness of my wife and my friend, Gloria, who helped me by cutting out, pinning and even sewing long lines of the black material.  I could still feel the presence of the refuge prayer I recited on every stitch: namo kye Butsu.  And I remembered how deeply humbled I felt when my teacher presented the robe to me during my ordination ceremony.

But most of all, I was taken by the deep wrinkles that seemed to obstruct the “original nature” of the robe.  It was a perfect metaphor for how incompletely I had been able to uphold the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts that I had taken when I was ordained.  But it was more than a metaphor.  It was physical manifestation of how my life, as I had been living it, had partially obscured my original nature.  Taking in this impression I had a strong impression of myself in the context of an ancient religious tradition.

While the iron was warming up, I tried to stay with this impression as wholeheartedly as I could.  As I did so, I let go of many of the associations of failure that I had and just stood there—in front of myself—taking everything in without judgment.  After the iron started to hiss and steam, I began to iron, reciting namo kye Butsu with each stroke.  As the wrinkles disappeared, the stitches, and panels of different shades of black became more and more visible.  And here was another metaphor expressed in physical fact: my practice was to even out the wrinkles of my life so that my original nature could shine through.

When I finished, I carefully folded it the way my teacher had taught me and I recited:

How great the robe of liberation

A formless field of merit

Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching

We free all living beings.



From → Zen Buddhism

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