Monday, July 10, 2006

if only I can make a perfect rakusu...

I've always been wary of adhering to any sort of belief system, but I've found little in Soto Zen to object to on that front. For me it's more about releasing attachment to beliefs than gaining new ones. I do wonder though whether some of the people I practice with are attached to the trappings of the practice - the ceremonies, the wearing of kimonos and kesas, the chanting in archaic Sino-Japanese. I wonder if they will eventually burn the raft of the dharma in order to achieve greater liberation or whether they will float around in circles anchored to the Buddha.

I just go there to sit. The only time I wore a kimono was on an occasion when I was asked to lead a sitting - it seemed inappropriate not too. I do see usefulness in ritual acts in terms of mindfulness though. And I am sewing a rakusu.

However, I wonder whether this rakusu is just another useless attachment. When it is complete I don't know whether I will get ordained in it, give it away or destroy it. What would lead to the least attachment, bearing in mind that rejection is a form of attachment too? It's a sort of 'koan' for me right now. I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. So I'm just focussing of practicing detachment - I'll just see what I do.

It seems possible to wear robes etc without attachment. For myself I wonder if it creates a sense of separation between ordinary life and spiritual life.

I question the motivation for wanting to wear a special costume enough that I would make substantial efforts to own one. Is it that we want to belong? Or feel holy? I know people I practice with who seem very attached to their rakusus and kesas - not at all surprising when they painstakingly stitched them by hand. They get ever so upset if they get dirty? Am I not creating one more thing to cling to ? More conditions for freedom and happiness?

I see the Believers of other religions around me practicing similar things to Zen. Are they doing it because it is a raft to take them to enlightenment? All of them? And we see similar things with ideologies of all sorts. They all have their rationalisations for while such things are needed. Maybe it has more to do with a sense of belonging to something 'special' and 'sacred'? Maybe it has everything to do with social psychology and nothing to do with the furtherment of enlightenment. I don't know. Maybe it can be both.

What this is really about deep down is this: I have a fear of having my mind melted by religious indoctrination. This isn't something I associate with zazen (which is a good anti-BS tool) but with religious trappings and beliefs - even the minimal ones of Zen. I practice Zen in part because it is so minimal in this regard, but it is there nevertheless.

'Fear' is a bit strong, but I have a slight anxiety that by accepting the uniform of a faith I am discouraging myself from testing for myself, thinking for myself and replacing that with conformity to doctrine and blind (or at least only partially sighted) faith. Zen is gooood....Zen is gooood...Zen is the solution to all problems...if only I can make a perfect kesa... Within Zen I believe this is sometimes called 'Zen sickness'.

Here is a fairly extreme attitude of importance attached to religious trappings in Soto Zen. I suspect that this attitude has a more to do with protecting and furthering Zen as a social institution than it has to do with individual awakening.

Not just a garment, the kesa itself is zazen. It is the robe of zazen and the robe of true Zen practice. Since the time of Shakyamuni, all of the masters of the transmission received, respected, wore, taught and passed on the kesa. Like zazen, it is nothing mysterious or mystical, but a natural part of our daily practice.

Some might say the kesa is not really important: "It's a formalism, unnecessary, zazen alone is enough, I don't need to wear it." And of course someone can do zazen without a kesa, it is not absolutely necessary. But without the kesa, zazen becomes only a method of body-mind training, not a true religion. For those who seek the Way, the kesa has a great value.

Wearing the kesa and doing zazen, unconsciously, naturally, automatically, we can receive the great merits of the true Way. Anyone can wear the kesa, and whether it be the grand kesa or the rakusu (mini-kesa), the merits are the same. It protects us as it protects the Way itself.

Comments? Advice? Anecdotes?


  1. This is a great post, and an important topic, esp. for those of us who practice. I think one of the biggest challenges facing the Western mind as it embraces the Dharma is the emotional/spiritual legacy of Christainity.

    Always seperate, always 'other'. Man here, God there. This attitude is subtly woven into zen practice, without conscious intent. Until someone has actually experienced the first taste of awakening, enlightment will always be so many theories in the dark, weighed down by outdated conditioning.

    My husband and I left our local zendo almost two years ago, and now we practice alone(together). We were practising the Korean form of zazen, with all the trappings that came along with it. And, as can be expected, most of the people there were still highly confused about issues regarding attachment, ego and growth.

    Not to say that Ant and I were any less deluded, we all have our lessons to learn, but in the end we found the practice space to be a lot less emotionaly charged when just the two of us sat together.

    But - and this is a big one - I am all for ritual and tradition. The only catch is that you actually have to have your feet firmly in the Dharma, to be able to use the tools of ritual without attachment. Tools are tools, no value judgements neccessary. How we use them creates their value.

    Ritual and tradition as a conscious aid to encourage the monkey-mind to focus and quiten. All good.

    We're also looking at the difference between sudden path and gradual path. Yes, we are all enlightened right now, and those embracing the sudden path need no foundations to stand on. And then you get the gradual amble towards Dharma, practiced by those who have not the fortitude or desire to jump in head first.

    I'm with the sudden school myself, the more hardcore the better. Only, now that I feel I am well on my way, and the path lies solid before be, my artist self perks up her head and exclaims- "Oh goody, lets play!" and now I am free to create ritual and tradition as well as dismantle it.

    What do you think?

  2. gaelin,

    Thanks for the helpful comments.

    I published the same post at
    Flapping Mouths
    where there are a lot of useful comments.

    The key phrase is 'without attachment' of course and far more insidious than simple attachment is attachment-to-no-attachment and belief-that-one-has-no-attachment. All of that has to go. In the few moments when I have felt totally free of attachment, all that disappeared, it was simple and effortless.

    I think a lot of people mistake the trappings for Zen and ordinary life for non-Zen.

    The Sudden School sounds exciting, I have little first hand experience of it.