Sewing is Practice: Four Reflections

Deb Faith-Mind Thoresen, Sensei

I began teaching rakusu sewing around 15 years ago. In the beginning, I was terrified as sewing was not something I was comfortable with, but when asked, I agreed and took the plunge.

The participants collect material, cut it up – sometimes a family treasure – and throw it into the dye pot, no guarantee of the results. Included is a discarded piece from the street, and many have a very difficult time picking the material up at all, which becomes a powerful practice.

I have heard many sad stories from the sewers having been judged and shamed throughout their lives, and the sewing, often in particular the rice field, becomes like a “mirror” as it reflects many difficulties and judgments, mostly people not liking what they see and judging it. I am also impressed with those that just throw themselves in, leaving the stories behind. For many, this is the first time they have picked up a needle and thread. Some folks sit for several sessions staring at the material, frozen, unable to cut.

I enjoy the process of working with people as they sew into the rakusu all the ingredients of their lives that show up. Perfectionists are fun; I think the record is someone who made four rice fields because they couldn’t get it perfect. The fourth was just like the first, but the process for them was important to see their perfectionism and judgments loosen up.

When I attend the Jukai Ceremony, I am like a proud mother – watching them receive their names, lineage charts, and the rakusus they will now wear – taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Geri Meiho Bryan

My father’s suicide was the bellwether that changed the course of my life. To honor him, I made a vow to be a whole being.  I had been practicing yoga at that time so I started to look a little more deeply into the yoga sutras. I became a seeker and spent time on an ashram in Northern California, I traveled to England and Brazil with Tibetan Buddhists, and I spent time with the Hindus at the Vedanta Society. Each of these explorations pointed a direction and helped me to define how I wanted to express my life.

I arrived at Great Dragon Mountain with the love and help of my partner Doetsu. In 2016, Doetsu and I moved into residence at ZCLA. Living in community has helped me to formalize my spiritual practice and commit to working with a teacher. Steady sitting, koan introspection, ceremony, and sesshin are my new normal. After sitting Rohatsu in 2017, I experienced a shift in my life vow, and I realized it was time for me to serve in the role of a Zen Bodhisattva priest.

Sewing my okesa had many lessons for me. The biggest has been learning how to receive and trust. As the okesa took shape, I grappled with many feelings. I came to understand that I need to receive the lessons of the okesa with open hands and trust in the robe. As I sewed, a feeling of connection came up for me, and I realized that with this connection, I am able to receive. The more I am able to receive, the more I am able to serve.

Roshi Egyoku, Sensei Faith Mind, and ZCLA priests were steadfast “how-to” guides. Ancestral hands helped from the pages of instruction books that explained what it is to maintain the seven-paneled robe. Three considerations concerning wearing the okesa have been shared with me. The first is the practical use, second the ceremonial use, and third to receive it as Buddha’s body and mind. A formless field of benefaction.

Now passed down to my hands; how to cut tan and cho, interlock the blocks to create rows, interlock rows to create a rice field. Each stitch is unique, hand sewn by family, sangha, and myself.

The process of bringing the ingredients of the okesa together was life affirming. I had a collection of fabric from my family, and I selected pieces that would not be too heavy for Los Angeles weather. Dying the fabric was creative; some fabrics I dyed three times to get the color of no color. Measuring twice and cutting once, I placed the blocks out like a quilt to get the flow in my mind’s eye.

A few fun facts: My grandfather’s handkerchief is the joros (four directions). The wavy kitty with two big eyes was an oryoki cloth from Doetsu. The Japanese silk jacket I wore for my Jukai has become an envelope to hold my okesa. In essence, this okesa is my life and my life this okesa.

Harlan Jindo Pace

Before I started my rakusu, I sent a letter to friends and family requesting fabric scraps. It was interesting to see who responded and what they sent. The piece I found most meaningful was a handkerchief with an embroidered flower that had been passed down from my great-grandmother to my grand-mother to my aunt. Even though it was given to me to use in my rakusu, it was hard for me to dye it and cut it up, but I did, along with all the other scraps.

After I had dyed my materials and cut them into smaller pieces, I laid them out and rearranged everything until I found a satisfying pattern. I completed the rice field and the frame and was set to do jukai in summer of 2018, but something inside stopped me. I put my unfinished rakusu in a drawer and didn’t touch it for about eight months–I actually felt angry when I looked at it. In early 2019, I felt ready to finish, and so I pulled it out of the drawer and finished sewing along with the fall 2018 cohort. I received Jukai from Sensei Faith-Mind in September 2019 and was given the name Jindo, which means “Benevolent Way.”

Lina Keiju Bahn

I sewed doll clothes when I was a girl, and have used needle and thread over the years. So sewing a rakusu didn’t seem daunting. What did cause anxiety, however, was the prospect of reading the large black folder with all the instructions! Sewing classes in the Dharma Hall were filled with quiet concentration and interludes of banter. I loved stitching side-by-side with my fellow sewers in the sun-filled Hall, listening to little stories about their scraps. Yudo guided classes with his elegant humor, which kept us far from the edge of panic or distress. Mistakes were calmly pointed out, and his attention to detail kept us on our toes (who didn’t push the safety button back on the blade?!) The colors of my cloths found their way into a pattern. One blooper became a “yes” (thank you, Sensei Faith-Mind!), and one incorrect pine twig later (thank you, Yudo!).

A rakusu appeared that I hold in wonderment. Wearing it, I feel the precepts, along with love and gratitude for my family and loved ones. The ZCLA Sangha feels woven in, as well as everything that brought me to the convergence of this point. It is truly an honor to wear the Buddha’s robe.