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Wrapped in the buddha’s robe

A lecture on the kesa,

by Kojun Kishigami Osho.

At the Rouen Dojo in November 2006.


Both master Sawaki and Deshimaru constantly had the word “kesa” on their lips. The kesa is absolutely indispensable for everyone who practices Buddhism. In my experience, the absence of the kesa or teaching about the kesa can endanger the practice.


As you know, the kesa is the garment worn by Gautama Buddha’s disciples; you might think of it as a kind of uniform. But it is above all the garment worn by Buddha himself. In Theravada, the kesa is used as an indispensable item of clothing and thus has a practical aspect.


It was not until Buddhism was introduced to China that the kesa’s symbolic connotation became important. You can therefore understand why Dogen entitled one of his Shobogenzo chapters Kesa Kudoku [The Merit of the Kesa]. It deals with both the practical and spiritual aspects of this garment.


First of all, let’s talk about the origin of the kesa – the reason it was created.


[Aerial photo of rice fields: rows of rectangular shapes in tones of gold, green and brown]

After Buddha’s satori, his disciples wore the kesa as we would wear a blanket. Then, one of the great kings of India learned that Buddha’s disciples were passing through the region, and decided to go and meet them. However, when he got down from his elephant, he realized the people in question were not disciples of Buddha.


This is why the king requested that henceforth, Buddha’s disciples should be recognizable from a distance and should wear a kind of uniform in order to distinguish them from other disciples. So Buddha told his close disciple Ananda to use rice fields as his inspiration to create this “uniform” – or rather, to reproduce the irrigation canals of the surrounding rice fields. You can imagine the rice fields, the beautiful irrigation canals, the pure water irrigating the fields… .

And so it was Ananda who imagined the model for the kesa. Along the edges, you see the canals that are used for irrigation. The pieces are always rectangular. Some kesas have five bands, others seven, others nine; and even if each kesa has its particularities in terms of form and use, the basic idea is exactly the same.


[Kishigami wearing a brown rakusu: a rectangular assemblage of fabric sewn with tiny stitches representing rice fields, worn around the neck]

This is a kesa [shows his rakusu] – or rather, a “mini-kesa.” It is ten times smaller than my kesa. As you can see, the central piece is raised, which would allow the water to flow from the center towards the right and left, in the way that mountain water flows into a rice field. To obtain this elevation in the center, the pieces are layered on top of each other.


Furthermore, on this kesa, the measurements of the central piece are double those of the upper piece, indicating the maturing of the wearer’s Buddha-mind. This garment is worn by disciples; it is imbued with the Buddhist teaching and vision of the universe.


Disciples had to be content with three basic elements of existence: a roof, a bowl and a robe. As far as the roof is concerned, India’s temperate climate allowed monks to take shelter under trees. As for food, disciples had to make do with the offerings they received during their begging rounds [takuhatsu]. It was out of the question to say, “I don’t like this or that,” even if their stomachs were in knots. A monk is supposed to be satisfied with the bare minimum and should show gratitude. This is where his wisdom lies.


A big sari would have tripped up the monks; on the other hand, the navel had to be covered. And since the rakusu did not meet these criteria, the seven-band kesa was invented. Later, after its arrival in China and Japan, the kesa experienced a new evolution. Since people wore clothes underneath, they were able to wear a shorter kesa. This is why the rakusu is simply a symbol of a disciple of Buddha.


[Brown fabric covered with lines of small stitches – the Buddhist robe known as the kesa – draped over the left shoulder of a meditating monk]

In terms of the meaning of the kesa: this garment is a symbol of a person’s awakening [gedatsu]. The Dai sai gedap-puku [Kesa Sutra](1) is about the satori of the person who practices zazen. For the person who wears it, the rakusu should be enough; nevertheless, since the kesa envelops the whole universe, it carries an additional meaning.


Although the kesa has a shape or form, the person who wears it considers it to be formless: muso. It is in fact not only symbolic of the entire universe, but also of the teaching, the nyorai kyo, received from Buddha. Then, I lead all beings from the world of illusion towards the world of satori. Wearing the kesa means wrapping yourself in the Buddha’s robe.


I always keep in mind [Sawaki] Roshi’s words: “A shaved head, the kesa and zazen: that’s enough! This and nothing but this is enough for us.”


There are kesas with five, nine, eleven, thirteen, fifteen and seventeen bands, all the way up to twenty-five bands. This way, the further we go in the practice, the more long bands there are. As the Buddha within me grows, the number of long bands will increase.


In India, Buddha’s disciples wore kesas with five, seven and nine bands. They were allowed three kesas, and these were their only clothes. In fact, today’s monks should have only three kesas; in winter, if necessary, it is possible to wear them layered.


[A large rectangular piece of cloth which is almost as big as the person holding it. It has a wide black-brown border and a blue-grey central rectangle]

A brief comment about the zagu: In India, it is used for bowing. You can also use it to sit on under a tree, or to cover yourself.


In India, the five-band kesa is worn when the person is alone, doing samu [work practice], or traveling. In Japan, we use the rakusu when traveling and when we do samu.


The seven-band kesa is used for daily life – in other words, to practice zazen and recite the sutras. During teishos, both speaker and audience wear the seven-band kesa. This is the formal way to present oneself on this type of occasion.


Kesas of nine or more bands are reserved for ceremonies. During ordinations, the monk giving the ordination wears the nine-band kesa, because he is considered to be the Buddha’s representative, just as the godo considers the disciple to be Gautama Buddha’s disciple and not his own. I put great emphasis on this point! The same goes for begging rounds, takuhatsu.


From nine bands upwards [dai-e], we consider that the offerings are made to us as disciples of Buddha. The offerings obtained through the labor of donors serve as encouragement in the practice of the Way. Food is offered in exchange, to show gratitude for the teaching. In this sense, it is not the person who receives the offerings, but the kesa itself


Recently, during my stay at La Gendronnière [Zen Temple], someone showed me her kesa when we were leaving morning zazen. It seemed different to me, even if the thread and cloth were correct. At another morning zazen, someone was wearing a nine-band kesa. And it was the same at the Paris Dojo.


This did not escape my attention. It’s a bit like when two samurais observe each other with eagle eyes. I said to myself, “Did Deshimaru forget to make the distinction between the seven- and nine-band kesas?” Obviously I don’t mean to speak ill of Master Deshimaru’s teaching. Perhaps someday I’ll have a chance to dot the i’s.


[Black-and-white photo of two monks, one standing, one kneeling before him. The standing monk wears an elaborate patchwork robe, funzo-e. He is placing a folded kesa on the head of the kneeling monk, who is receiving it]

I still haven’t talked about the funzo-e, the “rag robe.” It is an assemblage of bits of discarded material which have been washed and dyed. When these rags are re-used, it is important to dye them in faded colors. I really insist on this point.


Many people amuse themselves by sewing together material to make a kind of patchwork. I was shown one at La Gendronnière. Someone had assembled extraordinary material from the four corners of the earth to make a kesa. Unfortunately, there was one thing missing: the true spirit of the kesa.


Make no mistake, the kesa is neither a work of art nor a simple object! Some of the people who have the responsibility of ordaining adore gold decorations, or colors that stand out, like black or white. It’s a shame, especially if these people practice zazen correctly. So please, let us be humble and see to it that personal will does not circumvent the rules.


We must respect the spirit of the kesa. In general, I can say that [in Deshimaru’s sangha], the rakusu and seven-band kesa are very well made. With the nine-band and the funzo-e, it becomes more unorthodox. Maybe you have never heard about kesas with a large number of bands, but please, stick to the rules.


I neglected to say that, contrary to the rakusu, the seven-band kesa is not lined. I once saw a large kesa that had no lining, but it was an isolated case. Among the Buddhist schools in Japan, we can pick out the schools for which the kesa is important and those for which it is not. I was once shown a kesa made of traditional silk from Kyoto. In fact, its shiny appearance does not correspond to the spirit of the texts.


[Kishigami standing with a blue-and-black kesa draped over his left shoulder and arm]

What material should you use to sew a kesa? We use inexpensive cloth, something that you can find easily. It is necessary to use material that is not shiny and has no pattern, and also to be sure that it is not slippery. Other than that, you can use wool or cotton, synthetics or silk. There are no restrictions on this subject. In Mongolia, for example, animal skins are allowed.


Furthermore, it is important that the color be simple and dark. The three primary colors are not allowed. Nor is pure white. As for black, it must not be a sharp black. Traditionally in Japan, wearing black was the norm, but Kodo’s disciples are careful to not wear sharp black and use a black that is a bit faded. I know that in the Theravadan tradition and currently in Japan, mistakes are often made in the choice of colors.


The monks who come out of Eihei-ji usually sport kesas leaning towards yellow. If it is a soothing yellow, that’s perfect; just as long as it’s not egg-yolk. It is preferable to get it a bit dirty. Kesas worn in the Theravadan tradition follow local custom: their brick color can be found in the earth, so I will not criticize them. In Japan, the landscape is made up of trees.


However, for ceremonies, monks have the regrettable tendency to consider the kesa as a decorative garment. In general, one should not think of the kesa as a chasuble worn by church priests. The kesa should generate peacefulness and the wearer’s harmony with this spirit. We Buddhists do not speak in terms of power. What counts for us is to be disciples of Buddha.


Personally, I work from the principle that we must refer to the ancient texts. Sawaki restored the kesa, which was going off in all different directions. So, you should know that traditionally, the disciples of Kodo Sawaki choose a faded black color.


[One nun helping another to put on a black kesa]

I have noticed that Europeans tend to sew with a white thread, but I advise you to instead use thread only slightly lighter in color than the fabric. For example, grey on black fabric, or a beige color if the material is brown. This way, the stitches won’t stand out too much and will be more discreet. This will produce a calming effect on the observer. It will also make sewing easier, and will bring out the pattern of the bands.


Another point to mention is the measurements. In general, the kesa should be big enough to cover you in zazen without tripping you up; make sure that it does not touch the ground.


The distance between bands is always the same. What you find in kesa stores in Japan makes no sense at all. The bands that represent the rice fields must have identical widths. All the kesas sewn by Deshimaru have identical bands, which is correct.


I know that people often buy new material, but you can certainly recycle and use pieces that have been taken apart and mended. You only need to put aside any parts with stains or holes. This is a matter of good sense. Cutting away the bad parts must be done very carefully, like a surgeon cutting away the unhealthy parts of a sick body. Once the pieces are cut, you can move on to assembling them.


We could compare all of this to the education of a child: you start with the individual parts and proceed to the whole. Anyone who wears the kesa, the symbol of the disciple of Buddha, is supposed to do no harm, and the kesa protects him or her. The wearer should therefore take good care of it. So you can understand why we take off the kesa before we go to the toilet.


[Close-up of hands sewing a kesa: brown material, beige thread]

Sewing a kesa requires wisdom and compassion. It’s a little like making a Buddha statue or an object of worship. Each stitch should be about 3mm wide, like a grain of wheat. More gifted sewers make a tiny stitch.


In India, it is said that one should finish sewing a kesa in as many days as there are bands: a five-band kesa in five days, a seven-band kesa in seven days, etc. This dictum exists to prevent people from using sewing as an excuse for not doing zazen. But there is nothing stopping you from taking six months or a year.


We cannot speak in terms of good or bad work. Naturally, some people sew better than others. This is not important. What’s important is that you put your heart into it.


[Nun in black robes sitting on a chair, sewing a black kesa]


(1) Takkesa Ge (Kesa Sutra)

Dai sai gedap-puku (O garment of great liberation)
Muso fuku den e (Formless field-of-happiness robe)
Hi bu nyorai kyo (I receive Buddha’s teaching with faith)
Ko do shoshu jo (To widely help all sentient beings)


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