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Studying the kesa

An interview with Françoise Laurent, Zen nun


A disciple of Master Taisen Deshimaru, Françoise Kosen Laurent received the nun ordination in 1976. She taught kesa sewing in the Paris Dojo until 1999, when she moved to the Montpellier Dojo, where she was the director until 2002. She currently leads a weekly sewing workshop at La Gendronnière Zen Temple, and teaches the kesa during weekends and workshops organized by various European dojos.


She was interviewed for Zen Road at La Gendronnière on October 23, 2005, by Cristina Delneri.



Cristina Delneri: For Master Taisen Deshimaru’s sangha in Europe, you are one of the authorities on the subject of the kesa. How did this happen?


Françoise Laurent: I discovered zazen in Paris, in Master Deshimaru’s time. It was 1974. Then I practiced zazen and I was introduced to the kesa — well, actually, the rakusu — for my ordination, in 1976.


I sewed one rakusu and very quickly sewed more, because I liked to sew and Sensei [Deshimaru] asked if I wanted to sew for him — in other words, for the ordinations. He needed help because at the time very few people were sewing their own rakusus. In fact, four or five people sewed the rakusus for all the ordinations.


[Photo of the making of a rakusu]

So that’s how I began, and afterwards I sewed a lot. Then, while Master Deshimaru was still alive, but especially after his death, I taught rakusu and kesa sewing.


When we started giving ordinations again after Sensei’s death, we thought it would be good to teach everyone how to sew their own rakusu. It wasn’t easy, so we introduced sewing during samu (work for the temple, dojo or community), which was not the case during Master Deshimaru’s time.


In his day, we put up buildings during samu and sewed during activity time. But at that point it became more central, so during sessions at La Gendronnière many people were able to sew their rakusu or kesa: it became a practice that was truly taught to everyone. After that came the publication of the Kesa Book (Livre du kesa; Paris: AZI/Daruma, 1986).


It had become necessary after awhile: at the beginning we were just a handful of people sewing together, so we were doing the same thing. Later, with each person teaching many people, and those people coming from many different countries, there was a need for precision, in terms of Master Deshimaru’s teaching (the kusen about everything surrounding the kesa was very interesting), but also on the technical side, which had been translated from a book by Master Kodo Sawaki.


C.D.: Did you participate in the book’s publication?


F.L.: I didn’t take part in the first edition, but I made small changes to it little by little as it was updated. The book was never wrong; however, there were interpretations of it which were not quite correct. It’s a tool. The technical part is very useful for people who have already learned from someone.


If you want to do it all alone... It’s like taking a book that explains zazen posture and doing zazen all alone: there will surely be a time when it won’t be easy, because it’s important to learn with a person. Zen is more about person-to-person contact than just books. Books are useful, but...


C.D.: What does studying the kesa mean?


F.L.: For me, studying the kesa is connected to the ordination. You receive the kesa when you receive the ordination; even at the first one, the bodhisattva ordination, you receive the rakusu (which is basically a small kesa).


For some people, studying the kesa begins by making it before the ordination, but it also begins by receiving it: the moment you receive it is very important. Then you study it by practicing zazen and by wearing the kesa and the rakusu during zazen and in daily life.


So studying the kesa means receiving it in the sense of welcoming it into your life, because it’s something that’s not really familiar to us at the outset.


Contact with the kesa is different for everyone. Some people say that they made contact with it the first time they saw a kesa or a rakusu, or the first time they heard the Dai sai geda puku (the Kesa Sutra, chanted with the folded kesa or rakusu placed on the head). Like Master Dogen, who was completely blown away when he heard all the monks reciting this sutra together: he really had a great satori.


[Photo of a nun singing the Kesa Sutra with the kesa on her head]

Studying the kesa means accepting the kesa; that’s why I think it should never be imposed. Some people place a lot of faith in the powers of the rakusu, and if someone in their family is sick (someone who doesn’t practice zazen), they want to help them, so they give them a rakusu. I’m neither for nor against this, but I think to myself, why impose it?


If you have faith in the kesa, you know that this person’s eyes need only glance over the kesa, even unconsciously, in order for their karma to be completely transformed. Of course, the kesa is not reserved for ordained people. Everybody can wear it. But receiving the kesa, like receiving the ordination, is something that happens in our lives, it’s an opening: you receive.


Therefore, it is receiving the Buddha’s teaching. What does it mean to become Buddhist? I don’t know. It’s up to the individual. But I think that studying the kesa means first of all receiving the kesa.


C.D.: Before receiving the kesa, one usually sews it. With whom? How does one go about it?


F.L.: When you sew a kesa or a rakusu, it’s important to learn from someone. In our Zen school, the kesa has a very special meaning: it’s the uninterrupted transmission and, in that sense, it not only symbolizes, but is, truly, the transmitted teaching.


[Photo of Cristina Delneri helping someone to measure the cloth for a kesa]

And so in terms of sewing, I think it’s essential to learn from someone. You might say, “Yes, but it has to be someone exceptional.” I don’t think so. It should be someone who doesn’t make mistakes, naturally, but above all it should be someone sincere who has learned from someone else, and it should be someone you trust.


This chain is important, and we find the same idea in the succession of patriarchs. The patriarchs — according to what we know about their lives and their teaching — had different specificities and characters. Still, the teaching was transmitted from person to person.


It’s the same for making a kesa: it’s important to learn from someone.


C.D.: So learning to sew the kesa is a matter of trust in the human being?


F.L.: Above all, teaching it from person to person is connected to the master-disciple relationship. Of course, many people practice zazen without necessarily following a master. Following a master doesn’t mean never listening to other people.


At first we have a lot of ideas — that’s normal. The kesa and Buddhism are not in the collective unconscious of our countries. But by practicing the kesa, you realize that having one person, or several people, near you helps you to not wander off the track; this proximity shows you your mistakes. It’s also important to understand that practicing the Way and practicing the kesa means seeing your mistakes.


So, the first thing in the study of the kesa is to receive it and welcome it. Next is accepting the teaching that the kesa offers, because it’s not just a soft teaching, it’s not just protection and rose petals. It’s Buddha’s teaching: it’s seeing yourself, seeing your illusions, seeing your limits — and sometimes it really hurts.


C.D.: You see your illusions when you practice the kesa?


F.L.: Kesa practice enables you to see your attachments and the limits of your understanding of the Way. I’ve talked a lot about sewing, but we shouldn’t focus on that, because the kesa isn’t only that.


Let’s say that I have a lot of practice with kesa sewing and it’s through sewing that I approached the kesa more deeply. That’s my personal path. There are people who have never sewn, or hardly ever — beginning with Master Deshimaru, who mustn’t have sewn much — yet who have transmitted the kesa in other ways, more deeply than I could ever do.


We mustn’t separate the kesa from zazen. It’s not an aesthetic thing, it’s not sewing, it’s not just concentrating on one stitch after the other while isolating yourself from the world. For every person who sews a rakusu, there is one, fundamental moment: when you receive it, you let it go, you abandon it.


Receiving the kesa means receiving it from Buddha’s hands. It’s not quite right to tell yourself, “It’s my rakusu,” “I made my kesa,” “It’s my ordination.” And that’s why I sometimes say that it’s not all that important to sew your own kesa and rakusu. You can just as well buy it.


C.D.: Is it when we sew the kesa that we begin protecting it?


F.L.: It goes without saying that sewing your kesa or rakusu is an irreplaceable experience; but you mustn’t forget that to receive it, you have to let it go.


Then, once you’ve received it, that’s not the time to let it go or forget all about it. On the contrary, you protect it, but you don’t protect it simply as something that belongs to you; you protect it much more than your own personal belongings, because the kesa is supposed to go further than us, further than our lives, than our bodies, for example.


When we die, the kesa remains. It can be transmitted before or afterwards. It’s something that goes beyond you. Even if you made it at a specific time, with new material, and you made it yourself, it goes beyond your personal history.


The fact that you encountered the practice, that you are led to sew a kesa is, as Master Dogen says, “proof of very good karma in your past lives.” It may seem like happenstance, but it’s a tremendous opportunity: very few people come into contact with it.


[Photo of kesa sewing practice at Toulouse]

Sewing with this outlook is something extraordinary. It’s an incredible experience that many people have either before the ordination or later on, and it is absolutely something to be encouraged, I wouldn’t say otherwise. However, we shouldn’t forget to let go of the object in order to receive it and really receive the Buddha’s teaching. This way, the kesa is not just an object; it’s really the Buddha-Dharma.


And that brings us back to studying the kesa. Studying the kesa means practicing it: in other words, wearing it, once you’ve received it. Studying the kesa is studying the Dharma, Buddha’s teaching. That may seem theoretical, and then when you do it, when you wear the kesa or rakusu regularly, you realize that it’s not just nice talk.


It took me twenty years to realize that it wasn’t just something you heard or read about the kesa. One day I realized that the kesa was really the Buddha-Dharma. Everyone can realize that. For some people it will be by repairing a kesa, for some it will be receiving it, for some... I don’t know. We can’t know when it will happen.


C.D.: Who studies the kesa?


F.L.: All monks and nuns who wear the kesa study the kesa. Placing the kesa on your head, reciting the Dai sai geda puku, unfolding it, tying it, wearing it: that’s studying the kesa. It’s every moment. It’s letting your body change, letting it adapt to the kesa.


[Photo of a monk putting on his kesa]

For example, the fact that the part of the kesa that hangs over the left arm is not attached to anything means that you’ll always have your left arm bent; your arms aren’t dangling. When you wear the kesa, you can’t let your arms dangle.


When your body adapts to the kesa, that’s studying the kesa: then the kesa is like a master who teaches, for example, how to stand.


It’s the same for folding it: it’s the mirror effect of the kesa. If you’re in a hurry, if you’re annoyed, if you’re lost in your routine, if you’re in a bad mood, if you’re going through a phase in your practice when you’re not very motivated and you’re less engaged... well, it shows!


The kesa is so physical: it’s cosmic, it’s immense, it has no limits, and at the same time it’s totally physical and concrete.


It wears out, and when it wears out you see every day that it’s wearing out in a particular place and why are you waiting so long to patch it up? That’s for everybody, myself included: I’m speaking from experience. When I put it on for zazen, I tell myself, “How is it possible that I still haven’t repaired this?” Afterwards, wham, the day begins, the day that will take me into many other things, right up to the next zazen. It’s very interesting.


For example, the big kesa: since we only wear it in the dojo, little by little a kind of separation might arise because you store your kesa in the dressing room or in the dojo. Then you go to work; you’re not going to take it with you, so you leave it in the dojo and that makes it harder to have any continuity in terms of taking care of it, paying attention to it, washing it, ironing it...


When you come to a sesshin, for example at La Gendronnière, it’s a special time because the kesa is in your room next to your bed. That still doesn’t mean you’re going to have time to take care of it.


It’s interesting to find out what we can do so that there are not two worlds or two minds, dojo-mind and everyday-life-mind. There is only one mind. The masters said, “The mind of the Way is ordinary mind.” I have to admit, that remains a bit of a koan for me, not only in the sense that it’s not resolved, but also in the sense that it concerns me.


C.D.: In daily life, outside of the temple, do you wear your rakusu often?

F.L.: We can’t necessarily wear the rakusu in all circumstances, but keeping it in mind allows us to see when we “switch off” the practice. It’s always concrete.


There’s the minimum, which is to always carry the rakusu with you. You can manage it, in a purse or backpack, for example, even if you don’t wear it during the day because you’re at work.


It’s important to live with it, in other words, to always know where it is. I practice that: it’s in my handbag, so I don’t put my handbag on the ground, because the kesa is not to be put on the ground and it’s even better to place it in a high place.


Someone who doesn’t practice might think that this is fetishism. On the other hand, someone who’s very fussy will say, “Hmm...in your handbag, it’s crushed between your wallet and who-knows-what.”


[Photo of someone sewing a rakusu]

That’s my way of doing it right now, of keeping in touch with the kesa at many different times of the day, because a handbag, generally, you open it often — at work, on the bus or subway... My rakusu is there and it brings me back to the practice, even if I’m not in the dojo, even if I’m not in a temple. There’s a connection, it’s very real, but it’s not fetishism. If I can wear it during the day, I take the time to do so, but if I can’t, at least it’s with me.


I’m emphasizing this point because I understand why we leave the big kesa in the dojo — it could be damaged if we carted it around all day — but the rakusu? Why leave it in the dojo? I don’t understand. The rakusu is not just for doing zazen; it’s made so that it can be carried into life as we carry the practice and the teaching into daily life.


C.D.: Before you put on your rakusu, do you always put it on your head?


F.L.: If I practice zazen at home in the morning, I put the rakusu on my head first and silently recite the Dai sai geda puku. Otherwise, before I put it on, I just touch it to my forehead three times, discreetly. It’s simple.


C.D.: The master who presents the kesa to us, even if he or she doesn’t know how to sew, still studies it and transmits Master Deshimaru’s teaching through the kesa. Can you tell us something about the relationship to the person who transmits the kesa to us during the ordination?


F.L.: Yes, I feel very strongly about this, because it’s true that in Master Deshimaru’s time, not many people sewed the kesa, but all of his disciples received rakusus and later big kesas.


You can’t separate the kesa from zazen, because they are inseparable. So, all the monks and nuns who received the ordination and the kesa from Master Deshimaru — whether they are now godos (teachers) or not — received his teaching. Consciously or unconsciously, technically or not, all of his disciples received the transmission of the kesa.


C.D.: So the monk (or nun) whom we follow is our reference in terms of the kesa?


F.L.: Of course. If you receive the ordination from someone, it’s because you trust that person, and you should go to that experienced person with kesa matters. It’s much more important than having precise technical information.


The true kesa is transmitted during the ordination in this relationship of trust. It’s Buddha presenting the kesa; the godo is his representative. For technical questions, the godo can ask his or her co-disciples who know how to sew, if necessary.


C.D.: What happens when the sangha’s elder disciples teach different things about the kesa?


F.L.: The sangha includes the patriarchs of the past and all the practitioners to come. The technical side of the teaching may be different, depending on the times, schools or groups of disciples.


The kesa may sometimes be a subject of controversy. That’s life, it’s always been that way and it’s part of the teaching. To the great dispute over the question, “Was Bodhidharma’s kesa made of silk or cotton?” the master replied, “Neither silk nor cotton.”


C.D.: Why create differences in terms of the kesa?


F.L.: Throughout the history of Buddhism and Zen, the kesa has always been the object of debate, sometimes of greed, of not particularly praiseworthy desires.


At the same time, the masters’ answers were never dualistic; they were always about having a wider viewpoint, and as Master Deshimaru used to say, enveloping and embracing contradictions.


Twenty years after his death, we’ve reached the point where we’re arguing about how to stick the needle in the material!

[Photo of someone sewing a kesa]

When people or groups want to stand apart from each other, the kesa is an ideal subject, whether it be the material, the thread, the color or the measurements. When it comes to a conflict, the question is put to a master; he won’t necessarily say who’s right and who’s wrong, but above all bring things back to what’s essential, in other words, Buddha’s teaching.


The Dharma has always been transmitted by masters and not by couturiers or scholars. To be a master, you have to have experienced enough yourself to embrace contradictions and so transmit something that is essential yet which can take on a form that is adapted to the times, to what’s being experienced, to disciples’ lives.


C.D.: It’s not always easy to follow someone’s teaching, is it?


F.L.: It’s not easy, but it’s indispensable. Sewing the kesa is a good example. By learning with someone, you follow; you do what she says. It’s hard, because in the beginning you don’t understand anything. You just follow her directions and her way of doing things. So you learn a particular way.


Next it’s a matter of deepening the technique and the spirit of the kesa, through repeated practice, staying in the same line, and accepting to do this for a long time, deeply, following someone without endlessly comparing the different methods.


If you meet other people who do things differently and that creates doubt, then you ask a master — either the master you follow, or someone who’s been teaching the kesa for a long time and who understands that there are different ways of doing things.


C.D.: We’ve seen the illusions we might have as a group in terms of the kesa; could we talk more about the illusions we might have individually in our practice of the kesa?


F.L.: All spiritual, religious practices require us to accept the very notion of illusion. Why?


Because everything is illusion, according to Buddhism, and the more we practice, the more we realize it. The important thing is to continue practicing — zazen, kesa — without getting stuck on the sensations or states of mind that pass through us.


After reading the Kesa Book, some people are ecstatic over the grandeur and sublimity of the kesa. When they start sewing, it’s a little less sublime, a little less grand, because it’s not easy.


[Photo of the sewing together of the many pieces making up a rakusu]

When you start sewing, it’s like when you start doing zazen. When you read a book about Buddhism, you think it’s wonderful: Buddha’s principles, his realization, his life... Then you get into zazen and you think it’s wonderful for ten minutes, because you tell yourself, “I’m a buddha, I’m in Buddha’s posture...” The longer it goes on, the more you suffer and have a hard time sitting still.


So, what do you see at that moment? It’s not so much that you had illusions before and you don’t have any afterwards. In fact, you see impermanence. I think that the kesa and the rakusu show us the impermanence of our thoughts, our sensations and our feelings regarding the kesa.


C.D.: It’s not easy, is it, to protect the kesa and keep it alive without keeping our illusions alive as well...


F.L.: Illusions are in the mind.


When I show the ancient kesas at La Gendronnière, if I say at the beginning of the lecture that touching a master’s kesa changes your karma, when I unfold them everybody wants to touch them, thinking, “Ah! My karma will be changed!” Very few people think that their hands might stain or damage those ancient and fragile kesas. Yet simply seeing them is touching them — with your eyes.


Wearing a kesa during zazen certainly has an effect. People who haven’t been ordained who wear a borrowed kesa often have a very strong sensation during zazen, that it’s “different.” Of course it is; but it’s a sensation. That’s all Buddha talked about: in zazen we let go of our sensations, our emotions, etc.


We have sensations, emotions and attachments for the kesa, it’s natural, because we protect it and take care of it. But we mustn’t get stuck on these attachments. That’s when the kesa educates us. We get slapped in the face when we don’t pay attention to it, but we also get slapped in the face when we’re too attached.


C.D.: How does attachment to the kesa manifest itself?


F.L.: In different ways. One of the most obvious is attachment to the color, the desire to make a beautiful kesa.


This relationship to desire is really important when you study the kesa. It’s written in the sutras that to make a kesa in the spirit of Buddha’s teaching, you must use cloth that has been “purified of all desire.” But you can very well transfer to the kesa desires that you no longer have concerning civilian clothes, nice furniture or a magnificent house. You might want to possess a very old kesa, or you might desire a special material or a kesa sewn by a particular person.


In fact, it’s useless to tell yourself, “I shouldn’t have any more desires when I begin a kesa.” The kesa itself purifies. Even if at the beginning you’re not in the exact condition of Buddha, little by little, through the practice (of sewing it and wearing it), your mind changes, just as your body changes, your attitude changes, as well as your ideas about what is beautiful and what is common; then you can really feel a kesa’s greatness.


C.D.: How do you deal now with the feelings the kesa brings up?


[Detail photo of inside flap of a kesa pouch, here with a calligraphy on silk]

F.L.: When I have a kesa in front of me (whether I’m familiar with it or I’m seeing it for the first time), it triggers something in me — emotions, sensations — and it’s completely natural. I don’t try to understand them or draw any conclusions from them. Sensations are not important. If it’s a kesa I’m supposed to restore, I focus on the idea that it can continue to be worn, carefully of course, and eventually transmitted.


C.D.: What is it about the older kesas that moves you?


F.L.: What I really find very moving is that the kesa truly conveys the person’s practice. No doubt about it.


Recently I found myself washing a kesa that Master Deshimaru had received from his master, Kodo Sawaki, one that he wore often. I didn’t especially like the color or the material. I washed it and ironed it, and suddenly I understood why Master Dogen said, “In that case, burn incense and do sampai.” I understood it while I was ironing.


In fact the practice of Kodo Sawaki and Taisen Deshimaru was there; I touched it. It wasn’t just a feeling, but more profoundly, a direct teaching from the kesa. I wasn’t trying to obtain that. Studying the kesa means not trying to acquire knowledge or obtain a result. We cannot catch or seize the kesa. That’s why we can say, unequivocally, that the kesa is the teaching, the Buddha-Dharma.


Questions about the kesa


[Photo of a kesa floating in the water of a spring: photo by Francisco]

Q.: Can the kesa be washed in a machine, or is it better to wash it by hand? In practical terms, how does one do this — what temperature, what soap...? Is it possible to wash it with other items of clothing?


Françoise Laurent: In the 13th century, Master Dogen gave his disciples very precise instructions for washing the kesa: use a basin specially reserved for this purpose, with water perfumed with sandalwood powder, and, at the end, burn incense and do sampai in front of the clean, folded kesa. We can still, of course, follow these instructions to the letter today, but what’s essential is to understand the spirit of this teaching.


Cleaning kesas regularly is indispensable; it is a sign of respect and keeps them in good condition. Depending on the material, they are washed or dry-cleaned (advisable for silk and wool), but in any case we bring particular care and attention to the procedure.


By practicing this way, each person can find the method best suited to his or her situation. In Master Dogen’s time, there were no washing machines, so he had no reason to mention them; but he did say, “do it yourselves.” He did not say we should hand it over to the cleaners like ordinary washing.


[Photo of a kesa and its pouch with a stick of burning incense]

For a long time I have been advising people to wash their kesas by machine because they are hard to wash properly by hand, and especially difficult to rinse well. Machine washing is fine as long as you use the wool or delicate cycle, a temperature of 40 degrees for cotton or linen and 30 degrees for silk, and a mild detergent. The spin cycle should be medium speed, so that the material will not be damaged or weighed down by excess water.


Then hang the kesa up to dry, taking care that it is not stretched out of shape; you should iron it as soon as possible, fold it, light a stick of incense and pass the kesa through the incense smoke. If possible, do sampai, then put away the kesa in its pouch.


You can wash several kesas together in a machine, or wash a kolomo at the same time as the kesa, but don’t wash the kesa with ordinary laundry, because it’s not a simple matter of “doing your laundry.”


At La Gendronnière Zen Temple, when several people wash their kesas at the same time, it’s something that brings them together. Just as, in the temple, we put on the kesa together in the morning and fold it together in the evening, we can also wash it, dry it, iron it and even mend it together.


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