Sewing Practice at Shao Shan Temple
by Donna O’Malley
Shao Shan Temple Sewing Leader
Sewing practice is part of Buddhist tradition. Followers of the Buddha have always worn a robe that shows their commitment to the Path of Buddha’s Way. Originally, robes/okesas were made from discarded scraps of cloth. Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, was born a prince in the 6th century BCE in India. He traded his princely clothing for that of a mendicant seeker in his search for freedom from suffering. Over time and in each tradition, the sewer of the robe has varied, but here in the U.S., Soto Zen students have the opportunity to make their own robes. Shao Shan Temple carries on this tradition.
Our sewing practice, as in all Zen sewing practice, carries with it an attitude of reverence and quiet mindfulness so that, with the exception of teaching moments, stitching is done in silence, along with a mantra to anchor the mind. At Shao Shan each year there may be up to five people sewing Wagesas (for receiving the 1st five precepts), and three people sewing Rakusus (becoming “Formal Students” and receiving the 16 precepts). Rakusus are sewn together as a group, once weekly over the months from January till June. The students work with sewing leaders, currently Donna O’Malley, Judy Harden and Kathleen Daye, to create the miniature robe (Rakusu) that Taihaku will finish with personalized calligraphy and the temple seal. The Rakusu is then formally bestowed at the July Jukai ceremony.
People are often surprised by how much sewing is a practice and what they learn from it. In the words of several sangha members:
I don’t know how to sew. I made a Rakusu and you could safely say I still don’t know how to sew. However, the experience threaded my intention to learn how to sew my presence into every moment of life. The doing and being of sewing practice was the portal for believing I could this. My teachers held me through finding the courage to try. I was - and am, most grateful for the good fortune of this support. – EnKai (Raven Bruce)
The practice of sewing, though ultimately producing a symbolic garment, allows for many opportunities to explore self in the arising of conditions often inherent in the process; striving, perfectionism, judging, and frustration, to name some. It is also a beautiful moving meditation incorporating chanting and repetition. Watching self in the process of creating was so informative that I now use a similar process every day. -- ShiKan (Sharon Dube)
The most powerful thing I took away from sewing practice is the mantra. When I’ve had difficulty focusing on a task or if something is not going smoothly I stop what I’m doing and connect my movements to the mantra. After a few rounds I relax so much that I can connect more easily with what I’m doing.
-- Monica DiGiovanni
Sewing leaders devote themselves to the practice of guiding others in the sewing because they truly value the heart/mind that arises in themselves and their students through this process of Zen in action.
We [the sewing leaders] review our process of working together - how best to work as a resource team, how much support to offer and when. We address the goals for the work, considering the students’ previous sewing experience and abilities, and how to facilitate the best sewing experience possible for the particular student, keeping in mind the primary goal of the work as one of deepening practice and commitment to the sangha through meditative sewing, rather than perfection. We view this work as part of our service to the sangha. -- Judy Harden
Sewing leaders Kathleen Daye (l), Donna O’Malley (c), and Judy Harden (r)
The sewing leaders study to learn how best to lead the sewing projects. Recently Donna and Kathleen participated in a valuable and inspirational sewing retreat in Minnesota for Zen sewing leaders nationwide.
In 2011, a special sangha sewing project began to create the Mountain Seat Robe (Funzo-e) for Taihaku’s Shinzanshiki, when she formally became abbot. The entire Sangha and many others, under Donna O’Malley’s leadership, worked together to accomplish the complex nine-panel, four-layer Okesa. Two years later, through the hands, hearts, and minds of over 35 Zen practitioners, accompanied by the Namu Kie Butsu mantra, Shao Shan Temple’s Mountain Seat Robe was completed. This Okesa is worn at special Shao Shan ceremonies, and a photo story book of this process is available for viewing at the temple.
When a student expresses interest in taking the precepts, they are taking the first step in a commitment to the Path. Sewing leaders now provide students wanting to take the five vows the opportunity to learn the sewing stitch using the 'Namu Kie Butsu’ backstitch to make the Wagesa. A Wagesa is a simple neckpiece made by the student. It is ceremonially received from the preceptor during the Jukai ceremony.
The sewing of a Rakasu, one’s own “Robe of Liberation” (a chest-size five-paneled Okesa), is not only one of the preparatory steps before taking vows to become a formal student, but is a symbol of commitment to the priest-teacher relationship and to the temple’s community. I wonder how many readers know that the ‘face’ of the Rakasu’s panels of short-over-long patchwork pieces resembles rice fields? “Water nourishes the rice, the rice nourishes beings and enables them to practice.” Sewing practice is, taking refuge, again and again, stitch by stitch, in the same manner that we practice breath by breath on the sitting cushion.
Sewing practice is not, however, reserved only for those making a Wagesa or Rakasu. The sewing practice can be experienced by anyone who just wants to make a bag to protect and carry the books used each week during Study Group programs. Sangha members are encouraged to contact Shao Shan Temple at any time to express their interest in learning more about this profound practice.