Sewing the Rakusu

May 28, 2023

On Sunday, June 11th, sixteen people  in our community will be receiving Soto Zen precepts in a lay ordination ceremony called Jukai.

This ceremony is the culmination of an engaged month-long period of study and practice with the bodhisattva precepts. This is an ethical orientation, a ritual embodiment of teacher-student lineage going back to the Buddha, and a commitment to a particular spiritual community. As part of their training, ordinands have been sewing the rakusu, the small Buddha robe worn around the necks of lay practitioners and priests.

Here are some images and words shared by the ordinands about their sewing practice:

I appreciate the patience of sewing and the way my mind moves around. Sometimes mind is my hand. Sometimes it is the mantra. Sometimes it is my breath or the thread or the fabric or the aspiration for this robe slowly manifesting but not yet here or imaginable as a process. There is something about having to give away my sense of a whole when I come to sewing practice that is comforting and discomforting at the same time.

— Emily Mendelsohn

“I find it discouraging that vulnerability in the rakusu means a lack of integrity,” I whisper to Sarah Sensei as we look down at the inevitable: the first popped stitch on the face of what’s becoming my rakusu. My stitch is the size of a little ant, much bigger than the sesame seed we’ve been instructed to aim for. The bigger the stitch, the likelier it is to break, and the weaker the physical integrity of the robe. Learning of this mistake a few months ago prompted such a painful look in the mirror I nearly left Jukai. I resolved, with gentle encouragement from the teachers, to go with what my hands were doing, to maintain consistency, to not start over, to accept my supersized stitches. “Luckily,” Sarah responds, “the rakusu’s not a metaphor for life.” Aha! Loose ends are just loose ends. A prick from the needle is not punishment for a wandering mind. A tangle of knots isn’t a sad symbol for the mess of my life. It’s simply just the mess of my life. When my rakusu’s “all done” it’ll be vulnerable. It’ll need little repairs and care for what’s been done and how. I’ll take refuge in sangha to support the fabric of my vow. I’ll mend it most tenderly in reverence of its impermanence, in awe of the precious fact that it will unravel and come completely undone, falling headlong, thread by thread, into Buddha’s loving lap.

—Nick Morris