Senior Sewing Teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman
describes the origins of “Buddha’s Robe Is Sewn”
In spring of 2002, Shōsan Victoria Austin invited me to help lead Sangha Week at Tassajara. The theme for the week was receiving the precepts, and central to the precept practice in our lineage are the teachings about the robes that we sew and wear. At that time, I had been sewing Buddha’s Robe here at Zen Center for thirty years, and teaching about Buddha’s Robe for almost as many years, so Vicki also wanted to highlight this anniversary. We planned various activities for the week. I had brought Katherine Thanas’ Mountain Seat okesa for people to help stitch during sewing classes and Vicki was also teaching about washing robes. We also gave a lecture together about our practice of sewing Buddha’s Robe and told stories about my sewing teacher, Jōshin-san, about Jōshin-san’s teacher, Kōdō Sawaki-rōshi, and about how Buddha and Ananda first created the rice field pattern that we still follow to sew our robes today.
At that time, the sewing teacher from Berkeley Zen Center, Linda Galijan, was a new resident at Tassajara. Linda sent a tape of our lecture to her replacement back in Berkeley, Jean Selkirk, who was on hiatus from her schooling and had time and energy to wholeheartedly step into learning all she could about sewing practice. As a new sewing teacher, Jean was trying to understand and transmit the heart of the teachings to her students without handing them many, many pages of text. When Jean heard our lecture, she had a vision of bringing key portions together with perspectives from many other teachers on aspects of sewing practice with the intention of providing students with a sourcebook. As they sewed and then later wore their robe, students could return to this collection of quotes and commentaries and gradually absorb the teachings. Vicki and I thought this was a terrific idea because when we are teaching sewing we don’t have enough time to share all of the stories that we would like to share with all of the students.
Up until that time, our teachings here were mostly oral, though of course we had Tomoe Katagiri’s “Study of Nyohō-e” and Suzuki-rōshi’s 1971 “Rakusu Sewing — Okesa Sewing Sesshin” lecture. In addition to Jōshin-san’s teachings, these had provided guidance for us over the years. After I saw an early version of Jean’s project, I offered books and photos that people had given to me and I had collected over the years. Vicki provided research and writings she had either gathered or created for her sewing students. Jean continued to refine her collection of quotes, and today, thanks to Jean, we have a printed record of our story.
The booklet is just really full of the history and details about our devotional practice in a beautiful and inspiring collage of words and pictures. All the teachers in our sewing lineage are presented in a chart which allows for easy understanding of their complex relationships. So many important events led to our sewing Buddha’s Robe here today, from Dōgen’s returning to Japan from China; to Sawaki-rōshi recovering the practice of sewing robes; to Yoshida-rōshi’s visiting Zen Center in 1971 and (along with Tomoe-san and Dainin Katagiri-rōshi) encouraging Suzuki-rōshi to offer to give his students the precepts and the opportunity to sew their rakusus and okesas in the traditional way; and to Jōshin-san’s arrival and my becoming her disciple. Many quotes of Suzuki-rōshi and his students are included, along with academic sources that cover the robe’s creation, types of robes, symbolism of the robe as a whole as well as its parts, care of robes, principles of construction, sewing practice, and the historical record of robes.