Upaya Zen Center, Zen & Dharma

Sewing my rakusu

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spread out the pieces of my rakusu, in readiness for dunking in the pot of black dye. A ragbag of precious bits gleaned from the patchwork of my life, these include:

-A piece of denim from faux-bro Ki’s favourite jeans, veterans of many a forest rave we danced at together.
-A scrap from my dear departed friend Robin’s sexy black camisole, worn wildly on hot summer nights .
-Elena and Lola’s pink napkin, stained with pesto and chocolate-blackberry pancake.
-Terry’s white hanky sewn from his Cape Breton auntie’s linen tablecloth. Used to mop his face in the Tokyo summer heat. Imbued with the sweet sweat of Terry, falling in love.
-Obi-nine’s groovy Australian aboriginal cloth, patterned in snakes and bare footprints.
-A scrap of brown wool gabardine: pants worn by my dad as a dashing bachelor, then handed down and worn again by my brother Bennett in his hipster retro phase.
-Bum pocket piece from Romina’s fuzzy blue dance pants.
-A strip of chunky grey linen from Red Sara’s biking skirt.
-My own sand-coloured summer linen pants.
-Oryoki cloth used by Michael and Kate—friends, teachers, and resident priests of Mountain Rain Zendo in Vancouver.
-Pattipow’s home-made hanky, cut from a flannel sheet. Survivor of countless co-counselling sessions. Well soaked with snot and joyful tears.

I wanted a remnant from my mother but couldn’t find anything suitable. I don’t think my mom ever wore anything made of natural fibre — she was partial to mint-green polyester pant suits. Bennett mailed me a tiny scrap of purple velvet embroidered with gold hebrew lettering: my mother’s Passover matzah-cloth. I will hide this inside the rakusu’s back flap.

When the pieces were finally collected and laid out I realized I didn’t have anything long enough to make the border and straps. I ran into the living room of Querencia (Upaya’s resident house) and threw a little hissy fit. “This is a joke! I don’t have the materials, I don’t have enough time, I can’t do this!”  The residents immediately scrambled off to hunt for suitable fabric. The discards in the Goodwill box just would not do. I considered, then rejected, Sally’s pants. Sienna came running with a big piece of cloth in her hands — her funky brown wrap skirt with little blue heart hand-sewn on the pocket. Made of pure hemp, how apropos for a BC girl. Will this work? Yes, it will, with a little help from my sangha.

So it comes together, stitch by stitch. More wabi-sabi than geometric perfection, the seams wobble a little, corners not quite square. I sew a seam, rip it out, start again. Chanting my refuges over each stitch: the buddha, the dharma, the sangha. I am, I learn, I depend.

“How’s your rakusu coming?” asks Roshi Joan, flying through the kitchen. “Great! Except for the part I measured wrong, and the rows I need to re-do, and the…” “Oh,” she says, cutting me off with a flap of her hand. “That’s just your mind.” And runs out the other door.

11 Comments on “Sewing my rakusu

  1. Carmen,

    The requirements for making your rakusu from salvaged fabric scraps is wonderful. I’m sure that it will be a treasure and more meaningful to you. And beautiful! I honestly wish that I was required to make my rakusu that way. I’m going to ask my teacher about this. Please post a photo of you wearing the rakusu after your Jukai ceremony.

    I loved what Joan said about your frustration about sewing it: “It’s just your mind.” I actually sit on the deck and observe my mind gently waving the palm branches. I’m sure that you are giving the sewing of your rakusu the same attention. I’ll be following your spiritual endeavors.

    Congratulations to Brendan as well.

    In gassho and love,


  2. When I do what I call “Buddhist patchwork”- (as if I know!) – I start with one piece then ask, “What does it need?” Join that on, then again ask, “What does it need?” A colour, a texture, a strong bit, something with give. I open myself to the voice of the cloth. I find it an intuitive, surprising, beautiful process, but I also think everyone finds their own way.

  3. The Passover cloth on the inside of the garment is a brilliant touch. Like a dressmaker’s designer label, used by one who takes pride in the quality of his/her work.

  4. Yes, and who showed up at Upaya this sesshin, but a wonderful rabbi from pittsburgh, who will also be taking jukai with me in march! This is his blog: http://www.rabbiwithoutwalls.org. He translated the matza cloth bit for me – it says ‘Levi”, as in, the tribe of Israel. Well at least it doesn’t man ‘made in China’ 😉

  5. Ah, Carmen, how wonderful to have your rakusu composed of fabric imbued with such rich history of craftpersonship and love. I am reminded of the tradition of quilt-making that celebrates the cast-off pieces of fabric and creates something meaningful (like Heather’s earlier comment).
    When I turned forty I invited 39 people to send me a swatch of fabric and, with my mother’s assistance, made a small quilt with the collection. One of the many delights of this experience was receiving the stories of the fabric that my friends and family had chosen. With the weave of these histories/herstories I could start to feel myself more present in the larger weave of my community. May it be so for you;
    when you wear your rakusu may you feel the loving support of your tribe – offering a touchstone of support for your ongoing practice.

  6. Carmen,

    I’m working on a quilt right now. From making my own and this quilt I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be perfect! We’re only perfect intrinsically. You must be learning much from your rakusu project. And that’s what it tends to provide… learning, insight. Wear it with it’s full meaning. I think of you often.


  7. “Oh, that’s just your mind.”
    Love that. It’s the perfect reminder for any of the kabillion occasions that arise on any day when there is an opinion, a fuss, or a snaggletoothed wish that life was unfolding somehow differently.

    “Oh, that’s just your mind.”
    I’m going to start using this as the seasoning for those moments of life apparently not quite square with my expectations or wishes, and see how it reflavors that soup.

  8. What a great idea to put found material that has meaning to you into your Rakasu! I’ll ask my teacher if I can do that. I know our sewing instructor is quite strict, so I’m hoping I can.

    The rakasu has been the most challenging part of my Jukai. I’ve never sewn in my life!

  9. Am I alone in finding the entire idea of mandatory sewing distasteful. I find myself drawn to hideous memories of smug art teachers imposing crafts on me as a boy, and then excusing their sadistic impositions with the speculation that I would, if I only submitted to their abuse long enough, come to enjoy the process. And, of course, the insidious premiss is that any resistance on the part of the student to crafts is a sign of a defect in him, rather than a innocuous differences in what a person experiences as enjoyable or even tolerable. So, I am in the process of deciding whether simply to continue keep the precepts as I now do as well as I am able, or soldier through a process when everything in the experience screams at me to stop, aside from its friends who cite their own benefits to justify my perseverance in a dreaded mandate. Who else reading this intended to take jukai, but concluded the sewing was a bridge to far? I’ll add that I have received an abundance of encouragement of the “I will sew with you” form. These offers do rather miss the point. If anything, completion of the process runs the risk of turning it from Buddha’s robe into a robe of shame and humiliation. I regret having asked to receive jukai. I knew what I felt and how I experienced doing crafts. I should have known better.Live and learn. It has had value in getting me to sit more than i already did.

  10. Michael thank you so much for your comment, so right to the heart o the matter!

    Sewing the rakusu is sort of, in a way i think, an arbitrary task. It just so happens that sewing is now traditionally a ‘female’ craft in our culture, so men tend to be more intimidated and challenged by the process. We women are eased into it from girlhood (i had to learn needlepoint in junior high … can barely express how far that has taken me in the world). On the other hand, i can now hem my own pants – messily, but with confidence. If the jukai task was, say, build a bookshelf – i’d be much more trepidatious, having had little training in the tools of hammer and nails. But you can do it. You will.

    Do I need to remind you of the words of the master – ‘oh, that’s just your mind’ … ?

    When it is done and you don the buddha’s robe, all those curses and needle pricks will have been worth the effort. Please send me a photo when it is done.

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