The Rakusu and the Precepts

by Kuden Paul Boyle

(photo: Kuden Boyle wearing the rakusu)

For those of you who are newer to Zen or Buddhism, the precepts are the ethical guidelines in Buddhist practice. Periodically at the Chapel Hill Zen Center, someone decides they would like to receive the precepts. In the not too distant future a couple of our members will be receiving the precepts as lay people in a ceremony called zaike tokudo. I want to offer my congratulations and encouragement to these members for deciding to receive the precepts. For me, precept practice points to the same thing which zazen points at, and a lot of what we learn from zazen practice can be applied to our precept practice. Actually, I consider zazen and the precepts as not being different.

One of the more visible aspects of this receiving the precepts process is the sewing and wearing a rakusu. For those of us, like myself, who suffered from "male sewing anxiety syndrome", sewing a rakusu can become an odyssey in itself.

When I was sewing my first rakusu, I could see quite clearly how the stitching changed over the course of the project. It took me about a year to sew my first rakusu, and it occurred to me during that time that creating a rakusu could be viewed as a metaphor for our lives as a spiritual journey. At first, I felt befuddled � how was I ever going to make all these little pieces of cloth into something which looked even remotely like a rakusu? My first stitches were irregular and nervous looking, then as I became more comfortable with sewing, they became overly relaxed and slack looking. Eventually, they became more even and balanced. The rakusu is Buddha's robe, and it is how we manifest visibly or wear Buddha's teaching. The precepts are Buddha's robe too, and wearing the precepts is how we manifest them in the world.

A Buddhist friend of mine once joked about sewing a rakusu or an okesa as taking a big piece of cloth, cutting it up into little pieces, and then sewing it back together. This fit pretty well with how I was thinking of rakusu sewing as a spiritual metaphor. When we are first born, we are like a sheet of uncut fabric. At birth, it seems that our psyches' have a minimum of features and we are in some sense undifferentiated. When my daughter was born, I was struck by realizing that how I was with her would have a great impact on how she would shape, cut, and sew the fabric of her own life.

So, we start as this big uncut piece of fabric. However, as we begin to grow up, we try to figure out how to fit in with others and into our society. In many cases we try to fit it by disowning part of our self. It is like we begin cutting our (life) cloth into little pieces. We cut off this piece so we fit better with another person, or hope they like us better with certain pieces cut out. Or, we cut out pieces, so that we fit better for a certain job, or to have a more respectable place in society. We might feel ashamed of certain parts of our cloth, so we cut those off, and hide those shameful pieces in our pockets. Then we think that some people will notice that some of pieces are gone, so we develop various bad habits or addictions which cut more pieces off, trying to obscure the cuts we have already made. After awhile, it seems like all our original cloth has been cut up into little pieces. Some pieces we hide, other pieces, like peacock feathers, we display proudly.

The cost of all this cutting is that we lose a sense of integration about ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. Which piece relates to others at any particular time? We try to manage and control which pieces we show at any particular time. But, like a juggler juggling too many balls, we tend to drop them. We may want to display our peacock feather pieces, but we are surprised and appalled to find that we are holding out one of our shameful pieces. We may feel embarrassed, or inadequate, and we may begin to loathe ourselves when our pieces of cloth don't match up with who or what we would like to present to the world at any given time. This is the reality of the Buddha's First Noble Truth. We cling to our peacock pieces and want to disown the pieces we are ashamed of and we suffer because of it.

I believe that all spiritual work, no matter what the tradition, is a quest for integration. The joining back of our many little cut up pieces of cloth, to make an integrated, functioning whole. However, just as firewood cannot go back to firewood after it has turned to ash, we cannot take our little pieces of cloth and somehow recreate that vast uncut piece of fabric which we were when we were born. Nor would you want to, if you really think about it. Babies can't function in the world as adults, and yet, we are adults and must function as adults. But, how do we live our lives with a sense of integrity and integration?

When sewing a rakusu, we don't just start sewing any two pieces together and hope that it turns into a recognizable rakusu. There is a pattern and discipline to it and we sew the pieces together in a certain order. First, we put together the panels of the face, then join the panels to make the face. Then, we add the silk backing and frame. Next, we add the straps and attach them to the frame. Finally, we add the neck piece and the pine stitch. One part of the rakusu depends on the other parts, and together they make an integrated whole.

One of the most striking aspects of a rakusu is the pattern of the face with its interlocking panels of cloth. It is quite clear there is a structure indicating how these pieces were sewn together. The discipline of the precepts is this pattern by which we sew our lives back into this integrated whole. The stitches are our practice of the precepts. We try to get the pieces lined up properly and make our stitches regular and even, the edges straight. Our sewing won't be perfect. Maybe one of the corner patches doesn't line up perfectly with the seam of the frame, but nevertheless, we continue to give it our best effort.

The namu kie butsu stitch looks different on the front side of the rakusu than it looks on the back side. On the front side only a little of the thread shows up on the cloth. For me, this symbolizes our external behavior. On the backside, the thread looks continuous � this our internal intention of continuous effort. Yet, the thread is the same thread whether it is on the front or backside of the rakusu, only how it manifests differs depending on the side. Dogen-zenji writes in his fascicle on continuous practice, Gyoji-Shobogenzo,

The effect of such sustained practice is sometimes not hidden. Therefore you aspire to practice. The effect is sometimes not apparent. Therefore you may not see, hear, or know it. You should understand that although it is not revealed, it is not hidden.1

So, just because you may not see your precept practice in the moment, it doesn't mean that the effort and intention are not there or hidden away from us. The part of the thread that others see on the front depends on the part others don't see. Our ability to respond in an appropriate, wholesome way depends on both our practice and intention � both our actions and the intention behind our actions. If we don't have a conscious precept practice, then, when we face a situation, we won't have that practice to draw on when we need to make a decision. How conscientiously we practice, depends on our keeping our intention continuously in mind. Practice action and intention inform and support one another. The clearer one's intention, the easier it is to act, and, the more one practices wholesome actions, the easier it is to maintain a continuity of intention.

Just as the rakusu is built of different parts which depend on each other, so are the precepts built up of different parts which depend on one another. In Soto Zen, the precepts which both priest and lay people take are called the Bodhisattva Precepts. These precepts consist of the Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Clear Mind Precepts, giving a total of sixteen precepts. The way I think of it, each of these give a greater amount of detail about how to live a Buddhist life.

At the broadest level, taking Refuge is the Buddhist answer to those who want to live a life of wholesomeness and integration � take refuge in Buddha, take refuge in Dharma, take refuge in Sangha. However, the question arises, how do I practice taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha? Is it just a matter reciting the Refuge Taking verse? How do I make Taking Refuge concretely manifest in my life? How do I actually do it?

One answer to 'how to do I practice taking refuge?' is the Three Pure Precepts. So, the practice of taking refuge depends on practicing the Three Pure Precepts. The translation of the Three Pure Precepts we use:

I vow to refrain from all actions which create attachment
I vow to make every effort to live in enlightenment.
I vow to live for the benefit of all beings.

The origin of the Three Pure Precepts comes from verse 183 of the Dhammapada, one of the oldest Buddhist teachings. The Dhammapada is thought to contain actual quotes from the historical Buddha. This verse reads:

Refraining from all that is detrimental,
The attainment of all that is wholesome,
The purification of one's mind:
This is the instruction of all Buddhas.

The primary difference between these is that the Three Pure Precepts in Soto Zen reflect our orientation toward the Bodhisattva's way of practice: the practice of saving all beings. Nevertheless, there is a logic which is consistent in both verses, which is, first, stop making a mess of things, then, start doing what is takes to integrate, and then start working not only for your own good, but for a broader sense of good. People who have had some experience in Twelve Step programs will recognize this logic: You can't do yourself or anyone any good until you first stop the destructive behaviors, then concentrate on getting your own life in order, and only then, can you be effective with helping others.

Then, the question arises of how I practice the Three Pure Precepts? The categories of detrimental and wholesome are pretty broad. It is a big mistake to try to decide beforehand what constitutes "detrimental" and "wholesome" actions. On one hand, living life by rigid rules is not what is encouraged by the practicing the precepts. We need to examine through our own experience what really is meant by "wholesome" and "unwholesome." On the other hand, we don't need to start from zero in a blind exercise of trial and error.

How do I practice the Three Pure Precepts? One answer to this question, is to practice the Ten Clear Mind Precepts. The Ten Clear Mind Precepts point to a bit more concrete idea of how to practice the precepts. However, even then, we need to inquire deeply into what each of them means. For example, what does it mean to kill or not kill? There are quite subtle levels to this question which have nothing to do with beating hearts.

Each subgroup of precepts (the Pure Precepts, and Clear Mind Precepts) tries to give us pointers in what it means to Take Refuge, or in other words, to live a Buddhist life. Just as if you want to appreciate a rakusu, you have to look at the detail, so living a Buddhist life means looking at the detail of our own lives. Conversely, just looking at one corner patch of a rakusu is missing the bigger picture, so nitpicking perceived imperfections because we think that is being thorough in our precept practice loses the bigger picture of what is living a Buddhist life.

If you wear a rakusu or okesa long enough, you find that your stitching wears out. This is natural. Normally the stitching wears out first where no else can see it. Eventually, however, if you let it go long enough other people begin to notice the gaps in the stitching. It is easier to repair a rakusu or okesa when the worn out parts are small. So it is with our precept practice. We may notice that our observing the precepts has become stale or has an "automatic pilot" quality to it. We begin to notice that we are, in ways probably only perceivable to us, slipping in our observing the precepts. It is much easier to repair a precept practice at this point.

The way to repair the one�s precept practice is through repentance. Repentance means acknowledging our unwholesome actions and renewing our commitment to refrain from unwholesome actions. In Soto Zen, we have both formless repentance and formal repentance. Formless repentance is sitting zazen. We sit and we watch our unwholesome impulses arise and fall. When we experience their insubstantiality and impermanence directly, the power of the habit energy behind the unwholesome activity begins to lessen. In formal repentance we talk to our teacher or good friend about our precept practice. In both cases, the practice of repentance is about lessening the power unwholesome formations have in our lives.

The point of repairing our rakusu or our precept practice isn't to make it perfect or even to attain some goal. The point is to be thorough and wholehearted in our practice whether it is in the zendo with zazen or in our everyday life with the precepts. Our lives are the opportunity for continuous practice. For me, this is symbolized by the stitching around the frame of the rakusu. On the frame (as well as with other parts of the rakusu) we can't really determine where the stitching begins or ends. This no beginning and no end literally means beyond our own individual lives. In Gyoji Shobogenzo, Dogen-zenji writes,

� because of the continuous practice of all the Buddhas and Ancestors, our own continuous practice becomes a reality and the Way of Buddhas is opened for us. Because of our own continuous practice, the continuous practice of all the Buddhas and Ancestors is manifested, and the Way of all Buddhas is opened.3

We are practicing now because practitioners over the centuries have practiced. Our practice today fulfills their Bodhisattva's Vows. Likewise, our practice today provides a basis for the practice of those who come after us. The vows you take and the precepts you uphold in this lifetime will go beyond this lifetime. This is the infinite cycle of continuous practice, so do your best to uphold your effort in working for the benefit of all beings, past, present, and future.

1Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen, ed. K. Tanahashi, p. 115

2The Dhammapada, translated by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana, Oxford University Press, p. 44.

3How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, Francis Dojun Cook, p.175-176 (substituting 'Ancestors' for 'patriarchs').

� Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2010

Zen Talks Page   Home Page