Taking the Precepts,
Sewing Buddha's Robe

by Josho Pat Phelan

According to Ch’an Master Sheng-yen, a common saying in Mahayana Buddhism is "Having vows to break is the bodhisattva path. Not having vows to break is a non-Buddhist path." I have heard this expressed as "it is better to take the precepts and break them than not to take them at all." Of course, the point isn’t to break the precepts but to receive and maintain them. In the time between our arousing the aspiration to receive the precepts and mature our practice, and the actualization of that vow, we can use the precepts to support and clarify our practice. Working with the precepts can be compared to a baby learning to walk. The baby takes a step and falls down, takes another couple of steps and loses his balance. Slowly, by trying over and over, the baby learns to maintain the walking motion longer until, eventually, he can not only walk, but run and dance.

Several people are sewing rakusus in preparation for receiving the precepts in the ceremony called Jukai. I would like to talk about the process of receiving the precepts. The Jukai Ceremony is also called the Bodhisattva Initiation or Lay Ordination. The word Jukai is Japanese, and it is written with two characters: the second character, kai, refers to the precepts, and the first character ju means both "to give" and "to receive." Jukai is the ceremony of giving and receiving the precepts. In Zen we use the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts which are given both in priest and lay ordination ceremonies. They are also given in the wedding and funeral ceremonies which, as it turns out, are also a kind of ordination or precepts ceremony.

I would like to talk about how we have come to use these sixteen precepts. The precepts have been developing over the past 2,500 years, since Shakyamuni Buddha’s time, as guidelines to help people who are practicing together to live in harmony. They are mostly intended to be practiced in relationship to others. You can’t do as much with them if you are living in isolation like a hermit, so the precepts are very much a sangha-oriented practice. The precepts vary from country to country and between different cultures as circumstances vary. In some Buddhist sects there are as many as 348 precepts (the Patimoksha Rules) some of which serve as guidelines for the many details of monastic living, such as, taking off your shoes before entering the zendo, and being sure your feet and clothes are clean. Fully ordained women are given about fifty more precepts than men. But when Shakyamuni Buddha began teaching, and others began joining him in practice, there weren’t any precepts. The precepts were created individually as situations arose that put monks and nuns in danger, or that were counterproductive to practice.

During the time Buddha was teaching, about 250 precepts developed called vinaya. The word vinaya means rules of the religious order, or rules of action to discipline the mind. On his deathbed, Buddha told Ananda, "After my Nirvana, if the sangha asks for the nullification of some articles of the petty vinaya, the Tathagata gives you permission to nullify them serially." Ananda was Buddha’s first cousin and had been his attendant for many years. He was known for his clear and complete memory. Legend has it that he remembered all of Buddha’s sermons perfectly, and, after Buddha’s death, he repeated them until others also learned them. Sutras traditionally begin with the phrase, "Thus have I heard...." The "I" referred to is Ananda who is repeating the sermon he heard Buddha deliver. These teachings remained an oral tradition until they were finally written down as sutras about 200 years after they were delivered.

Three months after Buddha’s death or parinirvana, there was a meeting of elders called the First Council of the Order, and Ananda reported to the Council that Buddha had said that the petty vinaya could be disregarded. The members asked which of the vinaya were the petty ones, and Ananda replied that at the time Buddha told him this, he was lost in astonishment that some of the vinaya could be disregarded and forgot to ask.

Many discussions and arguments followed about which of the vinaya rules were great and which were petty. At this time, Mahakasyapa, the elder Arhat, who in Zen is considered to be Buddha’s successor, suggested that the vinaya were disciplinary rules to help monks preserve themselves from unwholesome actions and he suggested that none of them be nullified. This was the case for about 100 years until around 443 B.C.E. when a Second Council was held and there was a disagreement between two factions as to whether ten petty vinaya could be nullified. This disagreement led some time later to the two groups splitting up. Eventually, one group became predominant in northern India; they became the Mahayana group, which used Sanskrit as its textual language. The other group became predominant in southern India, used Pali for their written texts, and were called "Hinayana" [lesser vehicle] by the Mahayana [great vehicle] group. The southern school survives today and is referred to now by the more polite name of the Theravada [way of the elders] School.

Jumping ahead about thousand years, Buddhism was introduced into Japan in about the 6th century, and by the 8th century it was established enough to have large monasteries. Saicho, an important abbot of a large Tendai Buddhist monastery and head of the Tendai movement in Japan at that time, petitioned the Emperor in the 8th century asking for permission to ordain monks using only the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts instead of the 227 Patimoksha Precepts that were ordinarily used. I can’t remember why he wanted the precepts reduced, but certainly it would be difficult to follow all of the them in the culture and climate of Japan. Actually, some of the original precepts must have been modified in China prior to this. For example, the traditional precepts limit a monk’s possessions to something like three robes, one bowl and two needles. In Japan, where it is very hot and humid in the summer and cold and snowy in the winter (especially in the mountains), under robes were added to the traditional ordination robe or okesa.

Other Patimoksa precepts prohibited work, but Zen monks in China and Japan did work in the kitchen, on the grounds, and grew food in fields and gardens, which made their monasteries self sufficient to some extent and less dependent on donations from lay people and the government. This was a factor in the survival of Zen monasteries during the Buddhist persecution in China in about the 10th or 11th century. In Zen Buddhism, working not only was allowed for monks, but it was seen as another vehicle for practice and has come to be known as being characteristic of zen practice.

After petitioning for many years, Saicho died and the Emperor of Japan granted permission posthumously for monks to be ordained receiving sixteen precepts. Eventually the sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts came to be used by all, or nearly all, Japanese Buddhist sects in ordaining monks. Japan is the only Asian country where ordained Buddhist clerics receive only sixteen precepts. After Japanese ports were finally opened to foreign ships in about 1868, the Japanese government mounted a campaign to establish a state religion to help prevent foreign religions from entering the culture, and the indigenous Shinto religion was chosen over Buddhism. The authority of Buddhist monks at that time was undermined and eventfully Buddhist monks were allowed and even encouraged by the government to marry. This is why in Japan today, most Buddhist clerics tend to be priests living as householders taking care of temples where lay people practice rather than living in monasteries as celibate monks. This is some of the cultural history of the precepts we take.

One of the fundamental teachings in Buddhism is the law of cause of effect, or action and the result of action. The word karma means "volitional action" and it is enacted through our body, speech, and thought. The law of causation states that wholesome actions will sooner or later come to fruition as wholesome results or effects, and unwholesome actions will come to fruition as unwholesome results: basically, as you sow, so shall you reap. The effects of these actions may be experienced in the next instant, hours or years later, or in a future life. Our present situation is the result of our past actions, but, in each moment, the activity we choose is determining or contributing to the conditions of what we will experience in the future.

The Western idea of good and evil really doesn’t really apply here. Buddhism teaches that we act either out of insight into the truth of cause and effect (or the truth of the interconnectedness of all things) or we act out of ignorance to these truths. Once we realize the relationship between cause and effect, and the true interrelatedness of all things, we act out of insight or wisdom. From the perspective of Zen, we don’t need to try to change our behavior as much as we need to try to bring our attention to our actions and the effects they have on ourselves and others. When we really understand, or really realize the unwholesome effects of our unwholesome actions, we will stop doing them. So much of our effort with the precepts is in the realm of mindfulness.

Generally, mental activity carries the weakest karma-result; speech produces a stronger result; and physical actions have the strongest effects both on ourselves and on others. For example, we can think an unwholesome thought and drop it without it having much of an effect. But, if we make a habit of unwholesome thinking–thinking that is rooted in greed, hate, or delusion, which reinforces the idea of the self as a separate entity–then that activity is strengthened through repetition and becomes a kind of frame of reference for the rest of our activity. Our thoughts tend to be more subtle and elusive than our verbal and physical activity, and they happen a lot more quickly. Verbal and physical action is always preceded by a thought or mental impulse. In practice, a lot of emphasis is placed on becoming conscious of our mental activity–our thoughts and emotions, impulses and intentions, and the residual day dreams we slip into when we aren’t engaged with what we are doing. As we slow down and pay attention to the details, we begin to get a sense for how our intentions and impulses propel our verbal and physical activity.

Traditional Buddhist teaching describes three areas of practice: morality, meditative concentration and wisdom. These are usually seen as being cultivated in that order. Practicing morality, or right conduct, means maintaining the precepts by abandoning unwholesome activity and developing wholesome activity. This is considered preparation for meditation practice because unwholesome conduct produces agitated, restless states of mind, making it difficult for us to stop and be calm enough to sit still, whereas wholesome conduct supports concentration. The traditional view is that once our conduct is wholesome enough and we are calm enough, then we can meditate, which develops concentration. After we develop some level of concentration, then wisdom or insight will follow–insight into how Buddhist teaching or truth is manifested in our own experience. This systematic approach tends to be used in earlier Buddhism. In Zen we don’t separate these three areas of cultivation but work with them in an integrated way.

For example, the instructions we’re given for zazen don’t address the precepts directly because when we are sitting zazen, for the most part, we are already maintaining the precepts. When we sit silently, allowing the body to be still and the mind to settle, we are in alignment with the precepts. So practicing zazen is one way to practice with the precepts, and maintaining the precepts allows us to experience the clarity of our being when it is not being directed by our conditioning and habit energy.

The first step in working with the precepts is becoming aware of our physical, verbal, mental, and emotional activity, and what about it brings a sense of well-being or uneasiness. The essence of the precepts is non-harming, and to be able to sit still in the first place entails some level of non-harming. So practicing the precepts helps us become calm enough to be able to meditate, and meditation practice upholds the precepts, and meditation and the precepts together help us develop insight (maybe the insight that we need to meditate more!)

In this lineage, before we receive the precepts in an ordination ceremony, we first sew a rakusu, which is the small patched together piece of cloth that is worn around the neck. We treat the rakusu as Buddha’s robe. The rakusu comes to us from a tradition based on the way Shakyamuni Buddha made his robe. He gathered discarded rags from the streets and charnel grounds, washed them, dyed them a saffron color, and sewed them together to make his robe. The okesa, the larger ordination robe worn by priests, and the rakusu, the smaller version of it, come to us from this tradition. The pattern of the patches is based on the pattern of rice fields Buddha saw standing on a hill overlooking rice paddies.

To make a rakusu, we start with a large piece of dark fabric which we carefully measure and cut into smaller pieces, some of which are only about a square inch in size. Then we pin these pieces and sew them back together. In doing this, most of us quickly find out how frustrating it can be trying to keep the individual strips parallel to each other and the corners square, particularly on the smaller pieces.

One of the teachings in Zen is "Everything is mind." I’ve never experienced this quite so vividly as when I was sewing my first rakusu. At some point I realized that what was there before me wasn’t just a needle and thread and some cloth, but my state of mind. My state of mind was there facing me. My effort, intention, and concentration, my impatience, frustration, and restlessness, my desire to just get it over with were right there before me. It was as if all the ups and downs and configurations of my mind were there looking back at me. So, when we sew a rakusu, not only do we get a rakusu made, but most of us get a very tangible experience of our state of mind. Then we wear our rakusu on our chest and everyone else can see our rakusu-sewing state of mind.

One of the instructions for sewing the rakusu is to say a refuge silently with each stitch. As I took a stitch I said, "I take refuge in Buddha"; another stitch, "I take refuge in Dharma"; another stitch, "I take refuge in Sangha." This is repeated over and over with the sewing. Doing this brings the refuges to the breath, and the breath to the sewing. This way of sewing, sitting still, trying to bring your complete attention to each stitch, and chanting, brings forth a concentrated state. Sewing is itself a meditation practice which unifies body, breath, and mind. Through the sewing and chanting, we embody the refuges, we bring Buddha’s teaching into our bodies. I think this is the first initiation.

After completing the rakusu, it is given to the preceptor or the person ordaining us. During the ordination ceremony, we are given a new name. This name is written on the back of the rakusu which is given during the ceremony. So although we sew the rakusu, it is not ours until it is given to us. This is also true if you sew a second or third rakusu, or if someone sews a rakusu for you. In this lineage when you sew a rakusu, you don’t put your rakusu on and start wearing it right away, but give it to a teacher to give to you. This process recognizes our interconnection, the importance of having a teaching, a group and a teacher to practice with. We don’t go off by ourselves to get enlightened; we practice with all beings, for the benefit of all beings.

© Copyright Taitaku Pat Phelan, 1999

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