Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 33
The meaning of the o-kesa



How great the cloth of liberation,
the formless field of virtue,
I put on the teaching of the tathagatha,
vowing to save all suffering beings!

The takkesage is what we chant every morning before putting on the o-kesa. Last month, I wrote about a similarity between the o-kesa and zazen. Although the o-kesa is praised here as the "the field of liberation", as deluded beings we tend to feel obstructed both by zazen and the o-kesa. We expect to be liberated, but in reality we experience a lack of freedom. From the side of our buddha nature though, we feel wrapped up and embraced by dharma when we put on the o-kesa and just sit. Accepting this embracement gives us true liberation.

Still, when I was a young monk, I thought that chanting the takkesage was only a meaningless ritual, just as I thought that the o-kesa was only a piece of cloth. Now my view has changed a little: I think that everything has just as much (or just as little) meaning as we give to it. The same is true for zazen of course. For most people, when they hear that zazen is good for nothing, they decide that it is just a waste of time. There is just no reason why it has to be done. And with life in general, it is the same: There is no such thing as a "meaning" of life. The only way to give meaning to life is through the attitude with which we live, and the only way to give meaning to the o-kesa is through our attitude towards the o-kesa, which is expressed in the way we put it on and off, and the way we wear it. The meaning of the o-kesa is not in the pieces of cloth it consists of, it isn't even in the particular way these pieces are sewn together (although the way the kesa is made is very important when we actually sew it), it is the attitude with which we relate to it, and each and every other little thing in the universe.

The question is not: "What is the kesa good for? What is zazen good for? What is life good for?" The question is: "With what attitude should I wear the o-kesa, should I sit on the cushion, should I live my life?" When you say there is no meaning, it really just means that you fail to give things a meaning.
We already saw last month that Sawaki Rôshi at times gives equal importance to zazen and the o-kesa. He says, "just putting on the o-kesa and sitting in zazen is enough". It is this attitude of just doing and not looking for anything else that is essential for the practice of the buddha way.

In Zendan, the book from which I take Sawaki Rôshi's instructions for zazen, he devotes a whole chapter to the o-kesa. He gives several examples to demonstrate the importance of the o-kesa, but some of the things he says are quite disturbing as well. Without further comment, Sawaki mentions that samurai in the old days put on an o-kesa when they went to war, because they thought it would help them to win. This of course will remind us of the crusaders who fought "for God" and "with God on our side", completely forgetting that God taught love of the enemy, not war. It seems stupid that the same thing should happen in Buddhism too: Fighting samurais on both sides slautering each other with the o-kesa worn over their armor.

In a different context, Sawaki says that it is the attitude and the aim with which we take a meal, that gives meaning to the meal. Taking a meal is not just about consuming food: The meal that a robber takes before he breaks into someone's house has a different meaning than the meal that we take between zazen during a sesshin. And of course the zazen of just sitting has a different meaning than the zazen that is supposed to lead us to satori. In the first case, we give up our egoistic desires and throw ourselves completely into zazen, allowing zazen to absorb us. In the second case, we use zazen for our own egoistic desires, trying to make a toy or a tool out of it. So how about the samurai and his o-kesa? Is he putting it on, "vowing to save all suffering beings"? Certainly not, he is going to kill his enemies, hoping to win fame and fortune. The example of the samurai might help to demonstrate how even secular Japanese had deep belief in the power of the o-kesa, but at the same time this example also serves to show how misdirected this belief can be. Putting on the o-kesa to kill an enemy has as little to do with the buddha dharma as has eating a meal with oryoki (the monk's bowls) and chopsticks before breaking into a bank. If the o-kesa and the dharma a one, then it means a slander of the dharma to use the o-kesa for egositic purposes. It must never mean that whatever you do with the o-kesa on is in accord with the dharma.

Unfortunately, I do not find Sawaki warning against the blind, misdirected belief in the o-kesa. He does mention that even in most Buddhist countries, the o-kesa doesn't have the same importance that it has (or better: used to have) in Japan. In India for example, the kesa is just a piece of cloth you wear. A small kesa serves as underwear, a bigger one as outer robe. This was true at the time of the Buddha too. Nowhere in the old sutras do we find Shakyamuni preaching that the dharma and the o-kesa are one. Still, Sawaki quotes words that a sutra called "Hikekyô" (The sutra of the compassionate flower) puts into the mouth of Shakyamuni Buddha: "If someone puts the o-kesa on and goes to war, he will never lose a battle."

What would the bhikkus of Shakyamuni's time have done if they had known that the Buddha's teaching would be perverted in such a way by later generations? How could anyone know that the pathed robe of the home leaving monk would serve warriors "dressed to kill"? It was only to abandon their attachment, that the bhikkus of Shakyamuni's sangha looked for discarded pieces of cloth and sew them together, making patched robes for the members of the sangha. What would they think if they knew that these robes would become the object of attachment, were worn by warriors and are now sold for astronomical prices in Buddhist stores in Japan? What would they think if they knew that those who consider themselves the "Buddhist elite" try to impress each other by wearing the most colorful and expensive kesas they can get?

A monk who does warn against the blind worship of the o-kesa is the famous Ikkyû: One day he was asked to perform a ceremony in a private home. Ikkyû went with his ordinary clothes on. When the family greeted him, they asked, "But Ikkyû-san, have you forgotten about the ceremony?" "Why, that is exactly why I have come!" "But how can you perform the ceremony when you don't wear the o-kesa?" Ikkyû went back to Daitokuji, his temple, got the o-kesa and put it on the Buddhist altar of the family. He then turned to go. Again the people stopped him, "But what about the ceremony, you haven't even started!" Says Ikkyû, "Why, didn't you say you were waiting for the o-kesa, not for me?" Here he is making the important point that the meaning of the o-kesa is not in the piece of cloth itself. It is in how we treat the cloth.

In Zendan however, Sawaki Rôshi tells a different, again confusing story:

"In some far kingdom lived elephants with six horns. The king wished to posses their ivory, but no-one ever succeed in catching the animals. One day two hunter friends had a clever idea. 'I heard that those elephants have deep belief in the Buddha', one said to the other, 'Why don't we trick them by wearing a kesa?' When they approached an elephant couple, the female said to the male, 'Can you see the evil stare in the eyes of those two guys - they are approaching!'
'What are you talking, wife? Don't you see they are Buddha's desciples? They are wearing the o-kesa', the male replied.
'But still, just looking into their eyes makes me scared!'
'Woman, you must never distrust a desciple of the Buddha. It is because of this that you women are stuck in deep guilt.'
In the mean time, the hunters had come quite close and one of them took out the bow and poison arrow that he had hidden under the kesa, and shot it at the male elephant. The female exclaimed, 'Let's just kill these guys!'
Again, the male stopped her saying, 'What are you talking? They are desciples of the Buddha! How could we possibly be angry about a deed of a Buddhist monk? If they need our lives, what greater fortune could there be than to be killed by a Buddhist?'
When the hunters came closer, thye male asked one of them, 'Why is it that you need to take my life?'
The hunter replied, 'I want your horns!'
'I'll give my horns, but I don't give them to you. I give them to the o-kesa that you are wearing!' With these words the elephant died."

This story left me just as puzzled as the words about wearing a kesa when going to war, attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha. Can we possibly admire the cleverness of those two hunters? Aren't we to sympathize with the innocent elephants? How could we possibly not wish that the male would have listened to the female and distrusted the fake kesa?

Sawaki Rôshi gives an interesting interpretation to the story, which also throws a different light on the episode involving Ikkyû: He says that when we put on the o-kesa to perform a ceremony or do takuhatsu for example, we are like the two hunters in the story. Anyone who dresses as a monk and stands on a busy street in a Japanese city will receive donations from passers-by. When you practice formal Buddhist begging, you might have the illusion that people give you money. But that is not the case. People give money to the robes wear, because in the eyes of anyone who grows up in a Buddhist culture, the robes represent the dharma. When I did takuhatsu standing next to other monks, I was often surprised to find that people don't hesitate to give money to monks who are obviously fake - they don't know how to dress properly, they don't know how to chant a sutra, they have propably never lived in a temple. "Don't give money to that guy, give it to me, I am a true practioner of the way!", I would exclaim in my mind. How ironic! How could I expect to receive money? The donation is for the o-kesa, it is not for the individual. Who would give me money if I went to town and begged in a T-shirt and short pants? No-one, and that is why we wear the robes. We are like hunters that aim at the elephants horns, and the elephants galdly sacrifice themselves, or at least part of their money...

Seeing the story in this light, it doesn't mean at all that we can do anyhting we want as long as we wear the o-kesa. Quite the opposite, putting on the o-kesa is a great responsibility. When we put on the o-kesa we indeed "put on the teaching of the tathagatha", because that is what it stands for. the question is just: How can we live up to the o-kesa?

When we take a meal, one of the things we chant is: "Let us reflect on where this meal comes from, and the virtue it represents". Even in a self-sufficient community like Antaiji, we do not produce everything ourselves. Even the food we grow in the fields is a donation from nature. Money is donated by visitors and people on the street who don't even know us. The o-kesa that we wear for zazen was sewn and donated. How could I complain that it obstructed my practice of the buddha way?

Ikkyû was right in pointing out that there is no use in worshipping the o-kesa as a material object. But if he thought that he had earned more respect than the o-kesa that he put on the altar, he was wrong: The family had called him as a Buddhist priest, not as an individual person. Only when we forget about our individual, personal interests and preferences and leave everything to the o-kesa can we live up to the buddha dharma.

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