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Sewing a Robe – Lay Ordination

A Single Thread, A Contemplative Order of Hsu Yun is pleased to offer to sincere practitioners

the opportunity to work with one of the new monks in sewing a lay robe. To sew a robe is the first

monastic step on the path of a contemplative practice.

Here are two commentaries from two of the monks on sewing a robe.

The practice of sewing a Rakusu was offered to me a couple of years after I began to meditate and practice at A Single Thread Zendo.  Having enjoyed hand sewing my whole life, I eagerly took on the challenge.  I thought it would be a breeze, knowing my way around a needle and thread as I already did.  This false confidence was one of numerous aspects of the ego on which this sewing project shined a bright light.  As the robe began to emerge, slowly, from beneath my hands, it was accompanied by continuous mistakes and continuous opportunities to see the truth of how I cling to a solid self.  A simple and unassuming collection of cloth squares, the power of the Rakusu lies in what it reveals to the sewer as s/he takes refuge in Buddha’s teachings, one careful stitch at a time.

Lao Huo Shakya


Sewing A Robe

About sixteen years ago I sewed my first small robe called a Rakasu in preparation to receiving the Precepts and being ordained a Lay Buddhist Practitioner.  The finished robe would be given to my Teacher who would later bestow it on me at the Precept ceremony.  We who were to sew the robe gathered  in retreat with a Sewing Teacher who filled us with the history and significance of the robe and whatever else we needed to know about sewing it.

The front of the robe is beautiful but also the most difficult to sew because of its exacting pattern but we learned how to put the various pieces together and the proper stitch to use.  Each stitch was accompanied by a prayer, a refuge; I take refuge in the Buddha…stitch…I take refuge in the Dharma…stitch…I take refuge in the Sangha…stitch.  Over and over again. Hundreds, thousands of times.

When you sew a robe it becomes your teacher and shows up things like impatience or lack of concentration or pride.  Like the time I became so frustrated I was ready to throw cloth, needle and thread out the window.  Instead I walked out the door and kept on walking until I could go back and begin again with a cooler head and maybe a bit more patience.

At home after the retreat I continued sewing alone.  I was at ease with the method and each day I found myself looking forward to the quiet period of time set aside to sit and sew. My favorite and most restful time of day. Each stitch had become a little melody that I heard in my head as soon as I sat down.  I grew calm and peaceful.  Trivia dropped away.  Thoughts dropped away.  Just this remained.  Stitch, stitch, stitch.

When I had finished a good section of the challenging front of the robe I sent it to the Sewing Teacher who lived at a distance so she could check that everything was correct.  I thought it quite lovely.  And as she wrote in her return letter she did too; fine small stitches, even rows, etc.  Then came the sentence: “That said, you have to rip the whole thing out.  The measurements are wrong.”  My lack of paying close attention showed up. So unstitch…unstitch…unstitch.  Iron flat and begin again…I take refuge…stitch…I take refuge…stitch…I take refuge…stitch.  Then, calm and peace.  Just this.

I have that small robe today.  It is soft with use. Each stitch a visible prayer. Lovely. Old Monk Flowering


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Humming Bird

Author: Fashi Lao Yue

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