Preliminary to the solemn ceremony in which students of the Buddha take vows to uphold the moral precepts of this spiritual path, students first sew a robe. There is a sewing teacher to guide the process, but students make their own way through the complexities of learning and executing this time-honored project. With each stitch that is sewn, the sewers silently chant a vow to take refuge in the Buddha. This vow sets the intention to be fully present to the stitches as they are made. When concentration lapses and the stitches are uneven or the pieces are put together wrong, the stitches are taken out and the work begins again.
The days of our lives are our spiritual practice in much the same way as sewing a robe. Every step we take as practitioners contains the vow to wake up to the Buddha Way. When we aren’t fully awake and the steps we take are crooked, harmful and ignorant, we do the necessary spiritual work of repair.
We humans don’t like to fail. We hide our errors, we pretend that mistakes didn’t happen, or we simply cannot see the problems we cause with our steps. Sewing a robe, we just want to get it done, we want to be told it looks fine, despite the puckers and the crooked pieces. Our level of skill with sewing and with paying attention are reflected back to us when the stitches are all different sizes, when because of our tendencies to hurry or be distracted the robe is carelessly made.
The errors we sew into the robes we make are plain to see, and the sewing teacher will instruct us to repair them. Students typically spend months or years moving slowly and carefully through the process of measuring and pinning and stitching and checking in with the sewing teacher and repairing the mistakes the teacher points out. All the while, the mind that stitches and the mind that repairs are the focus of the students’ ongoing spiritual work.
Part of my personal moral code has been to take seriously the act of making a commitment. The laws of the land, the marriage vows I took, the vows of confirmation at age 13 are all commitments that I treated and do treat with sincere respect. The sewing of a robe shone a light on my ego’s tendency to identify with my commitments. To be honorable and skillful were perceived as personal accomplishments. I treated each stitch and its potential for crookedness as a potential fall from grace. Making mistakes, especially visible mistakes, was cause for shame and dread. When my robe was finished and accepted by my sewing teacher, I was greatly relieved. I felt secure, knowing I had done it “right.”
The vows taken in the Precepts Ceremony are expressions of the highest ideals: to not kill life; to refrain from all intoxicating substances and habits; to be harmless, to not be stingy, to be honest and kind, not angry and judgmental. During the ceremony we receive our carefully crafted robe along with a new name to honor our commitment to our true nature. The robe we have worked so hard to sew and repair is now a symbol we wear to honor and remind us of our devotion to the beauty and perfection of these aspirations.
Vowing to uphold the moral values of this spiritual path, we speak the words that tell us who we truly are. Our karma, however, that which compels us to speak and act out of pride, anger and avarice is also our inheritance. With it we must contend. It is through these very failures to act from our Buddha Nature that we come to know the karmic ground on which we stand. Seeing our tendencies toward greed and hatred gives us the gift of choice. From then on, we can choose whether to repeat these errors and add to our karmic load or return, through the practice of relinquishment, to a deeper, fuller and more honest honoring of the vows and of the Buddha within.
Once I had taken vows to uphold the precepts and had received my new Buddhist name, my own karmic baggage of tension between success and failure followed me into my ongoing practice with the precepts. I experienced the breaking of my promises to honor my Preceptual vows as transgressions that were deeply troubling. I lived with the burning shame this brought by avoiding dealing with a problem whose solution I could not imagine. Without examining my motives, I tried to circumvent these failures by asserting my successes in my practice instead.
Day-to-day practice with the precepts was especially made difficult by the encouragement to confess my errors. To acknowledge ethical and spiritual mistakes felt like jumping off a cliff. Surely, I would not survive it! My mind sought another avenue, anything but to name the problem of personal defeat and share it with someone else. For a long time, I remained stuck in the unexamined never-never land of needing to succeed, to be right, to be a good person. I could not see that the stitches I was sewing into the robe of my life were crooked.
I was lost in an inner darkness, without a robe to spotlight my crooked stitches. The light of truth and goodness that we all seek lives within each of us, even when we cannot see it. Our zealous delusions blanket the light and obscure the truth that our vows hold out for us like candles, beckoning us to come home. When we find ourselves suffering and alone, it is critical to remember and recommit to the vows we have taken. To remember that we have vowed not to disparage or demean, through self-centered thinking, the treasure of awakening to the Dharma. To remember that we have vowed to do no harm, not to ourselves or another. To remember that we have committed to honestly continue on the path that leads to purification. Will we pay lip service to these powerful spiritual aspirations or trust the steps that practice asks of us?
The process of penetrating our life-garment with awareness and repair is up to us. But just as in sewing a robe, we need help to make the crooked straight and the rough places plane. Sharing our struggles and failures with a teacher is a turn away from the ego. Confession carries us from the shore of our karmic fumbling in the dark back to the brightness of our vows. It is up to each of us to walk across this bridge or return to the lives our ego has built for us.
Noble aspirations are the stuff of hard work, not lip service. Just as we penetrate the fabric pieces of our emerging robe with a sharp needle and thread, so we penetrate the pieces of our lives with the sharp needle of BuddhaDharma. We sew the Buddha’s mind into our lives by holding our crookedness up to the light of honest acknowledgement. Our willingness to penetrate through the veil of our shame and fear is our brightness. The clarity of our commitment to the vows in the face of failure is the lid that fits with the metaphorical box of our teacher’s wisdom and compassion. This powerful pairing creates the conditions we need to see clearly through our mistakes, take out the uneven stitches and begin again.
When I finally understood that the way to honor and uphold my vows was to walk through the failures, not around them, I had discovered gold buried in the mud of my harmful tendencies. I learned to hold my mistakes gently but firmly with awareness and determination not to do it again. I began to see the ego’s defeat as a gift given to me so that I might truly contend with the power that pride has over me. I learned to rest into the guidance and skill that my teacher offers as she walks beside me. I trust that she will work as hard as I do so that I can, finally, relinquish harmful ways of being.
I came to know that the vows we take are so much more than words often repeated. They are who we truly are. Like beacons, they show us the way home to our true selves from our exile in the dark pain of the lies we live. Our commitment to these precious vows is our greatest hope. Their power—our power—is manifested through repentant awareness, sincere confession and the honest, courageous work of change.
The robe we have created is a powerful symbol of making each step, like each stitch, reflect our vows, not our karma. We wear the robe close to our hearts where love for the whole and healing rituals of committing to our vows and engaging with our failures grows stronger with every day of sincere practice to wake up.
Author:Lao Huo Shakya
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