Chant Book talks: the Robe Chant

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Tim gives a very brief obituary for Red Cedar Zen member Barb Crowley who passed away recently in California and then discusses the power of repeated ritual in general and with regard to the ritual of putting on Buddhist robes. His notes are below.


Ritual actions can do a lot for us. They can slow us down, put us into contact with some feeling for the situation we are not connecting with, they can remind us of some meaning. In our Western discourse we have the idea that “rote” ritual is stale and useless, part of our inheritance from the intellectual rennassancies over the centuries and perhaps a shadow of the French Revolution, but my experience is that ritual action has an impact even when we are not feelings terribly attentive to the inner meaning of it.

And if you think about it our lives are full of ritual, some are just so normal we take them for granted. Shaking hands with someone we meet is a ritual for instance. What does that do? And rituals change in interesting ways. Here we usually shake hands only when we meet someone for the first time, after that we are awkwardly in between a nod and a smile and a hug because it seems somehow too formal or staid to shake hands with someone you’ve met before. In other parts of the country you shake hands with people you know every time you meet.

I remember in France if you approach a group of men it’s important to shake hands with every person before you state your business – I had that experience once when I had to ask a train official a question. He was surrounded by a group of 3 or 4 guys all talking so before I tried to explain what I wanted, which car to put our bikes on probably, it was important to shake each guys hand and say something before asking the question. How I did that with my minimal French I don’t know but I remember it being a really sweet interaction. And then with women you kiss on both cheeks, men you know well too I think.

And so we have many rituals in Zen too. And they elicit a feeling or plant something in our hearts for later perhaps. One of the most beautiful is the odd ritual of putting on the formal robes. When we say robes there are all kinds of robes. Regular sitting robes and mulitple layers. Like Talus and Kate are wearing – these robes are optional here and worn by anyone who chooses to wear them. It’s kind of nice once you get used to it. Very practical in some ways too, they are designed to keep you comfortable when sitting.

The ritualy important robes are the outermost robes worn by those who’ve received them in empowerment rituals. And those rituals always revolve around the ethical precepts of Zen. So lay people who make a commitment to precepts, the way of practicec, to sangha, and to the teacher (in that order in our understanding) wear an outer symbolic robe called rakusu.

And priests always wear an outer robe called okesa or kesa which is the Japanese transliteration of kashaya from the Sanskrit. All Buddhist clergy wear some version of this robe but it varies a lot between cultures. Japanese Buddhism in particular is very involved with ritual clothing. What I have on is the simple version, minus a layer or two, of the whole getup. Before the group of Everyday Zen priests went to Japan we had to carefully consult with several people in an attempt to get our ensemble correct and probably we were a little funky but being guests it was okay.

This outer robe – the small rakusu which probably evolved during 8th century persecutions of Buddhist in China as a kind of secret small robe to tuck under you farmers clothes – and the larger okesa for priests represents Buddha’s teaching in a very tangible and powerful way in our tradition.

One way being a priest is looked at in our tradition is just the one who wears the okesa. And wearing the okesa is in a sense being Buddha so you can perform rituals as Buddha. That’s why I, and soon Chris and Edie, can be in the center during our services. It’s not our great insight or whatever but that we have received the proper empowerments to wear the okesa. And thus we’re representing Buddha – it’s all very archetypal and shamanistic really.

The pattern of the robes is said to be that of rice fields and there’s a beautiful story of the Buddha and his attendant Ananda walking up a little hill in India looking toward at the rice paddies with the paths between them. The Buddha says: that’s the pattern for our robes, Ananda. Our intention is to do something as real and important as growing rice. And growing rice is everything. (whether they really grew rice in North India in 500 BCE or whether that’s a translation through Japanese culture I don’t know).

When the robe is put on for the first time, typically in the morning, we put it on our heads. The top of the head being seen as a vulnerable and open place. Then we chant the robe chant. In our weekly schedule we do this on Saturday morning at 6am. You must make it down here at least once for that. So beautiful. But lately I’ve been wondering if we should add that to Wednesday night too, it’s unlikely that many of you put on a rakusu or okesa earlier in the day, no? Early morning is a kind of riff on the monastic routine. Chris and Edie every day are putting on their okesa for the first time and chanting the robe chant at the Tassajara Zendo early in the morning. Then subsequently you just touch the robe to your foreheard, take a breath, and put it on.

Let’s chant it together: we can do call and response to learn the pattern of syllables and also we need to learn the vowel sounds of Japanese a little better.
Dai sai gedap-puku
Muso fuku-den e
hibu nyorai kyo
Kodo sho-shu jo

I just found out today the title for this in Japanese is “takkesa ge”.

But is this Japanese? What language is this? That’s a whole Dharma talk in itself in a way. The best name is Sino-Japanese. It’s the way the Japanese pronounce Chinese characters when they are referencing them as Chinese instead of Japanese. And on the page of course we have the Roman letter transliteration of the sounds they are making. But the Japanese have a whole different way of pronouncing the characters if they are being used in regular Japanese. So it’s a little innaccurate to just say “it’s Japanese”. A modern Japanese person coming for the first time to a Zen Temple, looking at a chant book – Chinese characters – probably would be totally baffled at first having learned the same characters with different pronunciation for the most part, some characters used in Buddhism are obscure so those she wouldn’t even recognize. Sometimes they put little tiny helper characters in their phonetic alphabet – a whole different alphabet – to give clues. Anyway.

What does this mean? We have a translation below.

Great robe of liberation
Field far beyond form and emptiness
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching
Saving all beings

But Shohaku Okamura a wonderful Japanese priest who has a center in Bloomington, Illiniois, says that’s a little off. Someone was fast and loose in the early days of American Zen and it didn’t get cleaned up when the rest of our chants were redone for some reason. Probably we were too used to this version. Some other lineages use a different translation, mostly closer to the meaning of the Chinese. If you go to Great Vow Monastery you’ll notice that.

dai sai is fine, dai means great, sai is like an exclamation mark. How great!

gedappuku means “robe of liberation” – so the first line is very good

muso and fukuden are two additional names for the robe. It’s common to use lots of epithets and synonyms as we saw when we stuided the Prajna Paramita Sutra in 8000 lines.

muso though means signless, or empty, and fukuden means a field of virtue. So literally it’s a list, how great is the robe – it’s a robe of liberation, it’s empty and signless, it’s a field of virtue. muso also means “free of attachment” – so it’s a robe that we can’t cling too, maybe like you can’t cling to a field, it’s bigger than that.

But field far beyond form and emptiness is problemmatic. In muso there’s an emptiness reference but nowhere in the text is the word for form. The translator saw muso and riffed into the Heart Sutra perhaps and inserted the famous line about form and emptiness. Okumura roshi says he doesn’t really know what a field beyond form and emptiness would be. Fields are form and fields are empty, how can a field be beyond form and emptiness?

The metaphor of the field is used a lot in Buddhism as are many agrarian metaphors. And there is the ground has a very specific meaning sometimes when used with mind – the “mind ground” is kind of the baseline of our existence.

the “e” (pronounced as a long “a”) is a modify to fukuden which tells us we’re talking about the robe not a farm field and apparently it’s implied that muso would have an -e at the end too: so our robe is gedappuku, muso-e and fukuden-e. Three ways of looking at it.

hibu nyorai kyo is next.

hibu is a straightforward verb, it means to unfold or open. When I put the robe on my shoulder all folded up I go thorugh a special prodedure of unfolding it. And even the rakusu is folded in half in it’s case, so we unfold the robe.

nyorai means Buddha. Maybe you remember the banka song I tried to get us to sing one night. Shaka Nyorai oh re myo. [get music from inbox] Shaka is Shakyamuni. There are a bunch of Buddha’s a bunch nyorai.

And kyo is I guess a version of do – the way, so nyorai-kyo is the Buddha’s way.

So we are unfolding not just a piece of cloth; we are unfolding the Buddha’s way.

Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching isn’t bad, but it’s more literally “unfolding the Buddha’s way. Shahaku likes “I unfold and wear the Tathagata’s teaching” that takes care of the 3rd line.

Now the last line: kodo shoshu jo.. Sadly I haven’t been able to find a character by character study of that, Shohaku left it out of the talk in his wonderful book Living By Vow. But all the translations I’ve seen agree on something like “saving all beings” or “freeing all beings”.

But what’s the point really? Why make such a big deal of sewing and wearing special clothing? How is that saving anybody. Isn’t it all a little precious?

Well I suppose it can be. But it’s not supposed to be our only response to suffering. We also respond in practical ways. If someone’s hungry we give them food, right? Simple. And yet one time during a retreat at the old Dharma Hall I went on a walk and I found a hungry person barely coherent living under a bridge. I dashed home to get him some food and went back later and he hadn’t eaten a bite. Wrong food I guess. We can’t just do practical action without a deep feeling for the underlying fabric of the universe or it doesn’t work out. This is like the wisdom of Prajna Paramita informing the other 5 paramitas.

So we put on the robe, we engage in this deep ritual life, as one way to touch the depth of human experience. It’s a very serious response to the suffering of the world. It’s wrapping the world in healing and teachings. And the whole system that’s constellated around it and supported by it requires a certain commitment as perhaps you’ve noticed. We have 3 people now actively sewing the small robe for the jukai precepts-receiving ceremony. And maybe you remember me telling you last Spring that it was 6 people. It’s not easy to do this. It takes a lot of alignment from the universe and a lot of individual commitment working together in some kind of harmony.

Dogen wrote in his journals about going to China as a young man that we was really blown away by the ritual of putting the okesa on your head and chanting the robe chant early in the morning. There’s a feeling to this, it’s not just symbolism, it’s not just a system for improving the world or something. It’s a deeply felt engagement with mystery.

He wrote: “[when I saw this] I rejoiced, tears wetting the collar of my robe. Although I knew this verse…I not seen the way it was done. Now I saw it with my own eyes. In my joy I also felt sorry that there had been no master to teach this to me and no good friend to recommend it in Japan. How sad that so much time had been wasted!….my sadness and joy brought endless tears.”

A very big deal for him. A big deal for us now. And even if you don’t go through all of the stuff you’d have to do to wear one of these yourself, don’t feel bad or like a second-class citizen, the idea is that anyone who wears the okesa wears it for everyone, not for themselves. So I’ll wear it for you and save you a whole lot of trouble. At least for now.

One thing that’s interesting to me is the conservatism of religion that’s in evidence here. Shohaku speaks good English and figured out the second line of the translation is wrong but in his own center in Bloomington he chants the exact same English version that he received when he went to Zen Center of Minneapolis to take over after Katagiri roshi died. There’s something both so deep and respectful and careful in that. Not to be too quick to make changes.

Here’s what they chant, slightly different from our version but with the same mistakes in it.
Great robe of liberation
Virtuous field far beyond form and emptiness
Wearing the Tathagata’s teachings
We vow to save all beings

And here’s the official Soto Shu translation:

Robe Verse (Takkesa ge 搭袈装偈)

How great, the robe of liberation,
a formless field of merit.
Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching,
we free all living beings.

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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