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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 38

A STITCH IN SPACE

HOGOJI May 10, 1988

 

Norman does many things well.  His head is good, his voice is good and his hands are good too.  They're strong and intelligent, with long fingers.  In his day Norman has used his hands skillfully for finished carpentry, lead guitar, elegant calligraphy, and finicky kesa and rakusu sewing.  There are few places where monks or laypeople still sew these robes for themselves.  Most of them are machine sewn and store bought these days.  Suienji is the one of the only places in Japan that I know of where monks and laypeople alike sew their own.  Some of the Zen groups in the U.S. require that ordainees make their own holy vestments, as a Catholic priest referred to them.  Joshin-san (of the missing digit) patiently taught us this specialized sewing at Zen Center.  We'd chant "Namu kie butsu" (I take refuge in the buddha - I plunge into buddha, was her twist on it) with every stitch and would thus sew the vow of taking refuge into the very fabric of the garment.  (taking refuge, or plunging, in the buddha, dharma and sangha is as central to Buddhism as communion is to Catholicism)  Unlike a certain old monk at Suienji, Joshin never brought cultural competition into her teaching or doubted our ability to sew "Buddha's robe."  Norman told me a story about that senior priest.

 

Even though Norman is always frustrated in one way or another because he feels he's treated as an outsider who can't really understand or master any Japanese way of doing anything,  no one can deny that he sews a superb kesa.  The kesa is covered with lines of stitches that look like closely spaced dots that hold together the small pieces of cloth it is made from.  His are always perfectly spaced and straight as Bodhidharma's stare.

Once, Norman went to Suienji for a two week sewing session.  In the first ten days he whipped out a new kesa and matching zagu, the bowing cloth.  He then joined a group of Japanese lay people, mostly women, who had come to sew their own rakusu.  Rakusu aren't just for monks, some of the more diligent lay people will wear them too.  An older monk was there to instruct in how to go about this exacting task.  He demonstrated how to lay out the cloth, measure it, cut it, fold the pieces, do the stitches, how to make the straps to hang around the neck, every little detail.  He didn't pay any attention to Norman who was working away in the corner.

The next afternoon when he was checking people's work, the monk walked over to where Norman sat sewing.  Norman kept on sewing in a concentrated fashion.  The old monk looked at his work and did a double take.  He asked Norman if that was a rakusu he'd been working on from before and Norman said no, he'd started with everyone else the day before.  The old monk examined it carefully, glanced at Norman and looked at the rakusu again.  You'd think the guy would be happy.  "I mean what's the point of the whole trip?" to quote Norman.  But he wasn't happy - he was furious.  His face tightened into a scowl and his breathing became audible.  He turned around, glared fiercely at the unsuspecting lay sewers and commenced to scold them vigorously for allowing a... a... a gaijin to sew a better rakusu than they, than Japanese!  He fumed and paced the room as he shamed them for this inexcusable insult to national pride.  Norman, disgusted, went back to sewing as the outraged monk brought his fellow countryfolk to tears.