Recently I sewed a lightweight summer robe for myself. Although I had made my other vestments in the past, I had never taken on such a complex and, to me at least, mind-boggling project. As I experienced the challenges and frustrations–and rewards–of the process, I began to reflect how, to a certain extent, the process mirrored my training. I saw the process as a series of steps.
Step 1: Realize the Need
During the summer here in Minnesota it’s not unusual to have an 80F day with 80% humidity. That’s a wonderful combination for making corn and tomatoes grow, but it’s an uncomfortable experience. I realized after last summer that I needed a lighter weight robe.
We also begin our Buddhist training by realizing a need—a spiritual need. We have an increasingly uncomfortable sense that there is a vitally important dimension missing from our life, and that unless we explore it our life will be bereft of real purpose, real meaning.
Although we experience the need, we may not recognize it as spiritual need. Until we begin to address a spiritual need with spiritual tools, most of us try satisfying it with external worldly preoccupations. These can take many forms, such as education, career, romantic relationships, family, sports, unhelpful religious pursuits, and so on: each of us has our own peculiar collection based on our karmic proclivities. None of these are necessarily inherently “bad,” but they are a problem when we self-identify with them; when we make them the center and refuge of our life. The inherent problem in taking refuge in external things manifests when they are inevitably taken from us, in death if not before. When they are taken from us, we feel cut loose from our safe and familiar moorings and cast adrift on the tempestuous sea of life with no compass and no means of steering our course. We realize that we have been looking for refuge in all the wrong places.
In reflecting on the Buddha's life, it occurred to me that he had experience of this himself. He grew up in a kind of Potemkin Village in which he was protected from the stark and disturbing realities of life. But he sensed there was something more, something real to be discovered behind the façade he took for granted. So, he acted on that intuition and went “behind the scenes,” where he experienced the Four Sights of an old person, a sick person, a dead person, and a spiritual renunciate. The calm and serene countenance of the renunciate signified to him that only by seeking a spiritual understanding of the inevitable suffering embodied in the others would he find true peace.
Step 2: Find the Tools for Resolving the Need
Having realized the need for the robe, I began to gather the necessary information and tools. First, I obtained the instructions our robes are based on. Then I bought a used sewing machine. Next, I visited a fabric store for the proper fabric and other necessary equipment such as scissors, needles, thread, pins, and (very important) a seam ripper.
Just as there are tools and resources available for a sewing project, Zen Buddhism provides well-established religious teachings, practices and forms for addressing our spiritual need. Those of us drawn to this way of training arrive there by direct or indirect routes. We may have friends who tell us about their practice and it intrigues us. Or we read books and articles about Buddhism, and perhaps attend lectures by Buddhist teachers and/or listen to their recorded talks. In whatever way, we begin to research and explore the Buddhist path in response to that “niggle” urging us to act upon that spiritual need within us.
Sometimes this pursuit requires us to resist the prejudices and opinions of others who would counsel against it. The Buddha himself defied the wishes of his father by venturing out of the controlled and safe environs of the palace, and later by “going over the wall” in the dead of night to become a renunciate. The spiritual life is our birthright, and we must not allow anyone to deny us this pursuit. This can create difficulties in our personal relationships, but that is nothing compared to the aching emptiness of not following where our heart leads.
Step 3: Do the Work
After gathering all the necessary tools, and taking measurements, there was nothing for it but to begin the work. I was tempted to put it off, knowing that the project would require a high degree of commitment and time; I would have to put aside other things and devote myself to it. I would have to learn unknown and perhaps difficult processes. But if I was to have this needed robe, I would have to make it myself; no one could do it for me. Then I reflected that thousands of monks have made their robes, and I had to have the faith that if they could, then so could I.
We begin our training with faith: faith in the calling of our Buddha Nature for reharmonization with Itself; faith in the teachings that give us the forms and practices that help us to realize our Buddha Nature; faith in the examples of the Buddhas and Ancestors who have gone before us and showed us the way by putting the teachings into practice; faith in the advice and guidance of our fellow trainees who have been practicing longer than ourselves.
So, with faith in myself, the process, and the need itself, I began the first step: cutting out the pieces. This required qualities that would be necessary for every stage of the project: concentration and patience. If my mind wandered, so did the cut; if I became impatient, the cut was jagged. The effect was immediate and obvious, reminding me to focus on the cut at hand and to take my time.
As we train, we naturally become more sensitized to our mistakes: the feedback becomes more immediate and undeniable. The angry word–or even thought–becomes painful to experience; the suffering inherent in the greedy grasping after external things and experiences becomes impossible to ignore. We can no longer justify or rationalize our behavior, and this is, in fact, one of the great blessings of training, being a springboard for compassion for ourself and others.
When I had all the pieces arrayed on the sewing table, I thought of how our karmic actions of body, speech, and mind are pieces sewn together to create the “garment” of our personae: what others see of us. If our actions cause suffering for ourself and others, the result is disordered and unsightly; if our actions arise from compassion, love and wisdom then the pieces fit together harmoniously and pleasingly. If our karmic actions are stitched together with the thread of meditation and the Precepts, they come together into a unified whole greater than their individual aspects seen separately.
My inexperience in sewing lead to mistakes that I had to undo with the seam ripper and start that section again. And there were a couple of times when I was completely stumped and just could not see how to do the next step. Luckily, my older sister is an expert seamstress and lives nearby. So, I bundled up the project and took it to her for advice. Her sewing experience helped us puzzle out what the instructions were saying, and I could move forward.
In the course of our spiritual journey, we inevitably hit obstacles and setbacks and frustrations that leave us feeling blocked with seeming no way forward. But we have the resource of the sangha treasure to turn to in these times. Those who have gone before us encountered many of the same obstacles and pitfalls that hinder us, and they worked through them with the help of their seniors. Although we must do our own training, we don’t have to—indeed cannot—make the spiritual journey alone: there are experienced guides alongside us who can help us stay oriented on the path.
And gradually, stitch-by-stitch, the robe came together. In the end, it wasn’t perfect, but I could wear it without shame or embarrassment. And, I learned much from the process that will help me when the next robe is needed.
So it is with our training. Our actions of thought, word, and deed stitch together the fabric of our lives. The result is ever-changing and evolving and, if we pay attention, we learn from the process and go ever on with increasing experience and skill.
Rev. Bennet signed the papers for the new temple on August 9, and moving day was August 11. Happily the weather was perfect that morning, and there was a wonderful turnout of help with trucks and trailers and handcarts…and just plain muscle for toting the myriad boxes. Rev. Bennet is exceedingly grateful for all the help making the move, and after for help cleaning the previous temple.
After an initial period of disorientation (and loudly expressed unhappiness) the cats, Tom and Gracie, are settling in to their new home. In the country Gracie had been semi-feral, but she’s turning into a happy housecat and, unexpectedly, a contented lapcat.
Setting up the meditation hall was Rev. Bennet’s first project (actually, setting up the litterboxes was first…). A congregation member helped him cover the large mirror over the fireplace with window film and set the altar in place:
The temple is now open with a regular schedule of meditation and services.