Okesas I Have Sewn (What's Lineage Got To Do With It?)

I’m moving to Los Angeles in August, and this week my friend at Green Gulch asked me if I would like to start a “branching streams” sitting group with her in LA. “Branching streams” is the name of groups and centers affiliated with Shinryu Suzuki Roshi. My friend feels pretty strongly about staying within that lineage. Because I am pretty simple minded, I immediately answered, “Yes!” My brain didn’t do a lot of analysis and just went “Yay zazen! Yay people! Yay zazen together with people!” I don’t really care what lineage I am in or what lineage the people are who are sitting next to me because we are all sitting looking at the same, boring wall, not attaining the same non-thing. This is a pretty Japanese attitude of me. In training monasteries in Japan, people from dozens of lineages come together in one monastery to practice together. There’s no concept of a monastery for only one kind of lineage. 

But what does it mean to be in a certain lineage? In Japan, I was usually left out of discussions about lineage because lineage usually shows up within the context of temple inheritance, which didn’t apply to me. Temple and monastery ownership has to stay within a certain lineage; a senior nun at Nisodo who admired Aoyama Roshi couldn’t receive transmission from her because Aoyama Roshi was not in her family temple’s lineage, for example, and my teacher broke with tradition when he took over Toshoji Monastery, which is outside his lineage. 

I’m sewing a new okesa at the San Francisco Zen Center, where there is a concept of “sewing lineages” as well. This makes even less sense to me. When I try to think of what my lineage is, either my teacher’s lineage or some idea of a “sewing linage,” it feels like drawing a family tree that is a monstrous, twisted mass of vines growing in multiple directions. I think of all the okesas I have sewn, the different teachers and conditions that brought me to where I am now. 


I am twenty-four years old. I’ve spent about a year practicing at Toshoji, in Okayama, and now I am getting ready to ordain. I’ve sewn a rakusu already, and assume an okesa will magically appear before me for my ordination ceremony. A week before I’m scheduled to ordain, my teacher tells me to sew an okesa. He gives me blue fabric, because Dogen said we shouldn’t wear black, and assures me I’ll have help to finish in time. At Zuioji Monastery, where he trained, monks sew blue okesas in week-long “sewing sesshins.” 

“You have to finish in a week,” he says. 

I spend the next week, from dawn till dusk, sewing with a small army of Japanese women who’ve been called in from the village. They measure and cut everything and I dutifully sew in straight lines. Eventually they go home to their families and I keep sewing. A young Australian man arrives who has never sewn before, and he’s assigned to sew my zagu. I teach him how to make basic back-stitches and unleash him on this impossible project. It’s his first week in Japan.

Everyone in the monastery sews a row or two for me. Two days before my ordination I call in Chosenji-san, the seventy-year old abbot of a nearby family temple, to sew a row. He’s never sewn before. He’s almost blind and curses quietly to himself as he sews. He disappears and then reappears with a giant desk lamp. Under the fluorescent glare of this giant bulb, he manages to sew one crooked, ugly, heartfelt line for me. 


I am twenty six years old. I have escaped from Toshoji, from the men who grab me by the collar and scream at me for disobeying them, from the older Japanese monks who tell me I’m beautiful and ask me if I am single. I escape from all of them and flee, like countless women before me in Japan, to a convent full of stern nuns. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I cry myself to sleep every night and wake up before light in a room where I lie on a futon next to four other women. Despite the difficulty I draw out strength from these nuns. Within a month of practicing there, I end things with my boyfriend back in America. It doesn’t seem fair to either of us. I just want to practice. I dive in to practice like I never knew was possible. I don’t write my family. I don’t leave the monastery. 

I learn tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and Buddhist singing. There is a sewing class with a clear curriculum; first we learn to sew a chopsticks case, then a rakusu, then shosan-e (three miniature robes which are about four square inches in size) then a seven row okesa, then a nine row. The curriculum is designed to be completed in three to five years. The shosan-e takes me a year to sew and then I move on to an okesa. They want me to sew a black one, the color of novices, but I refuse out of dumb pride, out of loyalty to my teacher. I spent a year sewing an immaculate, perfect, blue okesa. I sew every stitch.

My sewing teacher’s name is Doko Sensei. She has a fastidious yet no-nonsense approach to sewing. She can measure and cut anything in seconds, her hands a flurry of perfected, controlled movement and strength. She makes fun of us when we make mistakes, has us start over, tells us to take our time, uses polyester thread because it lasts longer than silk. Nuns understand how to get things done; they understand what lasts. I show her a line of sewing that is slightly off the measurements and she shrugs. “Buddha didn’t use rulers.” 

I’m proud of my okesa. Aoyama Roshi signs the case and I promise myself I will never sew an okesa again. 

I’m twenty-nine years old. I’ve left Nisodo and am living in a dorm near Nanzan University, in Nagoya, where I take Japanese classes during the day. I have three twenty-year old flatmates. I go out on the weekends and wear jeans. I start dating. I forget being a monk. 

My teacher tells me to sew a brown okesa. I know I can’t sew an okesa alone, so I spend two days drafting a formal letter to Aoyama Roshi and Doko Sensei, requesting permission to come to sewing classes twice a week, even though I’ve left the monastery. I use the polite Japanese I am learning in class, which I thought I would have no use for. They say yes. 

Before I go to class I shave my head, put on black samue, and take the subway across Nagoya. Going back to Nisodo from my college life is like stepping back in time, like living a secret, double life. I can’t understand how I managed to survive there three years. Doko-Sensei gives me a bolt of brown silk and I start sewing. We kneel on the floor silently, sewing from nine in the morning until five at night.

A few months later I go back to Toshoji for a week and two nuns from the Deshimaru lineage in Europe help me finish the front. They bring chocolate and we laugh and talk about Buddhism. I’m happy to be sewing with them. 

My teacher gives me expensive brown fabric for the lining, which is impossible to use. I try attaching it to the back and it balloons, rebelliously. I cry in frustration, in anger. Of course the fabric he gives me is impractical. Once again, it is nuns who save me, who rescue me with practicality and hard work. Doko Sensei understands fabric. She buys me a simple cotton and enlists the help of a 70-year old nun in Hokkaido. I visit Doko Sensei’s temple for the first time and bring a small gift of pickles. By the time I’ve left she’s rescued my okesa and has sent me away with bread, pastries, apples, jam, cheese, and pudding.

“Why is she helping me?” I ask my teacher.

“Because you’re nice,” he says. “And you worked hard.” 

Somehow a nine-row silk okesa manifests. I promise myself I will never sew another okesa.
For real this time.

I’m twenty nine years old. Back in America, at the San Francisco Zen Center, I start a seven-row brown okesa. In America, it’s the 21st century; measurements are calculated on an excel spread sheet, and the measurements are in English. Sections are labeled with A, B, and C. It’s completely foreign to me. Once again, I dutifully sew in the straight lines that are given to me. 

When I first entered Nisodo, I struggled to adapt to the new, stricter forms, and complained to my teacher. “At Toshoji we do it one way, but you have to do Nisodo style now,” he told me. So I did. And here I am again. Another sewing teacher, another method, another language. 

I remember Aoyama Roshi telling me to be like water, always moving, never hard, filling the shape of whatever container I find myself in. I remember her giving up her seat to men far less qualified than her, not out of humility but consideration and patience and sensitivity. I remember her deferring and I remember her giving commands. I remember my teacher’s kindness, how polite he is to everyone, how he makes friends with farmers, taxi drivers, famous abbots. I remember how much he allowed, how wide of a fence he made for me to run around in. I remember his generosity, his idealism, his love of tradition, of Dogen, of everything old and broken. 

I remember being saved by Japanese women. I remember their petty arguments, their pride, and their relentless hard work. I remember how they took everything upon themselves, how they made their life harder on purpose. I remember how the believed they were responsible for men’s sexual urges, for men’s abuse. I remember how they believed they had to be better, be stronger than men because otherwise they had nothing to depend on. I remember how they created a tradition together. 

In America I wear black, blue and brown okesas. I am grateful, and confused, and sad. I try to be like water— flexible and always moving. I wonder when I can stand on my own two feet. I wonder at what point water gains enough pressure to move mountains. 

I need new contacts, or glasses that don't hurt my eyes, but my health insurance does not cover this kind of eye exam. In Japan I had national health insurance, and eye exams were covered, but not in America! An eye exam costs about $200 without insurance. If you would consider donating I would be very grateful, and so would my eyes! I need to see!


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