Verse of the Kesa

I gave this talk on Thursday, November 10, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen CenterA recording is available here.

I want to speak briefly about the Verse of the Kesa tonight.  This is the short verse people are chanting silently to themselves before our sits when you see them kneeling at their cushions with their rakusus on their heads.  I’ve recently started using an alternate version of this verse, which I prefer to the one I was taught.  

The version I learned, and which most of us here chant, goes like this:

Vast is the Robe of Liberation,

A formless field of benefaction.

I wear the Tatathagata’s teachings,

Saving all sentient beings.

The alternate version goes like this:

Vast and wonderous is the Robe of Liberation,

Formless yet embracing every treasure.

I wish to unfold the Buddha’s teaching,

That I may help all living things.

Subtle differences.

The first line adds “wonderous” alongside the adjective “vast.”   I like that.  A sense of wonder, of awe, is at the heart of our practice.  To wonder is to not know—to not know in a very positive way.  To marvel.  To be awestruck.  

We’re not trying to understand in a narrow sense in Zen; to reduce existence to syllogistic formulations.  To sum it all up.  We’re cultivating an ever-deeper realization that we’re part of it all.  We’re learning to recognize ourselves and all else as Buddha.  We’re feeling ourselves ever more tightly woven into the Robe of Liberation.

The second line:  I always have loved the image of a “formless field of benefaction,” yet I think the alternate version both captures its spirit and adds something lovely. 

“Formless yet embracing every treasure.”  Emptiness, the Absolute, manifesting as the 10,000 things, each a treasure.  I like that word “embracing.”  It evokes the ideal of agape, of the highest love, for me.  To embrace also is to hold.  Each treasure, including you and me, held.

The third line:  I like the formulation “I wish to unfold the Buddha’s teachings” much more than “I wear the Tatagatha’s teachings.”

“I wish” speaks to our intention, our aspiration, as we step onto and continue walking along this path.  And “unfold” suggests ongoing discovery and learning.  Buddha—this—is ever revealing its teaching, and yet ever mysterious.  The vast universe is ever pouring itself out, wonderously.

It’s possible to hear “I wear the Tatagatha’s teachings” in a way that seems more pridefully descriptive, with an air of exclusivism, though I’m not suggesting that’s intended.  The intention is that I’ve accepted the teachings completely—so completely I’ve wrapped myself in them.  Yet I suppose it’s possible to hear these same words in a tribal or sectarian way: Buddhist doctrine is my uniform; that with which I identify and which identifies me distinctively compared to you.  

And the last line: I like “That I may help all living things” so much better than “Saving all sentient beings.”  Having been coerced in my youth into converting for a period from Roman Catholicism to a fundamentalist strain of Christianity, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this notion of “saving” others.  I don’t care how you spin it, I just don’t like that idea.  Even viewing it from what we call the intrinsic perspective in Zen, from the perspective of the Absolute, where there is no one in need of saving, it still smacks of absolutism and missionary zeal to me.  Helping, however:  Yes, I can pledge to try to help.  

And why limit our sphere of concern to sentient beings, however broadly we might define sentient?  Why not try to help all living things?  Yes, I like that better, too.  And, by the way, all is alive, including the zafus and fish drum.  The whole of this vast and wonderous Robe of Liberation is alive.  All is Life.

Kesa means robe.  Buddhist renunciates have made and worn a robe of died fabric scraps since ancient times.  Our rakusus are mini robes.  No one is quite sure when and why they emerged, but it happened in China, most likely in response to persecution of Buddhists as Buddhism fell out favor and Buddhists were persecuted for several years during the mid-ninth century.  Monks may have made rakusus to wear under their street clothes, much like the tallit worn by Orthodox Jewish men.  

Dogen saw Chinese monks wearing rakusus and chanting the Verse of the Kesa and brought these practices to Japan.  Dogen gave important talks about the kesa.  He put these practices and what they symbolize at the heart of the expression of Zen he taught.

Now we have these practices.

I was poking around the web as I wrote this talk, taking in what others have said about the kesa and the verse we chant as we put it on.  I found a lovely website called Zen Universe that’s maintained by three Zen adepts in Eastern Europe.  Their page on the kesa is wonderful.  It includes this passage:

Heaven and earth, the entire universe, are one single kesa.  No world exists outside of the kesa.  We do not fall into hell or rise up to heaven – we go nowhere, we come from nowhere.  There is only one kesa.  We owe it to ourselves to wear the kesa.

When we wear our kesas we affirm to ourselves and others that there is only one kesa.  That we “do not fall into hell or rise up to heaven.”  That we ourselves and all others have never needed saving, though we might need some help realizing this, and it is right and good to offer what genuine help we can give.But here’s the point I really want to make, and that I hope we all internalize.  Whether you’ve taken Jukai or not, please think of getting dressed each day as putting on the kesa, because that is what we’re doing.  We can say the Verse of the Kesa, or just call it to mind for an instant, as we put on our jeans.  Let’s see the ordinary clothes we wear, and our pajamas too, and our very skin, even when we’re alone in the shower unclothed, as the Robe of Liberation.  Because they are.