Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sewing the Buddha's Robe

My lengthy solo attempt to make a kesa has ended.

"Solo" as in sewing unsupported, without oxygen.
"Attempt" as in Scott's "attempt" to reach the South Pole.

So, it was difficult and ended in failure. Let me talk you through it so that you may find it easier if you decide to have a go.

I don't really mind having failed as this was largely a philosophical exercise - when would I wear a kesa? The philosophical aspect was my attempt to sew within the spirit of the original kesas, garments made from discarded cloth. My kesa would be patchwork not because Dogen said the "official" pattern looked like rice fields: my kesa would be patchwork simply because if you make a large garment from discarded material, patchwork is the only way to do it.

Thus I found discarded materials - a worn out hockey shirt and a couple of pairs of trousers which seemed both to have shrunk about the waistband at the same time in my life. (Washing machine operating too hot?) With the help of a basic pattern - it's on the right-hand side of the blog - I got cracking.

There are two mistakes from which I feel you could learn.

Firstly, if you don't yet know how to sew seams, don't learn as you go along. My last seams looked excellent, very pro: sadly the rest were awful and thus have a grotty, frayed appearance. I discovered the important thing was to fold the seam over a couple of times until the edges of both bits of fabric are safely tucked away. Ok, ok, I know that's obvious to those of you who already know how to sew!

Secondly, home dying is really hard. The only way to get a consistent colour is to make your whole kesa from the same material. Now, this gets philosophically tricky as the whole point is to use discarded material, so going out and buying a roll of fabric is not quite in the vibe. Next time I do it, I'll go to the "thrift store" (I think that's what you call charity shops in America) and buy a discarded curtain, preferably a brown one to save the necessity of any dying at all. You'll then have to decide what you think was the real point behind the patchwork effect, and leave the cloth intact or cut up and reassemble according to your philosophy of kesa manufacure.

My rectangle of fraying, multicoloured cloth won't go to waste - there's thick snow over here and our zendo has neither heating nor insulation, so I'll be wrapped up in it for tonight's group meditation session, when the "mood" lighting (candles) will not reveal quite what a hobo I look. However, if you wish to make an item which you can wear in public, in daylight, then please bear in mind what I have learnt about material and seams.



  1. Kaishin,
    I think that maybe you have too high expectations or possibly you used the wrong materials. According to Dogen in the Shōbōgenzō, the following types of waste cloth are considered immaculate for making the kesa:

    First, cloth chewed by an ox.
    Second, cloth gnawed by rats.
    Third, cloth singed by fire.
    Fourth, menstrual cloth.
    Fifth, cloth discarded from childbirthing.
    Sixth, cloth abandoned at a wayside shrine for birds to
    peck apart.
    Seventh, cloth from a dead person’s clothing abandoned
    at a grave site.
    Eighth, cloth from abandoned prayer flags.
    Ninth, cloth from robes discarded by officials upon their
    advancement to higher rank.
    Tenth, burial shrouds discarded by those returning from a

    You will note that hockey shirts and trousers just are not on the list!

    I cannot speak from experience, but I would imagine that it would be fair to bet that a kesa made from the materials suggested above by Dogen, wouldn’t end up on the cover of Vanity Fair Magazine. But then again, a picture of Tiger Woods with his shirt off would (February 2010).

    Over the years I have known and seen many monks in robes and I have never seen a single one wearing a robe that was not made of brand new beautiful fabric. So my hat is off to you and your robe of many colors. Just stay in the dark and don’t tell anyone that you made it.

  2. Beautiful story. Even if it didn't end the way you intended to, the meaning of the kesa is preserved, and, anyway, monks didn't need to look pretty in the first place (they just took what they could, right?). Thank you for sharing this story, and the things you've learned from it. And, after all, a good blanket is better than a bad kesa.

  3. Koro Kaisan, what did Buddha do with his old hockey shirts?

    Pablo, "Una manata de buena es mejor que un kesa malo" - una filosofía de excelente!

  4. Hi All,

    I like your blog. Just found it now.

    There are instructions of how to make a kesa here:

    (scroll to bottom of the page... instructions are from the bottom up).

    This is the method as transmitted by Master Kodo Sawaki. I'm currently making a kesa using these instructions and additional tips from a teacher I'm in touch with in the UK. The teacher who gave me the precepts lives in Japan, so I'm having to make do with what instructions I can glean from... anywhere!

    I'm using a mix of bought new material and some 'disgarded rags' to make the keas. I'm just over half way in sewing the vertical yo.

    My experience so far is that it's really good to use the iron a lot! make everything really smooth before measuring, cutting, folding and sewing. Also, ironing down those seams well before I sew really helps... and it's good to have a big set square on hand to check all my right angles... not that it has completely done away with the odd 'unforeseen feature'!

    All the best,

    Harry (Ireland).