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May 07 Newsletter » Vast Is The Robe: A Rakusu Journal
Genine Koun Lentine

Part Two in a series
a formless field of benefaction

In choosing to include the piece below, “The Changing Room” in this Rakusu Journal, I recognize that it may feel like a sharp turn from the last installment which directly addressed some aspects of sewing a rakusu. (More ruminations on stitches—blind and running—next time!) It feels important to include this piece because it is situated at a literal moment of “putting on my robe,” (even if the moment does happen in a dream.)

I wrote “The Changing Room” in 2005, in the summer leading up to Jukai. At the time, I’d been struggling with the growing sense that I wasn’t going to be able to go to to the Grail for Jukai week. I felt strongly that I needed to remain available for the intensified demands of my job at that time, that I could more robustly practice the precepts if I stayed where I was.

At that time too, I’d just gotten news that an ex-boyfriend I hadn’t seen for five years had died. Somehow, a dream I had a few days after his death, set in the Zendo changing room, helped me resolve to stay. The piece comes out of that dream. (The following summer, the timing unfolded perfectly Grailward)

What commitment do we articulate when we slip our arms through the sleeves of a robe?” Coming in from subway, in the moments before zazen, laying down heavy backpacks and parcels in this room across from the kitchen, an opening along a corridor, transitional zone, a bardo or sorts, w/its rows of robes on wooden hangers, what are we changing into? One possible answer: what we already are. Becoming more available to that, thus freeing ourselves up to be more available to another person.

In relation to that, this piece also comes out of an ongoing central concern in my practice, something each precept addresses: the so-called “difficult” person. My ongoing effort (working on a tip from Vimalakirti and Shantideva, among others…), is to recognize the Buddha even in—rather, especially in — the most difficult people. Is it possible that this person before me in the dream, my dead ex-boyfriend, in his dusty ragged clothes, this person who was actually a primary instigator of my practice, inversely leading me to find reserves in myself I might not have needed otherwise, a Buddha?

Also, in this image of him standing there, an echo of the origin of the Kesa, sewn from the wrapping cloths of the dead. Are the dusty clothes of a dead man a Buddha’s robe? No different from the one I never managed to afford to order from the woman in North Carolina? Were the yoga pants I wore instead all week at the Grail House, one pair too tight, one too loose, the Buddha’s robe? The beautiful robe Anraku lent me for the ceremony with its deep blue piping? The yellow slicker she also lent me as a wasp shield for removing the wasp nest from the dining room?

With all this talk of garments, it’s crucial to remember the robe is not a matter of thread and cloth, that the “Kai,” are not something imposed externally, not something we “put on,” but the expression of who we are.

Maezumi Roshi, in a teisho, “The Harmony of Orderliness,” says

“What is ordinary mind? The mind which follows order – the precepts. When you look at it from a certain angle, it can be taken as a discipline. When you look at it from another perspective, it can be considered the ordinary thing to do, the orderly thing to do, in the natural thing to do. Being natural, what else besides that is necessary?”

On this note, this morning, I opened to this quote in Rilke’s Schmargendorf Diary:

“Whether I will succeed someday in going about entirely in my own clothes—I do not know. At any rate, I want to start off by becoming naked, then everything else will take care of itself."

And this brought to mind the beautiful elegy Koshin Paley Ellison wrote for his grandmother:

NAKED

Grandma, yesterday, a giant statue of a Hindu god
toppled and killed the three people

who raised the money for
their God’s construction. And I hear your voice

this morning blowing up Broadway,
over the East River,

in the park on a bench,
inside the wind on my face,

the memory of your naked
body with glassy newborn eyes—

you lying tiny in your hospice bed propped
up by a dozen pillows. Naked

with your blue gown balled up in your hands,
and you said, I’m naked.

And I smiled and began
to write this elegy for you,

and I asked if you wanted
to stay that way.

And you looked at me,
smiled slightly and said,

That would be good,
but I’ll take it off again.

I said, Take what off?
And you said, Everything.

  

So with all this robing and ultimate disrobing in mind, I offer the piece below as a dispatch from my process of sewing a Rakusu. The dream gave me a strong sense of relief that my friend had found the thoroughgoing release that eluded him in life; the dead make it look so easy. I was very aware as I stood there with him, though, that it was different for me: I still had a body, and with it whatever hindrances and snags still to unravel. As I do now, broken twig embroidered at the nape of my neck: a kind and constant reminder of ongoing practice.

THE CHANGING ROOM

Shit, now you’re mobile.
Don’t think you can just come sidle
under this low peak over my bed now
just because you don’t have a body .
I told you, I can’t see you.
And I don’t have time for your death.

Rakusu

If you’d have come through here the first night after I’d heard, I’d have used this tone with you.

You weren’t even on my docket: People most likely to die soon.

Though you should have been—it just never occurred to me–-all you’d done to your body would have killed mine several times over, but none of that seemed to register.

When I got Steve’s email (Subject: sad news), I realized I’d struck some faint bargain: I’d see you again—I always pictured it at 14th and 5th–-and we’d have a little street exchange, dissolve this last bit of residue. But I left that possibility suspended in New York and here you would have been a vapor in my thoughts now and then, like if I heard that Bryan Ferry song.

Dead, you’ve dominated them a week now.

Shouldn’t I be out on the marsh investigating water by the patterns it leaves behind? Or marveling at the hinge mechanism fanning the wings of the beetle who flew onto my skirt at Tofu-a-Go-Go?

I don’t want to bump into you when I get up to pee at 3 a.m. What if death has concentrated the danger in you? I had to turn so sharply away from you. You showed me this: without love, anything’s possible.

But you were my test case: Could I turn away from you but not against you?

Or, what if death has distilled you into pure play? Into what drew me to you. Like how you loved it when I read you anomalous sentences from my Lexical Semantics book in the middle of the night, the sentences linguists dream up that purposely break a rule in order to make the rule evident. Here’s a good one: You can say “A dog is a kind of animal,” and you can say “Death is a KIND of birth,” but it sounds funny to say “A dog is a KIND of animal.”

Maybe your knack for havoc helped me. If someone brings out the worst in you, isn’t that a KIND of favor?

Iron

You actually inspired my concept of the “reverse bodhisattva.” I know you weren’t into this stuff – A bodhisattva is a being whose primary concern is to relieve the suffering of all beings. You know them. In their presence you sense more possibility in yourself. You breathe better.

A reverse bodhisattva has the same aim, but when you see one in the stairway, your breath stops. The minor ones I call “pain-in-the-ass bodhisattvas.” They’re in charge of routine annoyance, bungling your DSL order, or misquoting you in the national press to help you cultivate patience. Your kind, though, are the most intrepid, tackling the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. In other words: becoming my ex-boyfriend and then suggesting that it might be good fun to have a threesome with my new girlfriend and in such a way that I could somehow think “This sounds like a good idea!”

Well you know how that turned out.

Could it be, you so much wanted to help accelerate my evolution — this is my theory, and it’s one I came to by necessity—you’d risk inciting my hatred so that I could know the burden of hatred?

I don’t even know yet how you died. Too much of something probably. All Steve said was that since spring you’d been in “an accelerated downward spiral.”

I suspected you’d show up in my dreams and the Thursday after the Tuesday I heard, you did. I’m in a Zen temple. In the changing room, though I’ve never worn a robe. I’ve just mindfully folded my jeans and I’m pulling my t-shirt over my head and when I look up, you’re at the door, that thrift shop suitcase tilting your shoulders to the right.

Your clothes hang dingy and rumpled. This isn’t from the wear and tear of dying; you just haven’t done your laundry.

How long were you standing there, watching me undress?

Don’t look at me that way, I say, lingering for a moment in your familiar glint, before I reach for my robe. Do you want to change those clothes? I ask you. Yes, you say, but I have to find something in this suitcase first. White dust rises from its seams when you drop it on the mat. I turn away to avoid inhaling it. You flip its clasps and it’s filled with all these oval stones, covered in that fine white dust. You start dredging them out, some so heavy it takes both hands, more stones than the suitcase could have held, more than you could have carried. And rusty hinges, and those mildewed children’s books.

I hear them start chanting the Heart Sutra, and nudge you, Come on, I want to get in there, but you’re bent over, intent. I hear my name inside, being read from a list, and at that moment realize it doesn’t matter if I go in there, that what feels necessary is to just stay with you while you empty your disastrous suitcase. I sense you don’t want me to help, but you don’t want me to leave; you just need someone to stand alongside you while you unload the stuff. And then at the center, there is this jewel, a garnet or ruby—I know it’s formulaic—and it just kind of rises up in the center, pulsing with a warm light, and no dust will stick to it.

And at that, all that is leaning in you eases.

I leave the zendo, looking for the B train, and find a garden underground, and some kind of pottery class.

And you haven’t come back through here since.

I take that as a good sign.

But I’ll still have to let some of this sift out. Until I do, I’ll keep talking to you like this, Ghost of your ghost.

Rakusu

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