March 07 Newsletter » Vast Is the Robe: A Rakusu Journal
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Compared to most things, a rakusu is easy.
Compared to a rakusu, most things are easy.

July 4, 2006
Provincetown, MA
In(ter)dependence Day
The Fourth of July
Going forth
The seam of the year splitting
Six months on either side

So, my intention in this journal is to let the precepts be a prompt, to explore some of what they draw forth and help me notice. A sieve for the encounters of the day. A chronicle of Lying, Cheating, and Stealing.

It seems useful, for example, to turn the precepts on myself: how do I lie to myself, kill myself etc. These are all habits of mind, grooves of bearing that undercut what I'm available to offer.

Burn off self-pity for starters. Dead weight. Mildew on a low ceiling. Routing out that grout of self-pity seems fundamental to all the precepts because that frees you up to operate in the world as a responsible, accountable being, greeting experience as welcome, rather than pulling back from it. Otherwise there's some kind of escape clause operating: If I had this or that, I'd be more this or that.

Instead: This.
Instead: That.

I settled on this hardback journal on the theory that the sturdiness of the cover might feel grounding, might offer a suggestion of home. You look for security where you can find it. Creating a mother allows for more adventuresome exploration (à la the "Strange Situation" test).

And this journal's been here all along, waiting on the shelf for three years, repeatedly passed over in my preference for one with a flexible cover. But with this one, what I'm noticing is that from the ground of its stability, more flexibility becomes possible, like the precepts themselves. This is my most-believed but least fully acted-upon theory: that we have what we need. I routinely fail to avail myself of all I already have. Scar-tissue delusions of deficit numb us from sensing the presence of enough. So we keep looking elsewhere. Checking email. What's on next? Stealing from ourselves, and by extension, others, because we contract from making the offering we're capable of making.
I keep noticing I'm always waiting for something. So I thought, I'll work on this waiting problem. Take out the three-second delay. Live in real time. Yes. Then, after I've cured myself of this waiting thing, then I'll actually be living my life. A perfect plan!

7:55 a.m.

It's not even 8 a.m. and already I've given away the whole day answering to imagined expectations.

What I need to do is get a clear sense of how to use this day so I do not steal it from myself or others.

Way out of routine.
Have not been able to write for over a week, figuring out where I'll be living, etc. Now with that more settled down, I can turn my attention to other things. I noticed a twinge of boredom at the release from that uncertainty. The mind tunes to a habitual familiarity with stress and when the stressor abates it can feel somewhat disorienting. The danger then is the tendency to troll for a new catastrophe. Quick, create a diversion. This is a crucial pattern to notice and dismantle.


P. 44: from The Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti (tr. Robert Thurman)
"Manjusri, you ask me why am I without servants, but all Maras and opponents are my servants."

Very useful these days to bear this in mind, to use what offends you to sharpen your resolve. Yes, really, what if everyone really is your teacher? Not just an idea that you can conveniently apply maybe 60% of the time or so. Always room to explore that more. The whetstone Aitken speaks of in The Mind of Clover. This orientation requires vigor and now I feel the returned access to more energy, I can relate to so-called obstacles with more adventure.

But really. Really. What if you could greet what besets you as helpful? What would that feel like? So, first, call it your friend. I mean it. This always sounds half-hearted and –baked. But there's no friend like an enemy. No one will stick by you like an enemy. Be there for you. "I'm here for you, love always, Envy." So greet it, then ask it simply, What do you have to tell me now? so it doesn't keep coming back and using code.


Some thoughts on Right Speech

Ripe speech

Speech both stokes and dissolves hatred.

It is important to remember the inverse of the prohibitions pointed to in this precept: the very positive power of speech, how even a syllable can relieve suffering.

When someone tells you something that can relieve your suffering, how much of it are you prepared to hear? Maybe there's some part of right speech that's right hearing. Practicing receiving what is offered.

It was sweet at R's reading when he dedicated that story to me saying we shared the particular geography where the story was set. I love how language has the capacity to stitch time together like that, offering a feeling of history and inclusion.

Summer in Provincetown is a right speech wind tunnel. Constant gossip and critique. Right speech violations can be non-verbal: rolling eyes at someone's name, or in the intonation of saying someone's name, building judgment into the vowel contour. Or judgment can be harbored in word choice, e.g. saying someone is "lurking" or "skulking."

What if we try something different that doesn't act in kind? I love to watch love leave hatred stupefied and confused, unable to act next because the habit has been so disrupted. But then gradually a new gesture is tried in response. Like when grass reappears on a nuclear test site.

July 21

So I've cleared off this table and have resolved to work on my rakusu for the entire evening. It's seven o'clock on July 21. Roughly three weeks before Jukai and my rakusu requires a lot more work.

And here is this round table which seems like exactly the wrong shape for making a rakusu which is rectangular.

It's easy to get waylaid in dreams of the perfect table, but round or not, astrological motif or not, for two weeks this table is going to be my base. I have time; I have hands; I have cloth, a needle and thread; and I have the intention. Along with all these things: an enormous amount of resistance as well as vaunting ambition to do it all myself. Very grateful for those spring sewing sessions at the Zendo, with Chodo, Chiko, Seizan, Seicho, Shinryu, and other Jukai students. So helpful in getting started. But now I'm here and various fantasy scenarios of sitting around sewing with friends have not panned out. So now I'm entertaining these thoughts: "I can just do it myself." "Wouldn't that be satisfying to figure it all out, then just sort of appear at the Grail with a finished rakusu?"

So anyway, I take that blind stitch tendency under advisement and now I'm going to lay out all the stuff and see what's up.

It's so much easier to approach a task when you dedicate a table to it. At some point you have to make a table for yourself. And you have to find a chair.

Some variations on this principle:
At some point you have to clear off the table you already have.
At some point you have to adjust your chair so your table feels like the right height
At some point you have to find the square table within the round table, or surrender to the circle.

So far I have calls into S, J, R, and C, and N, unseating this tendency to try to do everything myself.

I keep overhearing myself striking this bargain: I'll just make a replacement rakusu at some point — this one is so reflective of this difficult period, do I want to commemorate this state, wear it around my neck?

But I'm going ahead with it, embracing imperfection in the interest of just doing this thing. Even if it does result in a particularly ramshackle rakusu. Let it be extravagantly imperfect. That at least allows some movement to take place.

So, I proceed with curiosity on the hunch that my judgment may be skewed.


I made my straps first, last year in New York, going against the order in the directions. I thought it would be good to just have a long expanse of stitching to get into a rhythm. I sewed them mostly on the Q-train, crossing the Manhattan Bridge. Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, Canal St., Buddha Dharma Sangha, Atlantic Ave.…

Perhaps if the Buddha and Ananda were riding the subway when they were having their Kesa design meeting, the pattern would look like the MTA map instead of a rice field.

So to turn the strap inside out, you use a chopstick. This is one of several ways the rakusu includes associations with food /nourishment. You can also use a bookbinding tool called a bone folder which works very well to run along the seams too to sharpen up the corners.

Somewhere in turning the strap inside out I got lost again in fury about [ ]. At first I left the subject blank out of regard for privacy, but on a larger scale, the null category actually speaks to the replaceability of fury triggers. Insert anything. What was it? Can I even remember now? Replace A with B. Mostly it's instructive to see how such a thing hijacks your attention.

Anger scorches my own throat and corrodes my sleep. What help is it? There's been a lot of talk about riptides lately and I've been experimenting with treating anger and its triggers like a riptide. First, of course, you have to know it's there. The tendency is to swim against it, but this causes exhaustion. The exhaustion is the key cause of drowning. It's so counter intuitive not to swim directly into it toward shore, but the recommendation is to swim along the riptide. Parallel to shore. You can feel pull of the current; you can see its track in the water; you have a healthy respect for it but you don't let it pull you under, acting instead of reacting, and eventually the shelf drops away and the surf carries you back to shore.

* notes on "back"

Last night at []'s reading, he said, describing the bardo, something like, "where the dead person is waiting to come back to another life."
As if it's back
As if this is the primary place and people just keep hauling themselves back here.

There's something about deixis and the so-called afterlife I'm very interested in right now. It's so intriguing how underlying beliefs are grammaticalized, for example, using a definite instead of an indefinite article: the afterlife and the dead.

Especially the afterlife. Why stop at one? As if there's this life and then one neatly after it. The ultimate procrastination scheme.

I prefer at least an afterlife, one of many.

And then there's the dead, as if there's one group of living people and one group of dead people just sitting around being dead. It's so much oriented toward our own perspective—we're alive and everything is judged from that point, like the New Yorker map of the U.S.

The mind prefers these binary systems. Continuum is unsettling to the ego; it makes it hard to find a place to lay the blame.

So, onto ironing. The key to sewing is ironing, Kathy said. And this apartment offers up yet another round surface: this little column end table with a marble top. (80's faux ruins—as if there's not enough decay as it is, people got into simulating it, advancing time.) Marble is a perfect surface for ironing if you put a soft cloth over it.

If you're trying to iron the wrinkles out of something it's good for whatever's underneath it to be free of wrinkles. Not to invent new problems.


I just decided that it's okay that my rakusu already shows wear even before it's made. The process of making it has been so arduous, why not let it show some wear? This is all in the interest of convincing myself to keep last year's fabric since I've already started working on it. On the other hand, I do like this year's fabric a lot better. Novelty mind: what's next? This one is matte and thick whereas I like that thinner shinier weave of the new cotton. This is the basis of the mind of poverty, that what I need is over there. Keeping last year's cloth is about using what I have. The untapped opulence of that.


Last year Joe Rooney gave us all pre-cut lengths of black waxed thread. He grew up sewing so he had a lot of secret sewing knowledge to share. When a person saves you a lot of time and fumbling, their help is a kind of time travel capsule.

With an index card wound full of thread, I still feel like I'm not going to have enough thread.

The rakusu provides an ongoing magnified look at the mind undercutting its own power.


The white lines and letters I penciled on these pieces might not come out because I used a prismacolor pencil instead of tailor's chalk. Removing the white lines and letters feels particularly irksome because I could have avoided it by paying attention to front and back when I was folding the cloth. Also, I could have used a more easily erasable marker.

The eraser is leaving more of a mark than the actual mark.
This has direct applications to thinking.


These letters are like karma. How willing is the weave to let go to yield these white marks? Already it looks better but they're still there. The faint history of one's ignorance. Is it possible to release it all? Is it even advisable? Does the trace help direct future actions?

These wrinkles that formed while the cloth was sitting in my drawer have become part of the fabric. Habit. I spend so much time undoing stuff as opposed to doing it. Instead of sewing, I'm undoing wrinkles that have been ingraining themselves for a year now. It's like making another A-strip—why is it such a big deal just to make another A strip or D strip, to go back in time a bit? To join the ranks of the undead? The challenge is to remember that this apparent "back"tracking counts as life.
July 25, 2006

This morning I'm getting rid of all the extra stuff: extra cloth, instructions, pieces of thread. So what I have in front of me is what I need to pay attention to.

too much past = grief
too much future = anxiety

Returning to the "A" strips with folds I made a year ago, and sewed on the subway, weighing all these exhortations to let the rakusu retain the history of its making, embrace your whole life, etcÖ But these loose, crooked folds are just an energy leech and you can get just as attached to history as you can to craft.

Nagarjuna: ďBelievers in emptiness are incurable.Ē One of the most useful things Iíve ever read.

Now Iím taking the tacks out of my A pieces. They actually complicate the sewing. Thereís a way in which sticking with this old A-piece feels like staying in a bad relationship trying to make it work. I keep going to middle route between keeping the history of this A-strip with itís crooked fold and making a new fold so Iím going to see what happens if I iron it and restitch it.

Re- so quaintly linear
Rebirth. Going Back. Back to life. Back in time

This will sound so nostalgic someday. People will affectionately refer to this period as when people thought time was a straight line.

My rakusu is a time machine. Right now I'm going to see about how easily it yields the past.

Seeing if the water's going to remove these wrinkles from the old folds. It's looking better. And it's actually looking pretty easy to go back in time it turns out. All you need is an iron Oh and water.

The satisfaction at ironing a strap. I love the straps. The open expanse of the long straight edge. I still want that perfect, clean edge though but this one's got a slight rounding at one tip. One of my straps looks nice and crisp. The other one I'm either going to have to live with or redo. Most likely it will be the latter because one thing about going back in time is you have to have time to go back in time.

So here's what you need to go back in time:
an iron, some water and some time

All evil karma ever committed by me, now I atone for it all. Now I iron away it all.


Of course there are still "flaws," but they didn't need to be SO extravagantly flawed. So this is looking better and it's actually become kind of fun. There was a moment when I imagined I was suddenly prematurely finished and I was feeling already like I missed it, but there's plenty more to do.

I can feel myself wanting to finish mine so I can be freed up to help other people. And I've made a lot of mistakes on mine so I feel like I'll be able to spare others my mistakes. Mistakes speed up learning if you can pass the lesson on. Of course, people have to make their own mistakes, but some are transferable; this is the whole basis of evolution. Mistakes can be more accommodating than gym memberships.

The center panel D-flanked by B's is now sewn together.

Dreading the prospect of what if I have to do it all over again.


One argument Stephen Hawking makes when he argues against the possibility of time travel (he also argues in favor of it) is that we don't have tourists from the future roaming around.

Even more exotic: A visitor from the present.


July 27, 2006

Sitting on the lifeguard chair sewing. It's really windy so now my hands are cold. It's hard in this wind to keep the C-strip it in my hand. 20 minutes left before sunset. I think I'll stay for it.

Debating about that abandoned beach chair. It's an unwritten code that anything left outside the bathhouse is an being given away, but what if someone just forgot it? Riding out here on my bike, I stopped at several stores looking for a chair just like that, a low folding beach chair, thinking it would be perfect for sewing, but they're all sold out, and then when I got here there it was. Shades of Vimalakirti: You need a chair? Okay, how about this folding throne? Now can we get on with what we're here for?

But what if I'm actually stealing someone's chair? Do I really want to sew my rakusu in a stolen chair? The people who asked me about the lighthouse thought it was pretty clear that it's a freebie so, their assurance, along with the fact that its folding mechanism is a bit dodgy tilts me toward adopting it.
July 28, 2006

7:30 a.m.

Seems advisable to close the blade on my knife. Yesterday when I was at Herring Cove sewing in the lifeguard chair, I pinned my extra pins to my pants which were folded in my lap and I could foresee that I would be putting them back on without taking the pins out. 100% predictable. And that is in fact what happened. When I walked over to examine the abandoned beach chair I could feel these pins scoring the back of my leg. And worse, I'm pretty sure there were four but I only found three so most likely I've left a pin in the sand, leaving me with a feeling of remorse I then have to reckon with. A karmic debt.


Couldn't work at home because Greg was tearing up the roof. Chainsaw to the mildewed crossbeams of my mind.

Went to Herring cove with Polly and it was very windy out there and cold so then I thought I'll go sew in the cemetery and I went over to the dog grave but then it was too buggy there in the shade. Love you Hakuin, love the whole one hand clapping thing—totally great!—but try sewing if you have to dedicate one hand to brushing away mosquitoes. So anyway, then I decided to ride my bike down Commercial street and see what might be possible. Tried the library, envisioning the 3rd floor reading room window looking over the harbor but it was closed.

Now I've come here to St. Mary's beach. Heard singing inside when I rode into the parking lot so that was a good sign. But here too it's quite windy. The L piece just blew off the needle and the light is now almost is gone. On the other hand there's a little floating platform of huddled cormorants to watch. They stitch the water and sky, and the line between species. Somewhere between bird and fish, diving so long you'd think they'd become fully fish while they were down there, then coming up and flying off. Now there's a dog running into the surf, stitching land and water.

So today's rakusu session has yielded almost no actual sewing; somehow it seems to be about my own threading through the street. Stitching my way along this three-mile spiral.

I'm reminded again that the pattern of the rakusu was invented by the Buddha and Ananda when they were out walking, looking over a valley at a rice field, which in itself is the product of intense physical labor. I like thinking about this physicalization enfolded into the rakusu, how it represents the experience of the body.

Home: now sewing feels so much easier not that I'm not sewing in gusting winds
August 2, 2006
Sometimes it has to be enough just to make the lines on the A panel which is all I've managed to do in 45 minutes: folding, ironing, unfolding, re-ironing… I'm so full of hatred this morning about this process even though I can feel it's useful in some ways. What I keep bumping up against is I already have so many predicaments in my life that take me through these same kind of problems. Why invent trouble? On the other hand here's this thing and it just stays with you as a reminder, offering itself as a constant irritation and also a comfort

So many stupid things I can't do if I'm working on my rakusu. If for no other reason, this is a good reason to make a rakusu.
The A-strips have proven quite a serious challenge but they seem to be almost finished. It's really absurd how long it's taken me to do the A-strips. You could get lost in that kind of carnival of recrimination. So now I have sewn AB and C together, and BD and B. Left to sew is B C the ABC panel, and then sew them all together

I cannot believe how long this process takes. I notice when I just give a task time, it feels better. If it feels like it's taking a long time that's related to how long you think it should take. Maybe you think it's supposed to happen faster. Maybe this is supposed to happen over a year. It's like how on the day the clock is moved back an hour people get in fewer accidents.

If you can just break a task into its component parts it becomes so much easier. I was having this thought and reveling in the sensation of how attention makes things easier, how time dilates, how an A-strip becomes a door into eternity, etc. And in the process of all this thinking about paying attention, trying to knot this single piece of thread, making one knot and then trying to make another knot on top of it and instead I made a sequence of three knots along a straight line.

This is like the time when I was in class listening to someone talk and I noticed I was really listening fully, and then I got off on this whole thing about how I'd gotten so much better at listening, and then at some point realized I'd totally missed the last few things the person was saying.


On my two C-strips, the little squares didn't line up so I just took them out and lined them and sewed it again. Not that big of a deal. But anyway, this panel is near completion. It only has two more rows to be sewn the B strips to the C strips. And then the whole thing will be one piece and then it becomes another kind of entity.
Had to close the window because my rakusu pieces were getting blown all over the place. There are little piles of pieces from the rakusu strewn all over the table because the wind has been very strong this morning and so now my greatest desire is just to bring some order to this table. Sewing is about one-fifteenth of what I do. Mostly I'm figuring about what size everything is, how to fit it in, how to find the right combination of having something ironed or clean, or soymilk-soaked* at the right moment, and then you're able to sew.

To further my point I just realized I don't have any more thread and now I have to wait until tomorrow morning. I actually did run out of thread. It wasn't just a poverty of mind campaign.

* I love how soaking the white fabric for the back panel in soymilk primes it for receiving the ink. Soy: another plant presence in the rakusu! Rice and soy—the rakusu contains this foundation of nutrition.
August 4, 2006
So I have the whole front panel done now. I loved the moment of ironing the seam allowances flat in the back, how that brought the whole thing together. One of my primary feelings I have as I do this is that I want to help other people make theirs because now I have a clearer understanding. Also, because I have received such kind and skillful help, I want to continue the line… Before, the whole thing was completely mysterious and so now what is reputed to be the hardest part is over. The relative ease of sewing the frame awaits. Can't get too complacent in that. I'm sure there are plenty of twists and turns ahead just how it is said in yoga corpse pose is the most difficult – without the tricky physical stunts, you're just there with your mind.

To be continued in the next issue....

Genine's most recent publication is an interview with Grace Paley in the March issue of O magazine.

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