Monday, March 19, 2007


I'm not a big fan of having to change clothes all the time. But it looks like I'll have to get used to it. There are just times when I have to get into or out of robes, and that's the life of a priest. [My teacher] Kyogen's perennial vow -- to get up every day and put on his robes and meet what's in front of him -- makes more sense to me now. There's a very practical aspect to that vow that I understand in a new way.

So, just for fun, I'm going to detail a day in the life of a junior monk on a silent retreat -- just in terms of clothing. I'll start by explaining the 3 outfits.

First there is what Kyogen calls sitting robes (I always called it a lay meditation robe, but I'm no longer a lay person, so calling it a sitting robe makes sense). This is a long black robe made from a medieval Japanese style, fairly simple, crossing in the front with ties at each hip and a sash or waist cord tying in the front. Under it, we wear a juban, which is a sort of white undershirt in the same style -- that is, crossing over in the front and tying at each side. It's supposed to show slightly at the neckline and sleeves. (I also wear an undershirt and white v-neck tee shirt under all of that for warmth most of the year.)

Second, there's the more ceremonial koromo, another long black robe but with very long sleeves (both in terms of how far down they hang and how long they are off the end of the arms), and those wonderful incredible pleats in the skirt that make it drape so nicely. Under the koromo is both a juban and a kimono, again both white (you can see me in the juban and kimono at the ordination ceremony -- see January 7 -- that ceremony starts with me in my "underwear" -- that is, kimono).

In both cases, sitting robe or koromo, when I am in the Zendo (whether sitting zazen or participating in ceremonies), I'm also wearing the kesa (which is a a large rectangle of black cloth that ties at the left shoulder) and dealing with a zagu (bowing mat). Most of the time the zagu is folded into a neat rectable sitting on the floor in front of me. When I'm standing or coming in or going out of the hall, it's draped over my arm (folded into the left sleeve of the koromo if I'm wearing that), and when I'm bowing, it's spread out on the floor in a particular zigzag pattern. We do 9 full bows at the beginning and end of service in the morning, and during the service we pick up the bowing mat, still folded in this zigzag pattern, and put it on our seat and sit on it that way.

So, for morning service I'm dealing with bowing mat, kesa (which I can't sit on, so I have to lift it over the top of the cushion or bench I'm sitting on), and koromo sleeves, on top of everything else I've become accustomed to dealing with -- chanting, sometimes chant leading or drumming. It's all practice, and just part of priest training.

The third outfit is called samue (SAM-oo-ay), which just means work clothes. This consists of pants and a field jacket over a juban. It's still a basic Japanese style, which crosses over in front and ties. I never wear the kesa with samue, but sometimes I wear the rakusu, which is a smaller, informal version of a kesa. Both signify that I have taken the precepts and am a Buddhist. I got the rakusu when I became a lay disciple, and all of our lay disciples make a rakusu for themselves.

Kesas come in different colors and forms. Mind is black and has seven stripes, and signifies that I am a priest in training. Other colors and numbers of stripes signify various other levels of transmission, I gather, but I don't know much about all of that.

Okay, with that very long introduction, I can go into a day in the life of a retreat. I begin the day at 5:10am, when I get up, wash, dress in samue, and make the bed. I ring the wake-up bell for others in the house at 5:25 (being the monk in residence). Officially wake-up is at 5:30, but this house is about a 5-minute walk from the Zendo, so I added 5 minutes.

I walk to the Dharma House, where I work and store my robes, and change into koromo. My kesa (along with zagu and rakusu) is in its case, and I carry it over to the Zendo to put at my sitting place.

A little before 5:50 the bell rings to signal the start of meditation, and we do 30 minutes of sitting. At 6:20 we say the kesa verse, and I put on my kesa at my seat, putting the zagu in front of me, folded up. After that we do ten minutes of walking meditation, and then sit for another 30 minutes before the chanting service. I pick up the zagu, spreading it out to bow on it, and then sit on it during chanting service. After service, we again bow, and then I pick up the zagu and fold it, tucking it into the sleeve of the koromo. After leaving the hall, I take off the kesa, folding it and the zagu carefully and putting them back into the case, getting out the rakusu and putting it on.

Now I'm in koromo and rakusu, and it's time to do some temple cleanup while the cooks work on breakfast. For the first part of the week, I was an assistant cook, and so I knew I would be working on cooking oats and tea. Special ties sewn inside the sleeves of the koromo allowed me to tie the sleeves up out of the way (well, mostly). By the end of the week, I figured out that this would have been a good time to change into sitting robes -- I finally noticed that all the other priests did -- but I didn't, just tied the sleeves up. Next retreat I'll know better.

We eat all meals formally in the Zendo, wearing robe and rakusu. After breakfast, I finally change into sitting robes, wearing it during the work period because I knew I would be in charge of sewing work practice and therefore indoors. If I had been working outdoors, I would have had to change to samue. I stayed in robes because after work practice there's another two 30-minute periods of meditation, and for that I take off the rakusu and put on the kesa. (I was timekeeper for this time slot all week, which just meant that I sat in the front and rang bells at the appointed times.) After this, I take off the kesa and put on the rakusu, and we prepare for lunch. Again, it's in the Zendo and formal, with chanting and silence.

After lunch is a rest period. I put away the rakusu and change to samue. If I'm smart, I take a nap. But some days I did a bit of work and/or checked e-mail. At various breaks during the day, I kept up with temple voicemail and e-mail, as well as my own. I also kept tabs on temple laundry -- doing almost a load a day of dish towels and hand towels.

After rest is exercise, and each day I chose stretching and floor exercise in the Zendo on my own. I could have brought my walking shoes and participated in a group walk outdoors -- the weather was incredible, warm and sunny. We opened all the windows in the Zendo each afternoon, so staying in to do stretching wasn't that terrible. We find that daily exercise is useful when you spend so much time sitting in meditation.

After exercise is meditation again -- change from samue to sitting robe and kesa. Take off kesa and put on rakusu for dinner. Another break (often folding laundry for me), and change to koromo and kesa for evening meditation, formal tea, and vespers.

Finally, at the end of the day, change out of all that, put on samue, and walk home, going to bed usually something past 10pm.

I suppose I'm going into all this because it's been a little surprising to me how much I have to pay attention to clothes. I mean, in some ways the clothing is simple (and I've made almost all of it myself), but there's a whole protocol of what one wears and when. It's not written out anywhere, but you have to watch and figure things out, and occasionally someone will give you tips, or you can ask. It's part of priest training, part of learning the form particular to our lineage, and part of mindfulness practice.

Today, a day off, I can wear anything I wish. Ironically, it has almost become another uniform -- pants, a tee shirt that is not v-neck or white (which I wear all the other six days of the week), often a turtleneck, and one of about 3 shirts over that, plus a fleece vest. I seem to do well with uniforms. I don't have to think too much about what to wear. At some point, I imagine, all these uniforms will become so familiar, I won't have to think so much about them either.