I AM SEWING MY FIRST RAKUSU—the rectangular bib-like garment that is worn by Zen Buddhists. It is formally conferred during jukai, the ceremony of taking refuge in the Buddha and receiving the precepts. Unlike many people I know, I have never wanted a rakusu. I do have a narrow black doth band (a wagesa) that I received during my firstjukai many years ago, but I keep it folded in a comer of my drawer—my sock drawer. Sometimes I feel a pang of remorse that for so long l have allowed it to lie among my socks, socks that slide along the floor and gather dust balls and the smell of sweat and leather. But the truth is that hidden among my socks there are also a few family jewels: an amber bracelet from Poland, a black onyx crucifix that belonged to Great-Aunt Maria, my mother’s moonstone bracelet.
Gradually, as I explore the origin of Buddhist robes and ritual garments, it dawns on me that the mix of lowly socks and precious jewels is in some ways the perfect place in which to have kept my black initiate’s band. For what I discover, as I delve, is a play of opposites that goes back a very long time.
In the traditional telling of Shakyamuni’s life, it is a significant moment when he exchanges his ornate clothes for the tattered robe of a wandering mendicant. Having left his family sleeping in the palace, Prince Siddhartha leapt onto his horse and rode through the night, accompanied only by his servant, Chandaka. Removing his crown, gold, and jewels, he handed them to Chandaka, ordering that they be taken back to the palace. Chandaka begged him to reconsider, but Siddhartha did not yield. Instead, taking Chandaka’s sword, he cut off his own long hair.
At that moment, a deer hunter emerged from the forest. He was dressed very simply, in the saffron robe of a wandering ascetic. Siddhartha asked the man whether he would be willing to exchange his simple robe for the ornate robe of a prince, and the man eagerly agreed. Siddhartha was pleased: now he would have the appearance of an ordinary beggar.
Told in this way, the donning of the saffron robe is an important moment of passage. It takes place at an edge—at a riverbank, just as night has turned to day—and signifies that Siddhartha is at a transition between two lives.
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