In a plain basement, by the light of a few old lamps, Susan Hagler neared the final stitch of the robe for her ordination as a Soto Zen priest. She had visited this room for months, sewing meticulously in meditative silence. Countless hours of difficult handwork were coming to an end. Her sewing teacher, Tomoe Katagiri, had been at her side through many challenges, helping her to remove and resew hours’ worth of stitches that were made to faulty measurements. With her needle poised above the black fabric, she broke the silence to ask Tomoe a question: “Is there anything to be said for the final stitch?” Tomoe replied, “The last stitch is the same as the first,” and returned to her needle and thread.

Since 1971, when Tomoe Katagiri became the first person to teach hand-sewing of Zen robes in the United States, numerous priests and laypeople have taken up this deeply transformative practice. It is now central to most American Soto Zen rites of passage, and is the main mode of practice for many devoted students and teachers. Tomoe and the late Blanche Hartman, former abbess of San Francisco Zen Center, are widely considered to be the two great matriarchs of American Zen sewing. All over the country, people have found inspiration in Tomoe’s book, Study of the Okesa, Nyoho-e: Buddha’s Robe. An okesa is a full-body robe, and nyoho-e means the traditionally hand-sewn robe considered to be one with buddhadharma. For 40 years people have come to practice by the author’s side.

Hand-sewing robes is an ancient tradition, but it is no longer widely practiced in Japan, where robes are now generally purchased. In 1971, however, Eshun Yoshida, a teacher of nyoho-e and the abbess of Kaizenji, a temple in Japan, was visiting the United States and encouraged the renowned Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki and his assistant Dainin Katagiri to begin the practice at San Francisco Zen Center, where the two found themselves at the vanguard of a burgeoning interest in Zen in America. Katagiri asked his wife, Tomoe, to learn nyoho-e from Yoshida. There was no time to lose, as no one in the States knew how to teach the practice and Yoshida was going to return to Japan within a week. Tomoe dove into study under the master’s tutelage. The training was intense and nonstop: they knelt for hours on the ground in the Japanese style to work with fabric and thread.

“After the first day of studying with her I could barely walk,” Tomoe recalls. Sewing the okesa and the rakusu, a smaller version of the okesa that is worn hanging around the neck like a bib, is done with meditative concentration. Generally, a rakusu is sewn to prepare for initiation, an okesa for ordination. The sewing is done with the least possible amount of speech, so that there is total focus on the task at hand. When I first studied with Tomoe, one of the first things she taught me was to have a deep respect for the practice: “With each stitch we take refuge in the three jewels of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Before and after sewing we offer incense and do three full bows.” In a Soto service, usually the teacher leads the bows. As he or she leans forward to start the bow, everyone else follows. When I was sewing with Tomoe, though, I could never tell if she was leading the bows, or if I was. I asked her once. She answered, “Yes.” 

Heading to Tomoe’s to interview her for this article, I was worried. I hadn’t seen her for months; now 84 years old, she had just completed a six-week treatment for bladder cancer. It had been two years since she had decided to retire because she could not see well enough to stitch. I had heard she was down to below 80 pounds.

I stepped past the profusion of flowers in the tiny front yard of her small Minneapolis home and knocked. The door opened, and I was greeted by a diminutive woman with an ineffable radiance. “Ben-San!” Tomoe said with a dazzling smile. She’s been in the United States since the mid- 1960s, and in Minneapolis (where she moved to help found Minnesota Zen Meditation Center with her husband, Katagiri Roshi) since the early 1970s, but her English still bears the sounds of her first thirty-odd years of life in Japan. Having spent the majority of my time with Tomoe silently sewing and occasionally receiving brief instructions from her, I am stunned to see her jump into the interview with an outpouring of stories and dharma, with broad physical expressions to keep up with the challenge of communicating across the second language. Her small body, which I expected to be so depleted, seems to pour energy into mine. In her high, songlike voice she mentions a mutual friend who is getting on in years. “He’s shrinking,” she says. “Like me!” She leans back to make room for our peals of laughter.

“When I started teaching I was so tense.” She hunches her shoulders up by her ears. Tomoe disliked sewing her whole life, and though she’d been encouraged to learn how to sew robes for years, had always slipped out of it. “When I first got called to sew [by Yoshida], I thought, I must have bad karma if I have to do this, but later I realized it was very good karma. It changed my life.” There were challenges aplenty. With only a week to train with Yoshida in person—she corresponded with her by mail for help after that— Tomoe suddenly found herself with a lot of committed students. San Francisco Zen Center was growing quickly, and many who have gone on to found Zen centers across the country were practicing there at the time. The measurements for sewing had to be translated from traditional Japanese into metric and English units, all in a language Tomoe was just learning. “I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about measurements,” Tomoe told me. “I was famous for being very strict, but English was hard. All I could say was ‘Yes. No. Please do it again.’” One early student sewed a whole okesa, a project of many, many hours, only to melt the threads with an iron; another ruined theirs with dye. Through it all Tomoe persevered; Yoshida’s inspiration was powerful.

Tomoe Katagiri | Photography by Alison Malone
Photography by Alison Malone

Indeed, Yoshida’s power seems to have been passed down to her student: if there’s one word that comes up a lot when you talk to anyone who studied with Tomoe, it is “fierce.” Kaaren Wiken, who along with Rosemary Taylor and Kyoku Tracey Welan has been authorized by Tomoe to teach, told me, “It never ceases to amaze me that this petite friend I love to hang out with, cooking, hiking, sharing funny stories, can in an instant morph into a huge fierce Zen teacher ready to cut through delusion.” Once, one of Tomoe’s students finished a row of stitches a few minutes before the end of the sewing period, packed up his things and sat still while another student continued to sew. Tomoe’s eyes flashed. “Two works!” He picked his sewing back up and never sat idle during sewing practice again.

Tomoe is known for her uncompromising commitment to doing the practice well and wholeheartedly, and it shows in many ways. These days we usually buy simple, plain fabrics for Nyoho-e, but I knew one student who tried to make a rakusu out of discarded scraps in the traditional way. Some of the found material was extremely hard to work with, and she finally surrendered, throwing pieces she’d labored over at length back into the trash. Tomoe scooped them out and said, “You wanted to give it life, we give it life.” She showed her the way to hold it together, breaking a few of nyoho-e’s strict rules to make it work. As Tomoe says, “The spirit is more important than the rule.”

It is very hard to describe what is most essential about Tomoe’s teaching. It does not involve words; it is simply her silent, concentrated effort, putting in one stitch at a time by her student’s side. Most of my time with her has been spent in this way. And yet when I needed help, she’d always immediately respond, “Yes.” Her verbal teachings were mostly concentrated on showing how to really care about precise measurements and beautiful, consistent stitches. She could, though, at times bring forth crystalline, koan-like teachings in the vast space of the silent practice, teachings that would send her students more deeply into questioning. One student confessed in the middle of sewing practice, “Sometimes I worry that I’m not good enough to be a Zen priest.” Tomoe replied, “Yes, forever.”

Appreciation for humility suffuses Tomoe’s teaching and life. She insists that she has little talent for sewing and that the ensuing challenges are good for her Zen practice, as adversity is where Zen’s transformative power is strongest. “In the beginning I was very awkward, so I could absorb more because of the difficulty. Anyone can do it! Many of my students are more talented than I am. I can’t make it very well, but still I can help people.”

Many whose lives revolve around supporting Zen practice have themselves been ordained, but not Tomoe. I asked her why. “A lot of people wanted me to ordain, but it was not a call from inside. I considered it. I wasn’t sure what to do.” She asked her husband, Katagiri Roshi. “He said, ‘You’ve seen how much it takes people away from children to be ordained. Can you do it?’ I said, ‘I can’t.’ He said, ‘So you know.’” Tomoe made it clear to me that she’s grateful that her husband helped her trust what she already knew. In 1980, she did receive a robe and bowl, but not ordination, from Yoshida Roshi in a formal ceremony in Japan. 

Tomoe and Dainin Katagiri had two boys, first Yasuhiko, then Ejo, and she has a deep well of stories about them. “One day, when he was in kindergarten,” she told me, “I saw Ejo dragging his laundry to the basement.” She mimes his tiny struggle. “I said, it’s OK, Ejo, I will do it for you.” He replied, “But I see Yasuhiko wash his clothes.” She says both her boys, now parents, still sew. “If you are doing something, children are watching and learning.”

Tomoe trusts the method of teaching by doing simple things consistently. She used to teach large groups sewing rakusus for initiation. They would meet weekly for a summer to sit silently and stitch while Tomoe checked their work, measuring seams and stitches, or stepping in to help if someone could not find the way. Some people were much quicker than others and would finish early. “They would not come back.” One day, though, a man finished, and the next week he was there in his same seat to help others finish. She smiles in the telling. “After that more and more people would come back to help.” “And you didn’t say anything?” I ask. “No.”

Photography by Alison Malone
Photography by Alison Malone

Tomoe knows that sometimes words just get in the way. She never had a formal ceremony to transmit the teaching to Kyoku, Kaaren, or Rosemary. “There is a kind of transmission that is a big ceremony, but there is also eye-to-eye transmission. No ceremony. No title.” She emphasized the importance of checking with one’s teacher before helping others to sew as a teacher. “My students know it is a big responsibility,” she said. Rosemary told me, “I didn’t know I was her student for a long time. There was no talking about it. Then I just realized, I guess I’m her sewing student.”

In Tomoe’s teaching there is room for things to change naturally through commitment to practice. She told me that over the years she had become milder. “I don’t know when. I used to always say ‘Do again, please,’ if some stitches were wrong, but now when I see someone is wholehearted, even if their sewing is not so skillful, I may be more mild. At first, helping people, I wanted to make sure people do exactly as Yoshida Roshi taught me, so I was very strict.” Later she tells me with a smile, “We don’t know how we will change. Things don’t go as planned. I am learning.” Many people I spoke to noted how Tomoe had mellowed over the years in her approach. Rosemary asked her about it. Tomoe said, “I decided to be more compassionate.” Rosemary tells me, “I have never, ever, heard Tomoe say anything critical of another person, but once, when someone was really acting out of line, she said, ‘We must have compassion for him.’”

Many of those I reached out to about Tomoe were effusive: “She’s one of my heroes.” “She’s like a mother.” Not a few people told me, “I learned as much from Tomoe as from any other teacher.” And these are people who have studied under the most prominent and revered names in American Zen. Rosemary remarked, “She is one of the great blessings in my life, and she is so ordinary. When I’m at the store with her and people treat her like a little old foreign lady, I just want to say, don’t you know how amazing this woman is?”

Toward the end of our interview, I asked Tomoe what is most important about nyoho-e. She leaned forward. “Through sewing you learn a lot about the dharma, Buddha’s teaching. It’s not just sewing! One stitch. Tiny stitch. When you think how many yards you will sew, chanting the Buddha’s name with every stitch, if you count all the stitches, you say, ‘I cannot do it!’ But, if you do this stitch: one stitch. One stitch. One stitch continuously, you will finish. If you stop, if you quit, even if you are very good at stitching, you will never finish. Just continue! When you continue with the stitching you will have many problems. Experience. Yes. That is your life. You can learn about oneness just chanting refuge in the Buddha with every stitch, and your life, that is dharma stitching.”

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