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.

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