In our lineage we don’t make a lot of fuss over the color of one’s rakusu, a garment woven of different pieces of fabric that represents the robe worn by the Buddha. Teacher and student alike can wear black or brown or gray, nothing fancy, no hierarchy. But when I decided to depart from tradition and sew a rakusu out of camouflage, I knew I needed to have a good reason.
I was 18 on a beach somewhere during a training exercise with another young recruit, a friend. I can still hear the ocean coming in, smell the salt air and diesel, and then, suddenly, the fresh open flesh of a human death. We had just been talking some shit to each other, boyish banter, then something went sideways, and he was dead.
You don’t create karma. You are karma.
Like other young men, I stumbled into death-dealing because of poverty, misplaced patriotism, and predatory recruitment practices. It took decades to find my way out.
I joined the Marine Corps in 1987 and became an amphibious assault crew chief. It was strange for me, at 21, to be in charge of an amphibious tank; stranger still to be leading others, to be responsible for their lives. I would wake up at night with images of my team dying because of some mistake I’d made. I wasn’t afraid of dying: I was afraid of seeing any of my team suffer because of my error.
During my tour, the Soviet Union collapsed, and we had new sworn enemies in the Middle East with Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I didn’t understand these people or their culture. I didn’t understand why we were fighting them. So I joined a mosque to see what they were all about. My superiors weren’t thrilled about that, but I didn’t care. Joining the mosque allowed me to see the war from another perspective and was very helpful for me. I needed to try to understand war.
I spent the ’90s going to college and working: civilian things, civilized things. When I met people, I pretended I was just like them, not a death dealer haunted by nightmares. Then 9/11 came along and pulled me back into the fray. I had left the Marine Corps after a single tour, but because of my service and my mapping expertise I was recruited by various military and intelligence agencies to find people and capture them, or kill them.
A lot of my friends and coworkers were killed or maimed during this time. Those who survived had nightmare memories, and many self-medicated or committed suicide. I was not immune. I became angry, violent. One day, during an intense confrontation, I almost killed two officers. I knew I had to do something, to fix myself. I started to practice Zen.
I intended to practice Zen for a few months, long enough to gain the skills to mitigate my anger. That was in 2008. I am still practicing and today serve as an ordained Zen priest. I have worked my way out of war. I am no longer recruited by the agencies of death. I work with those agencies, though, with soldiers and prisoners and police officers to help them with their trauma, their memories, their anger and suffering. In other words, with the war and strife all around us.
One evening, I spent a long time online with a friend of mine, trying to talk him out of self-destruction. The next day his family told me they had found him inside his cabin with a portable generator out of gas, “NO CODE” scrawled on his chest with a Sharpie.
As part of my own healing practice, I began to conduct funeral ceremonies. Many of those were for veterans, largely suicides. During the funeral of one member of my military family, I got an idea: I would sew a rakusu from the uniforms of the people I had served with, to honor them, but even more to defy the reign of death. I put out a request for uniforms and within a week I had more than enough material for the 9″x13″ rectangle of cloth that serves as an abbreviated kesa, or monastic robe.
I had sought to understand war, but war is a koan that cannot be understood.
Cutting, measuring, sewing the cloth of the rakusu is always a meditative act, a reflective act, but as I constructed this rakusu—out of cloth that men and women in uniform like me had worn—I was flooded with emotion.
Isaiah 2:4 speaks of beating swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, so why not turning camo into rakusus?
Catharsis is a purging of emotion that, like Zen, does not rely on words. I had sought to understand war, but war is a koan that cannot be understood; it can be grasped only by those who have lived through it. I can hear it in the voices of my friends in Ukraine and Russia, and see it in their faces. Although it can’t be understood or explained, it must be purged.
Maybe this rakusu, the robe of the Buddha, can stand for the purgation of suffering, replacing fear, anger, violence, and death with the hope, wisdom, compassion, and peace of the Tathagata. As the Kesa Sutra, a verse about donning monastic robes, says:
Oh, formless robe of great freedom
Kesa of the fields of unlimited happiness
I trust in the Buddha’s teaching
To help liberate all existences.
In my tradition, a teacher’s inscription on the rakusu you have sewed is the formal confirmation of the responsibilities of a Zen monk, in that you vow to open all the dharma gates and save all beings. It is not a promotion, but an obligation. To receive the rakusu with your monastic name is a koan of who you are or who you might become. It is a teaching, an admonition, and an aspiration.
My abbot, Richard Collins, wrote this on the inside of my camo rakusu when he returned it to me: “Wind-blown dust falling like rain.” It was the best possible name for this rakusu. It was also the most concise description of war I have ever encountered.