Namu Kie Butsu | Sewing as Practice

image by Karen Muktayani Villanueva

Namu kie butsu.

That was the chant that I said over and over (and over) again, as I sewed the wagesa. Last month, I volunteered to sew for incarcerated members of the Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin State Prison.

These individuals wished to declare their intentions as formal Practitioners of the Dharma, and this month (Insha’allah), they will have their Jukai Ceremony to formalize it. For reasons beyond my control, sewing needles and thread are deemed unfit for inmates to have. Thus, volunteers “from the outside” were sought and found to help sew their wagesas.

A wagesa is a kind of stole, a sewn garment worn around the neck signifying a person’s devotion to the Dharma and the precepts as Practice. This is not to be confused with a rakusu, which in the Zen Buddhist tradition is also a sewn garment that is worn around the neck of those that are lay-ordained. (To the uninitiated , or unfamiliar, a wagesa looks like a wide, untied neck-tie and a rakusu looks like a bib.)

The monotony of the task was helpful in sharpening my mind to stay on task, stay present. And yet, I couldn’t help appreciating the simplicity of the act of joining pieces of fabric together with a needle and a thread, that, in this way a patchwork is made. One that can be fashioned into any kind of garment or useful, decorative thing.

And then, I thought, whenever I engage in any of the crafting, textile, or homesteading arts, like sewing or canning or knitting or baking, I can’t help but think of the very first peoples who did it hundreds (thousands, millions) of years ago as a means to survive. That I still engage in some form of these activities connects me to them. I imagine their hands doing what I am doing, and it pleases me to think of that connection. And then, I remember that I am supposed to be sewing and chanting. So, I stop being enamored with the historic connection and set off, once again, to “just sew.”

Namu.  Insert the needle downward.

Kie.  Insert the needle upward.

Butsu.  Pull the thread through.

(It’s a kind of backstitch that is used on all the visible stitches on the wagesa.)

I stop every once in a while to admire my stitches, appreciating that each and every one was thoughtful (mostly). I try and estimate how long it will take me to do an inch-worth of stitches.  I try and estimate how many inches are left. I love it when I get in a groove and the sewing just flows out of me. (Note: This happened maybe twice in the whole month. And for how long?  Who knows? All I remember was that I was in the zone, man. The Zone.)

I hate it when I get the chant all screwed up. Or when the cloth bunches up. Or when I stab myself with the needle. (No blood drawn. And dayum, that hurt. Several times.) I was amused when I found myself sewing and forgetting to chant. (Curiously, never the other way ’round.)  Ah, there.  See?  I’m not sewing again.

Stop.

Begin again.

(sigh.)

Namu.  Insert the needle downward.

Kie.  Insert the needle upward.

Butsu.  Pull the thread through.

What I hated most was running out of thread. I ran out of thread many times during the sewing of this wagesa, necessitating my having to delay in order to get more thread from the organizers. It’s special silk thread, and I was annoyed at having to stop my sewing and chanting to go get more. I was so close to finishing. Ah, opportunity to see how much I appreciate planning and how much I value making sure all the needed materials are present from the beginning.

It was amazing how fast my mind elevated feelings of frustration of not having enough thread  to the lofty level of personal affront, my small self not feeling appreciated or valued enough to be given what was actually needed to the complete the task at hand. It still turns my head. Ugh. It wasn’t personal that they didn’t give you enough thread. Oh, yah. Right.

[sound the violins and cue IM (Inner Martyr) here.]

But didn’t they know how hard I was working? And, didn’t they know that I set aside time in my life just for this? And didn’t they know I thought I deserved gold stars (several, actually) just for volunteering? Didn’t they know that I routinely over schedule myself so that adding this to my already over scheduled life was tilting the balance of justice to the waaay unjust side?!? 

Exhale. Just sew.

Please.

DIDQ (Dear Inner Drama Queen),  glare at me if you want, and just sew.

Namu.  Insert the needle downward.

Kie.  Insert the needle upward.

Butsu.  Pull the thread through.

My stitches, at first, were not really on a slant. The picture says that it is supposed to be on a slant. For the life of me, I can’t get mine to slant like that. I remember the person who taught me this stitch, initially. Her stitches aren’t slanted either. Ah. This is what happens. This is like a strange version of playing the telephone game. I must choose to either keep playing or stop altogether.

How will these pieces of fabric be joined? If not by me and my not-so-slanted stitches? (We’re on a deadline here, people.) Does it matter that it is not completely “by the book?” How much does it matter that my stitches don’t look like the ones in the picture? I decide that it is okay (enough) that my stitches don’t slant, like the ones in the picture. And, I even chant more earnestly to make up for it. Oh, dear. Again. I’m not sewing again.

Stop.

Begin again.

(double sigh.)

Namu.  Insert the needle downward.

Kie.  Insert the needle upward.

Butsu.  Pull the thread through.

The person for whom I am sewing this wagesa, he may never know it was me who sewed my life into it, that a piece of my existence, however fleeting, is literally in the stitches. Forever. He won’t really know that most of the presidential debates are in there (even the especially painful, first one). Or that a particularly long and achy wait at the doctor’s office is in there. And most likely, he will never know that I actually cried when Anita Antoinette didn’t make it on The Voice (Note: Anita’s audition starts at 57:44).

I can’t help but remember sewing my own rakusu, some years ago now. I don’t remember putting this much thought and effort into it. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t. I suspect, in all likelihood, I did; I just don’t remember. Wagesas, like rakusus, are meant to be kept for a lifetime. Someone else will wear this wagesa, with all of my experiences contained in the not-so-slanted stitches. In formal ceremony, or frankly whenever this person wishes, he can don his wagesa, and we will affect each other. Forever. His practice strengthens mine. My practice strengthens his.

And so on.

And so on.

And, sew on.*

 

*Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

(Admit it, that was a pretty good one.)

/|\

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your sewing experience. I am SO sorry about the thread miscalculations. Namu kiyie butsu, my sister. Blanche Hartman, one of the great teachers in our sewing lineage tranlates this as “I throw myself to Buddha.”

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