Becoming a Zen Priest, Part One

This article was originally published on the Red Rocks Zen Circle website on October 24, 2013.

My ordination as a Zen priest will take place during the Rohatsu Sesshin at Prajna Zendo in December. Since this decision was made, I have been hard at work sewing my okesa, the outer robe worn by all priests which represents a rice field, or the field of enlightenment.  It is the robe named in the Verse of the Kesa, recited daily at Zen centers around the world, which states:

“Vast is the robe of liberation
A formless field of benefaction
I wear the Tathagata teachings
Saving all sentient being.”

The experience of sewing has been transformative. The sewing itself is the embodiment of a Zen koan, the brain-stopping riddles or paradoxes we use in Zen to create deeper understanding and cut off the conceptual mind. The koan on my mind as I sew is: “How does one create a formless field?”

On a gross level, the kesa is constructed as I sew stitch after stitch, weaving together twenty-one panels, four borders, four corner panels, and two ties. On a more subtle level, the “formless field of benefaction” is created as we all still our minds, and experience this present moment just as it is.

There are many questions that come from becoming a Zen priest in this country at this time. Perhaps I will address more of those in another article. But the questions for this article, brought up by sewing this robe are: “How do I create this formless field for myself, and for others? How do I serve all beings, let alone SAVE them (and what, exactly, are they being saved from)? How vast is the robe of liberation, exactly? Is it just this twenty-one panel kesa, or something more than that?”

What I have come up with so far is that the robe is vast, indeed — boundless. It covers the entire earth and cosmos, and is the earth and cosmos themselves. At the same time, since we live in a world of relatives, the robe is also the kesa I am sewing, which physically represents AND manifests that vast, boundless robe.

How do I make a formless field of liberation? On one level, I can’t. It’s already there. On another level, I create it  stitch by stitch, as I experience the dropping off of body and mind that come from deep concentration.   I believe that as I’m ever so slightly relieved of the bondage of self by engaging this process, the formless field of liberation is manifested in some small ways for others, not just in the kesa itself, but in the energy put off by its creation.  Even if that’s just a sense of stillness or peace within our home, it’s still creating a bit of peace in the world.

How do I wear the Tathagata teachings? How do I save all beings? By doing the best I can to be present, to see clearly, to be kind, to do what’s needed in each moment. None of this is possible without the practice of zazen, because without zazen, my busy mind will make all kinds of separations and I will not directly experience peace. Without that direct experience, I cannot bring peace into any situations I may encounter in the world.  And sewing is an example of zazen in action, of taking that single-pointed concentration off the cushion and into action.   I’d like to think some small part of that experience might spill into my coaching of my son’s soccer team, or my presence with my wife, or my work with clients who are struggling in their lives.

The process of sewing the kesa, a task requiring tremendous patience, humility, and determination, helps me clarify all these questions. It helps me clarify my intention. It helps me see why I want to ordain. The reason I would give today is: To be of service. And today’s koan is, how do I do that?

To which I answer: Stitch by stitch.

Yours in the dharma,


Becoming a Zen Priest…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *