Thursday, 10 September 2015

Zen pilgrimage walk: Wisdom of the robes

I recently got back from a 4-week pilgrimage walk through the country, which I did as a Zen monk – carrying no money, just living from my alms bowl. In the first article in this series I talked about why I would even do such a thing, then I discussed the pain in my feet and how I dealt with it. Last week I talked about living from the bowl and the wonderful generosity I found along the way.

This week I want to focus on what I was wearing and the wisdom I found within it. Will you stay with me? (couldn't resist the alliteration!)

No, I don't mean Daizan had tucked a booklet of Zen wisdom into the folds of the robe for me to find (sadly!) – I mean the wisdom embedded in the design and material of the outfit.

The robes

If you had to wear one set of garments for travelling on the road, and you weren't going to add or take away any layers, then the monk's robes I had weren't far off the ideal. There are three layers: the undergarment is called a jubon and is equivalent to a shirt. It's waist-length and folds over the body in the traditional Japanese way. The second layer is called a kimono and mine was grey (can also be white). This, again, folds over in the same way, but is full-length down to my ankles. These two inner layers, folded around the body, are held together with a wide, elasticated belt called an obi. The third layer is the outer koromo, made of a kind of denim material (indigo hemp I think) that comes down to about mid-calf level, has large sleeves, and has ties at either side at the waist to fasten it.

Traditional Rinzai Zen monk's travelling clothing

Another belt called a shukin is wound around the waist to hold everything together (more on that below). The lower part of the robes could be hitched up underneath the shukin (on warm days or to make walking easier), and the long sleeves could also be tied up at the shoulders (again for warm days).

Robes with the sleeves tied up, showing the shukin belt with the rakusu tucked behind it.


The skukin (meaning "hand cloth" in Japanese) is a very interesting part of the robes (the Soto school has a similar rope belt called a shiken). I haven't been able to find out much about its origin, or why it's tied in such a way (some info here if you want to dig). At first it seemed an unnecessary weight and a bit of a hassle, but as time went on I began to see the deep wisdom embedded in it.

After a few days of walking I noticed that I wasn't feeling that hungry during the day. It was only when I stopped for the night and undid my robes that I started feeling hunger pangs.

Influenced by the monastic culture at the time, the Buddha only ate breakfast and lunch, and in fact made a rule that his monks shouldn't eat after midday. Monks in the Buddha's day also didn't work or cultivate the land, relying only on alms food. As Buddhism spread north into China, the Chinese weren't so happy with supplying the monks with 100% of their food, so they began farming the land around the monasteries. The colder climate and the extra work meant monks had to eat more (and wear more). To begin with, they kept with the 'no eating after midday' rule, and in the evenings the monastery kitchens gave out hot rocks that the monks would put on their stomachs to assuage their hunger. As Zen spread into Japan, they relaxed the after-midday rule, and the (still unofficial) evening meal became known as yaku seki (meaning "medicine stone").

So the pressure and warmth of the shukin belt against my belly as I was walking must have been doing the same job of stopping any hunger pangs.

The other effect I noticed was that it really helped bring my attention to my hara. In a way it felt like a weight-lifters belt, but swivelled around 180deg. It held everything in, and gave my abdomen something to breathe against. I could feel the swell of my breath against the shukin in the front of my belly, in my sides, and in my lower back, and this really helped me in continually relaxing my belly with each breath (see my article on pain). By resting my attention in my hara (and tanden particularly), I could also build my energy there, helping my feel more grounded and stable.


The hat (kasa or ajiro-gasa in Japanese) I had is of the traditional conical type found all over East Asia. It's made of woven bamboo and coated in the traditional way to make it waterproof – by using Persimmon juice (not by me I hasten to add). I found it a very effective umbrella in the rain, and a great sun hat on sunny days. The only problem was that it wobbled and often slipped forwards over my face with just a breath of breeze! Without the shoe-lace chin strap, the hat would for sure be lost in a hedge or ditch by now.
Me in the rain cape (in the Yorkshire rain -
looking surprisingly chipper)


I had "the official" Rinzai rain cape with me on my journey, which was big enough to cover pretty much everything including my rucksack – see photo. The only thing that got wet were my feet, and on rainy days these really got very squelchy...


The rakusu is worn around the neck and hangs, a bit like a bib, over the chest. It is a miniaturisation of the traditional kesa (or outer robe, originally worn by the Buddha). The story goes that the Buddha was out walking one day with his assistant Ananda. As they crested the top of a hill and looked down on the patchwork of rice paddies in the valley below, the Buddha said to Ananda, that's how I want our robes to be – a patchwork of cloth cut into a square. This pattern symbolises the "all is different" aspect of reality, together with the "all is one" aspect, and is maintained in the design of the rakusu. The white disk on the left strap is a left-over from the clasp that fastens the large kesa around the body.

I was given my rakusu when I first took the precepts as a lay person back in 2011. On the back is a white patch which has my first (lay) Dharma name (Kakushin) calligraphed onto it by Shinzan Roshi.


I discussed my footwear in this previous article. Of everything that happened on the walk, the pain from the footwear taught me the most. For this I am extremely grateful.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Ever had a similar experience? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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1 comment:

  1. Mark - interesting and detail rich - thank you.
    (Japanese) Zen Monks do seem to be the best dressed Buddhist Monks around!
    Having visited Japan as well as various countries in SE Asia I find it fascinating to notice and learn about the various differences or local interpretations that Buddhists have made, given their particular country locations and the schools of Buddhism they follow.
    My only fear (or ignorance more likely) is that one school or other may think themselves better/more authentic than another - which is exacerbated by Monks appearance.