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The Rakasu and the Koan

"How great and wondrous are the clothes of enlightenment,

Formless, yet embracing every treasure.

I vow to unfold the Buddha's teaching,

That I may help all living things."

For the confirmed Buddhist, the small bib of cloth worn about the neck is a rakasu (Jap.). Traditionally, Buddhist monks sew their robes and bib out of scraps of leftover material. For laypeople, the bib is often sewn and worn by those who have accepted the Buddhist precepts.

To don the rakasu is to take on a great weight of responsibility. The small piece of cloth symbolizes an aspiration, an affirmation. If you enjoy alliteration, an admonition. The rakasu represents tradition, lineage, a philosophy, a religion with a code of conduct. It symbolizes commitment and, above all, faith.

It's faith that there is something to this Buddhist stuff. It's faith in the promises of our enlightened spiritual forbears of a new way of seeing. Trust that the bread crumbs they left behind for us really do ultimately lead to something great! It's faith that 2500 years ago, there was a tremendous wordless experiential understanding, which transformed Siddartha Gautama into Shakyamuni Buddha... The Awakened One!

The garment connects us to all the Buddhas who've come before us, back to Shakyamuni and the Buddhas who came before him. Kanzeon Bosatsu is the Compassionate Buddha. Fugen Bosatsu is the Buddha of Practice, Goodness, and Wisdom. Then the iron being who cannot be consumed by fire, only transformed is Fudo-myo-o. Monju Bosatsu rides on the back of the beast of Self. Often depicted with a fierce grimace, Fudo symbolizes ironclad steadfastness in the relentless struggle to tame our Self. And finally, Amida, the Buddha of infinite light, the Cosmic Buddha!

The rakusu symbolizes the Bodhisattva's vow to save all sentient beings. Wearing it, one is no longer a "stealth" Buddha. This is for go, not for show. The goal is enlightenment.

Spirituality is personal. At the beginning, spiritual things are fragile and easily damaged. To speak of things spiritual is to talk of things that one would not share with a disinterested spouse or a close friend of a different nature. One must take care. Those who are closest to us can damage our nascent spirit most easily.

And yet, to develop spiritually is to become more vulnerable, see, feel, and be aware of more of life than previously may have been acceptable to us. Over time, true spirit develops into soft armor that is no armor. We are penetrated but unscarred.

Churches and monasteries and societies and groups and spontaneous spiritual gatherings of many forms are but surface manifestations of something deep inside each individual member of the group. What is deep inside causes the individual to seek, join, and adopt the form.

One of the exciting aspects of interacting with various Buddhist groups and Buddhist traditions is discovering why and how individuals, particularly Americans, embrace the Buddhist spiritual metaphor. On the surface, Buddhism appears alien to non-Asian Americans. It would seem that there are many other spiritual metaphors better suited to the language, culture, heritage, and traditions of Americans.

Buddhism manifests itself more and more in the nooks and crannies of American life and culture. For example, in a conservative business magazine filled with financial figures, graphs, charts, and photographs of blue business suits and black shoes, a short article appeared. It extolled the virtues of Zen meditation to aid in relieving executive stress!

Years ago, the word Buddhist elicited glazed eyes in the listener. One could sense the oriental image of dark scented chambers where the "heathen Chinee" prostrated before golden idols. When one added the modifier "Zen" to the equation, the term conjured up impressions of a beatnik, hippy, flower child, a sort of end-of-the-acid-rainbow kind of a thing.

Nowadays, using "American Buddhist" seems appropriate because Buddhism has been in America for 150 years. The word signifies nothing. The modifier has no meaning. If the other person is interested, it is a golden opportunity to plant reality into an empty space.

When asked, I say I "backed into" Buddhism. I am fond of saying that the farther down the Buddhist path I tread and the more I learn, the more I return to what I already know. These are clumsy attempts to describe a tickle at the back of the neck, a speck you see at the corner of your eye. When you turn to look, it's gone!

When these feelings first came to me, I had no framework to understand them. It was not until I began to read Zen Buddhist literature and later mystical Christian writings that I realized many knew the feeling. Many had attempted to express it in poetry and prose. Most had expressed it far more eloquently than I. They used phrases like "returning to the source," "being reborn," "finding your original face, "and one of my favorites, "returning to the heart."

"Awakened within a dream,

I fall into my own arms.

...What kept you so long?" [1]

It was not Zen practice. It was not any kind of practice. It just became. It was a nameless, undisciplined, haphazard, "willy-nilly" practice. Yet, it was wonderfully free practice, with no religion, no rules, and no compelling reason to sit and meditate.

Perhaps it was my solitary nature that drew me to sit. I am naturally quiet. I love to sit and observe. But, on the other hand, maybe it was the encouragement of a step-parent. You see, when I was young and misbehaved, I would be stood in a corner with my nose pressed against the wall for hours to meditate on my youthful transgressions.

My Soto Zen lineage distinguishes itself from other schools of Zen by sitting facing the wall rather than away from it. Perhaps we, too, meditate on our transgressions. A Soto teacher warns ironically:

"If you are afraid of being grabbed by God,

Don't look at a wall.

Definitely don't sit still!" [2]

I just sat whenever the spirit moved me and cultivated my natural stillness for fifteen years. Then, one day, as I was reading the works of a modern-day Zen teacher, I came upon a sentence, which leapt from the page to my mind. I could not separate myself from it. It kept me awake. I returned to it again and again, reading around it, through it, chewing on it, unable to spit it out.

"The Koan appears naturally in daily life." [3]

A koan is literally a public case or statement. The legalistic shadow on the word is part of the formality of it. It is a general statement of principle or a proclamation. So publicly proclaiming ninety-five theses, nailing them to the church door in Wartburg, Martin Luther stated his koan (s). His theses affirmed solutions to the world and, more particularly, to the Holy Roman Church.

Perhaps more familiar are the koans of the Rinzai Zen tradition, those pesky little questions Zen teachers ask their trainees to aid in their training. For example, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Does Joshu's dog have a Buddha nature? What was your original face before you were born? And, what about Christians? If God created everything and everything is a manifestation of God's divine plan, does man have free will or not? That one is almost as difficult to solve as that concerning Joshu's dog.

The koan and the accompanying dialogue between Teacher and Trainee is acute, personal, profoundly a life and death matter. It is combat where delusion is to be defeated, and both sides will emerge victoriously. The Teacher demonstrates refinement and checks the progress of the Trainee. At the same time, the Trainee checks the refinement of the Teacher and shows their own progress. It is an even exchange. There are hundreds of such interactions that can be read, analyzed, and learned. Some believe that when enlightenment is attained, one will be able to understand each and every one of these curiously illogical exchanges.

Even if it may not be so. We've exchanged something. Perplexes have been settled. Understanding has been attained, we feel. But the koan and its solution remain extremely personal between Teacher and Trainee, between Buddha and Buddha.

We may stand in line together for our interview with the Teacher. You are asked to respond to a question you've been given to meditate on. You answer. The Teacher beams with joy, bows, and sends you on your way with a new question.

I enter and bow. Of me, the same question is asked. My answer is exactly the same as yours. The Teacher's face clouds. With a whack on the head with a fan, the Teacher says "no dice" and boots me out to continue my struggle to find "the solution." Your solution is not my solution.

When I first interpreted the word koan, I used "spiritual puzzle." "The spiritual puzzle appears naturally in daily life." Not being an oriental linguist, I doubted this interpretation. Another Teacher provided the following:

"Any spiritual problem or obstacle we believe separates us from the eternal."

Suddenly it was clear. The spiritual puzzle is before us at every moment of our lives. We are working on the puzzle, and the puzzle is working on us. We may be given the same puzzle, but our solutions are individual. Each of us must remove the problem or obstacle which separates us from the eternal in our own unique way.

Acceptance of this understanding did not come easily to me. There was frustration, anger, doubt, disbelief, and a host of other negative feelings. The reason for these feelings was simple. Like so many others, I expected meditation to make my life easier, more peaceful, happier, lighter, and less burdensome. It was not so! I was working at my koans and, instead of fewer koans, there were more koans, flocks of koans, meteor showers of koans.

"The Sixth Ancestor Huineng came across two monks who were arguing about a banner flapping in the wind. One said, 'The banner is moving.' The other said, 'The wind is moving.' They went back and forth without coming to agreement. The Sixth Ancestor said, 'It's not that the wind is moving; it's not that the banner moves; it's your mind that is moving.' The two monks were stunned." [4]

Slowly, the understanding became clear. There were not more koans; I could just see more. My vision had broadened. A speck or two of dust had been wiped from the mirror. Suddenly, there was a bit more certainty and some peace. The koans are there. Constantly, in great numbers, they offer the possibility that I might even present an acceptable solution to a one or two of them now and again.

This was the mid-point of my practice. Everything that came before suddenly took on order and purpose. Everything after makes sense. The keystone of my practice slid with a clunk... into place.

We return to faith, faith in all the Buddhas in all worlds. I have never met the Teacher who provided me with this crucial key. The Teacher has passed through this life. No matter; the work was done, and I am grateful for it.

The Teacher is the instrument, not the source. I attributed the statement of the koan to the Teacher who wrote the article, of which it was a tiny part. Later, I discovered that the idea came from another Teacher. It is the Genjokoan, the daily puzzle of Great Master Dogen. I believe that he did not originate it. An eternal koan flows through him from those who came before him and perhaps straight from Shakyamuni Buddha himself.

With all of this, we must not forget that the great weight of the rakusu is only form. Buddhism is a form. Buddha wasn't Buddhist! If our faith has not been squandered and the Buddhas indeed speak the truth and know nothing and can show us nothing, one day, we will burn the statues and discard the rakasu. We will be warmer and lighter, and these acts will have no significance.

"Dear, dear! How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, 'who in the world am I?'" [5]

Ah, that's it, the adjudication, the Great Puzzle--Solved!


[1] I cannot attribute this quote. If anyone can, please email me and let me know.

[2] Mstr. Houn- Jiyu Kennett

[3] Dogen Zenji: Translated by Mstr. Houn-Jiyu Kennett

[4] Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: Nyogen Senzaki & Paul Reps

[5] Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll

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