Whoa! 50,000 Stitches?

In the documentary States of Grace (which I saw on Kanopy, the public library’s free streaming service) I was intrigued by the mention of 50,000 stitches being required to be ordained as a Zen priest. What an amazing concentration practice! If each stitch was mindfully done, certainly after 50,000 to make a robe, you would be a very present practitioner.

Since I know nothing about what is required for Zen Buddhist ordination, I did some research and came upon a Tricycle article about Tomoe Katagiri and the history of hand-sewing in the US Zen communities. Apparently it is an ancient practice, though these days in Japan robes are purchased instead of handmade. But Tomoe Katagiri has been teaching hand-sewing in the U.S. since 1971, and so it has become a part of the American Zen experience.

But this is not a post about Zen. It is a post about one sentence in the article that captured my attention. When a woman was coming to her final stitch of the robe for her ordination as a Soto Zen priest, she asked Tomoe if there was anything to be said for the final stitch. Tomoe answered, “The last stitch is the same as the first.”

“The last stitch is the same as the first.”
We could apply that to all aspects of life, couldn’t we? If we are doing something with full attention, then each moment receives that same quality of attention, not distracted but fully sensed.

One area we might apply this is eating. For most of us that first bite is special. We savor it, we really taste it. But a few bites in, caught up in conversation, reading, listening or just thinking, the hand and mouth may go on autopilot. When I am on retreat my whole attention stays with the bites I am taking, the chewing, the swallowing because there is absolutely nothing else to do, and my mind is focused on savoring not just flavors but the whole experience of being on retreat. Every time, I promise myself that when I get home I will be done with a lifetime’s habit of inattention and will attend every bite with full mindfulness. Well, you know how that turns out. A few days later, I’m back in the habituated groove of shoveling it in and then wondering where it went. Ah me!

Reading “The last stitch is the same as the first” made me want to challenge myself in my daily life to have a meal with that level of steady attention, each bite fully appreciated. If I can do it on retreat, why can’t I do it at home? Why do I accept my excuses? It is simply a matter of setting wise intention and following through with wise effort. So yesterday and so far today I did just that for each meal, and the last bite was as delicious as the first. And I noticed that I put more attention to making a nice meal, to choosing wholesome tasty foods, to taking my time in the kitchen with each chore fully attended, the last cut of a vegetable as mindful as the first. It is all of a piece, this being present, isn’t it?

How about a walk where the last step is done with the same level of attention and appreciation as the first? I tried that this morning too. It was a lovely day for a favorite hike on the shady side of Lake Bon Tempe. Staying present I saw so many things I might not otherwise have noticed, like the two tiny butterflies flitting in close pairing among the yellow wildflowers. Attending the sensations of my body in motion, I walked further than I habitually do. I spent some time focusing on my thigh muscles, letting them do the work that my knees might otherwise take on. I don’t know if that’s physically a thing, but it felt right for me. What I didn’t do was talk politics, wonder what to make for lunch, or plot the rest of the day’s activities. I just walked and looked and listened.

How often in life do our thoughts fly off craving the next thing? Wondering ‘when will I be done with this?’ even when it’s something we very much wanted to do?

The last stitch is the same as the first. Wow. Think of other areas in your life where this advice might be useful. In class we ended up talking about chores, errands and projects that seem to consume time in a mindless way. We’ll explore more of that in a future dharma post when we look at what constitutes wise effort.

We all go mindless at times. The practice of meditation is in part about learning how to simply be present, attentive to all that is arising and falling away in the field of sensation. The other part is learning to be compassionate with ourselves but not indulgent — an important distinction that we’ll look at in a future dharma post about wise concentration.

(If you are seeing a theme developing with these future dharma posts, you may recognize two aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Wise Effort and Wise Concentration. Those and the other six will be our fall focus. I have taught this invaluable life guidance three times over the past decade or so, and my current students have asked me to teach it again. I am happy to do so, and this time with a beautiful new illustration by my husband of the analogy I developed for understanding and remembering the various aspects!) Every time I teach it I discover so many new things I hadn’t noticed before, and I hope you will too!)

But meanwhile, you might make a point of noticing as you go through your day where you go mindless, what falls apart when that happens, and how it feels when you muddle through life lost in distraction, as most of us do at least some of the time.

“The last stitch is the same as the first.” There’s so much we can learn from that one sentence! May we live our lives attentively and compassionately, savoring each moment as it arises, then letting it go, so that our last breath is the same as the first.

Photo above uncredited, but click on it to go to another article about Zen hand-sewing.

2 thoughts on “Whoa! 50,000 Stitches?

  1. leonandedith

    Hi Stef! I got a lot from reading this latest post. Thank you. And I am reminded of something that BKS Iyengar instructed his students to do, or actually not do; never repeat a pose when you are practicing. Because repetition breeds mindlessness. Do it once as mindfully as possible and then move on.

    Now I’m off to my lovely yoga hut to practice that. 😊🙏 Love, Mar Sent from my iPad

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    1. Stephanie Noble Post author

      Love it! Thanks for sharing that perfect addition to enhance understanding.
      Today my students and I will be consecrating the garden altar built by the same artist as your yoga hut. 😊 Xo,s

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