Category Archives: Zen

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.

Meditation & Creativity: WABI SABI

We have been exploring creativity and I would like bring in the idea of wabi sabi, the Zen Buddhist concept of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence. Wabi sabi is, in effect, the expression of fully living in the moment brought into the realm of aesthetics. Fully living in the moment we see things as they are, letting go of the overlay of ideals of perfection. We treasure wrinkles, cracks and the patina of age.

I am presenting this in our exploration of creativity because artists instinctively embrace wabi sabi. I remember the uproar among a class of life drawing students when their teacher kept hiring models who were young, slender and flawless. The artists wanted some folds, some wrinkles, something interesting to draw. They wanted variety in age and size. What they didn’t want was something they could have copied out of Playboy magazine.

Although there is nothing wrong with the dewy beauty of youth, when we limit ourselves to only embracing that fleeting moment when a body or a flower is in a state of full blossom, then we are caught in the trap of perfection, and we are promoting this limited view in our art – that only one moment in the life of a flower or the life of a body is beautiful. This makes for very stagnant art and a life full of constant dissatisfaction as we cling to such a limited view. In other words Dukkha!

This is equally true in writing as in the visual arts. A character with quirks, flaws, imperfections is a delight to write about and read. A character without foibles is a character that feels surface and not fully drawn. We instinctively know that no one is perfect, nor would we want them to be.

We have been weaving the concept of finite and infinite throughout our exploration of creativity, and here is an excellent example. How finite a view it is to value only perfection, only youth, only symmetry, only sameness! Dip into the infinite beauty of impermanence and you really get into the rich and juicy stuff of creativity.

Nature, the greatest teacher of all, constantly shows us that all is impermanence. Staying connected with nature helps us to befriend this truth. The lush green leaves of spring become the dry yellow leaves we scuffle through on the sidewalk in the autumn. That is not sad, it is simply true. As we age, as family, friends and beloved icons die, this valuable lesson comes home to us again and again. Becoming spacious enough in our hearts and minds to openly embrace the fleeting nature of life is one of the basic benefits of meditation. And having a term like wabi-sabi helps us to celebrate it, even have fun with it.

The word wabi comes from the root word ‘wa’ which means, as I understand it, harmony, tranquility, peace, balance. Sabi means the bloom of time, or all the wondrous transitions that come with aging: Tarnish, rust, etc.

When we bring wabi sabi consciousness to our bathroom mirror, we can develop an appreciation for our lumps, bumps and wrinkles. We can soften our view, lighten up on our constant striving for perfection. Even artists who naturally prefer the beauty of wabi sabi in the world around them can be quite merciless when it comes to their own bodies. But there’s no way around it. Our bodies are imperfect and aging. Can we release for once and for all the filter of the perfect lithe youthful body that was or never was, and lovingly care for our bodies as we would for the fine cracked china inherited from our favorite grandmother? To whatever extent we can release ourselves from the ruthless dictates of that stagnant aesthetic of perfection, we open to the possibility of a joyous life. We can allow the authenticity of our character to shine through, adding luster to our wrinkles and a twinkle to our eyes.

As with all aspects of our practice, this is not a forced transformation but simply noticing our thoughts and emotions. We notice the sour, unkind, miserly view we tend to have of this corporal manifestation where our consciousness resides for now. This noticing sets off a subtle, then not so subtle shift. At some point the ‘shoulds’ start to soften and fall away. Only then do we stand a chance of coming slowly into a state of acceptance, then perhaps even enjoyment of the wabi sabi of our bodies.

A little gratitude practice is always useful here as well. For all its flaws how grateful we are for this body that works so hard and so well for the most part. This body that has carried us through thick and thin. This body that has tolerated so much on our behalf. Yes, gratitude practice helps to put things in perspective.

Now wabi sabi isn’t just about appreciating imperfection. It is also about paring things down to their bare essentials. An artist does this when she looks at a landscape or a figure she wants to paint and then simplifies it on her canvas. She seeks out what speaks to her and composes her painting accordingly. She recognizes what is aesthetically vital to the composition and doesn’t need to duplicate nature in every detail.

We can do this in our lives as well. Paring down our possessions to only what is truly useful, what has a vibrancy in our lives, is a wabi sabi process. D.T. Suzuki described wabi-sabi as “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” He said it is “to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.”

Wabi sabi is finding beauty in simple things, each in their season. As we age, most of us feel this call to simplify, if for no other reason than we don’t want our children to have to be burdened with too much of the detritus of our lives when we die. But even for ourselves, for our own lives, this ongoing process of divesting and simplifying has rich rewards in lifting the weight of concerns. It seems almost to be a biological phenomenon that we do this.

An example from my own life just happened this week. We are in the process of reorganizing our basement storage area, and a lot of what we are doing is reassessing our feelings about these objects we have been storing. One such object is a round oak table that we bought when we were first married. It was stored in the basement of an older couple. They were ready to let it go and sold it to us for $25. That table became the centerpiece of our lives throughout the years when our children were very young. We had our family meals around it. The children did their homework there. We played monopoly, scrabble and yahtzee there. But eventually it was too small to seat our whole family or dinner guests. So for many years now it hasn’t had a central role in our lives, and ultimately it ended up in our basement. None of our children wanted it, so finally I put an ad on e-bay at a reasonable price. No takers. I posted it again asking for ‘Best Offer.’ No takers. Then this week I put ‘Free to Good Home.’ Immediately I heard from a couple in Rohnert Park who drove down Sunday evening and picked up the table. They arrived in their SUV with their two children reading comics in the back seat as we loaded the base into the back and the father Miguel strapped the round top on the roof. And off they went, and I was so happy. The table will once again be central to the lives of a young family, and we are the older couple who is letting go of whatever no longer serves us.

For me there’s beauty in that sense of continuum, our dear oak table finding its new home. And wabi sabi is all about beauty. Here’s a definition of wabi sabi beauty: It’s a mellow beauty that is striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long time.

When seen this way, it becomes clear what in our lives has value and meaning, and what we can release so that we can live more simply and with greater authenticity.

It is this word authenticity that keeps coming back to me as I study the concept of wabi sabi. Because it wouldn’t be wabi sabi to buy a table that had been distressed. It’s only wabi sabi when the scars, stains and cracks are authentic, the result of having been fully in the world. Wabi sabi is the beauty of a life lived. It is our stretch marks, our wrinkles, and all the rich living that caused them. It is appreciating what is and letting go of some false inauthentic ideal. It is not just accepting the wear and tear of aging, but celebrating its true authentic beauty.