The Punk Rakusu (Part 1)
The Making of a Traditional Rakusu
In March 2020, as the word “pandemic” was entering the common vernacular, the chaplaincy programme I was enrolled in rushed to move all our classes online. We had been meant to gather in person for a week, but as news of cancelled festivals and conferences refunding tickets spread around the Internet, the faculty for our chaplaincy training made the difficult (and ultimately best) decision to tell everyone to stay home.
This announcement came only seven days before our in-person intensive was meant to start. Seven days to cancel travel plans and re-orient ourselves to being in class from our homes. Seven days to figure out navigating classes from whatever timezone we were in to the mountain time of the Upaya Zen centre.
It wasn’t just classes that would be online. My cohort had also prepared for our Jukai ceremony, a taking of vows particular to Zen Buddhism. Jukai was unlike any other vow preparation I had undertaken. Where my initial refuge and Bodhisattva vows were proceeded by a pilgrimage from London, UK, to Boulder, U.S.A. and my Shambhala vow was proceeded by a set number of classes, Jukai preparation was one of mindful presence and creativity. There was the writing of lineages on large pieces of mock parchment, one with a very strict structure and the other with allowances for artistic embellishments. There was the 100% self-directed creative expression of our personal lineages, and the creative writing and reflection on the precepts. And finally, there was the hand stitched rakusu, a miniature homage to Buddhist robes said to have been born from a time when monks faced violent persecution and wanted a representation of robes that could be worn under laypeople clothing.
Making a rakusu is a deeply personal process that also follows a clear pattern and structure. To an untrained eye these rectangles of cloth may look identical, but for anyone who has committed to the many hours it takes to stitch together the field pattern, you know that no two could possibly be alike. Imperfect stitches, slight miscuts, and chosen personal touches adorn every rakusu there is, capturing the practitioner who made it as much as the community they made it with and the teacher who ultimately puts their seal to it.
My rakusu is notable in various ways, albeit not just because of the subtle errors. Rather than being solid black, I chose to make one of the two straps that go around the neck out of rainbow material, similar to when Christian practitioners don a rainbow stole. In many Buddhist settings, particularly Zen ones, people arrive in silence; I wanted a definitively clear signal of my queerness incorporated into my rakusu for other queer folk to recognise. I was also cheekily challenging the misunderstanding of oneness as sameness that I’ve encountered far too often in various Buddhist communities I’ve participated with.
The last time my cohort would gather in person was when we began the months long process of hand stitching our rakusus. It was also when we prepared all the materials, including choosing the wooden ring that would tie one of the neck straps to the stitched field. A local wood worker provided rings for my cohort to select, but I chose instead to see if my dad could make the ring for mine.
Both of my parents are extremely creative. My mum is a talented ceramic painter, fibre artist, and scrapbooker while my dad’s wheelhouse includes sketching, photography, and wood working. I sent him some photos of what the rings look like, along with a blog I found describing the size of the ring and its purpose as a representation of wholeness and interconnectedness.
My dad was excited at the prospect and in a few months time presented me with a ring made of two different pieces of wood. One half was made from a red wood that gleamed dark and rich. The other half was a blonde wood, made out of a salvaged piece of lumber from the house in which I had been born, raised, and married.
Incorporating this ring of wood, as well as the rainbow strap, into my rakusu was a way to infuse it with both my family lineage and the lineage of queer liberation. Tying that ring on was the final task, but the rakusu is not complete until it’s received the seal of the person with whom the student is taking Jukai.
The finished rakusu came to me in the post in preparation for the ceremony that would soon be held online. I did not open it until the day of the ceremony, and therefore did not get to see the complete work of art until that day.
While my rakusu is a beautiful collaborative piece of art, it remains something of a novelty. As a Buddhist I have most often practiced in communities influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, specifically with teachers and students in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages. Zen lineages and practices may be familiar to me, but I’ve never felt at home with a Zen community the way I have with Tibetan Buddhist communities. I am more inclined to wear my kata scarf than my rakusu when attending a Buddhist ceremony of any kind.
Still, I appreciated the practice of creating a rakusu. As with making Thangka art, the process is mindful, present, and grounding. It is a way of cultivating awareness and being precise about why we are on this path and what this path is for.
It is little wonder that not so long after hand stitching a rakusu, I found a love of embroidery and embarked on a new project. A project my unicorn ultimately dubbed my “Punk Rakusu.”
The Blog of KSCHatch is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.