The Bodhisattva Way and a Robe of Many Colors: Commenting on a Zen Koan

The Bodhisattva Way and a Robe of Many Colors: Commenting on a Zen Koan March 9, 2020



The Bodhisattva Way and a Robe of Many Colors
Commenting on a Zen Koan

James Ishmael Ford

The Case

Yunmen said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”

Gateless Gate, Case 16

I love this koan.

In some ways it reminds me of that anecdote that floats around our Zen communities. It regards an encounter between the respected Korean Zen missionary master Seung Sahn and the Tibetan master Kalu Rinpoche. I think the first published version was in Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without A Thinker.

Seung Sahn was fond of the Zen tradition of “dharma combat,” of pushing people to test their insight into the intimate way. While not my style as a teacher, not usually, but intimately a part of our way. As it happens dharma combat is used in Tibetan Buddhism, as well.

So, there was an opportunity for some cross-tradition Buddhist engagement. In that spirit the Korean master pulled an orange out of his sleeve, held it up for the Tibetan to see, and asked forcefully, “What is it?” The Tibetan didn’t answer. So, the Korean repeated, “What is it?”

Then the Tibetan leaned over to his translator and asked, “Don’t they have oranges in his country?”

We’re talking about something so simple it can seem like, of course. Of course.

And with that, so?

The bell rings. It’s time to begin. The monk puts on his robes.

Don’t they have bells where Yunmen comes from? Don’t they have rhythms to their lives, sleeping, eating, meditating, working, studying?

Not to forget how at the beginning there is an assertion. The world is vast. The world is wide. Master Yunmen is also the author of another koan collected in our tradition. There he asks his assembly about the time after our hearts awaken. What about that moment? And then provides his own response, “every day is a good day.”

Here the straightforward is both enough and not quite enough. You know there’s a lot packed into those few words. The days Yunmen knew were hard. War and famine swept the land, life was precarious, and in fact could end violently. So no simple nostrum of pretending all is well. Rather, here is an invitation.

And here we see it at the beginning. How wide, how mysterious, how sad, how beautiful this world is. This world. The real world.

And, then, the turning. That question.

In the West we have both ordained and lay practice. I have come to generally prefer householder over lay when speaking of Zen practitioners who are not ordained. There should be no hint of less than, as “lay” so often implies. As we sit each of us, monastic, priest, householder, throw their hearts into the moment, and investigate the mystery.

And when the bell rings the practitioner puts the robe of their vow on. Okesa. Rakusu. And for those without a robe of either sort, then what?

As our Western master Joko Beck once said, if you want to be a priest start acting like one. Just like this if you want to practice the Zen dharma start practicing the Zen dharma.

So for all of us. At that moment. When that bell rings, what do you do?

Now, the robe is also something to consider. If just for a few beats of the heart. The project allows us to consider the various strands that are coming together as an invitation.

In the Hebrew Bible there is a story of a favorite child who is given a robe of many colors. It leads to jealousy, and suffering, lots and lots of suffering, and then opens a door into a promised land. That robe.

The American country singer Dolly Parton once wrote a song.

Back through the years
I go wonderin’ once again
Back to the seasons of my youth
I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my momma put the rags to use
There were rags of many colors
Every piece was small
And I didn’t have a coat
And it was way down in the fall
Momma sewed the rags together
Sewin’ every piece with love
She made my coat of many colors
That I was so proud of

As she sewed, she told a story
From the Bible, she had read
About a coat of many colors
Joseph wore and then she said
Perhaps this coat will bring you
Good luck and happiness
And I just couldn’t wait to wear it
And momma blessed it with a kiss

My coat of many colors
That my momma made for me
Made only from rags
But I wore it so proudly
Although we had no money
I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

So with patches on my britches
And holes in both my shoes
In my coat of many colors
I hurried off to school
Just to find the others laughing
And making fun of me
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

And oh, I couldn’t understand it
For I felt I was rich
And I told ’em of the love
My momma sewed in every stitch
And I told ’em all the story
Momma told me while she sewed
And how my coat of many colors
Was worth more than all their clothes

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

That robe.

These days in Western Zen communities people frequently sew their own robes. It can be a long and hard process, and for some involving more than one needle prick along the way. People frequently recite sacred verses while sewing. All attempt to make it as much a meditative practice as when sitting on the pillow or walking in kinhin.

That robe.

And, there is another involved, all along the way. And one not to be ignored.

I’m much taken with the rise of importance of Guanyin in our Western Zen traditions. Guanyin as Avalokitesvara, the manifestation of compassion. For me pretty much always a she. Of course Guanyin can be any gender, or all. Or none. But, somehow for the most part, I find Guyanyin as mother. Not mother in the sense of a substitute for God the father. Merely the hint of our human life engaging and experiencing. A flavor. A sense that colors the experience of the encounter. Of my encounter.

So, mother, our mother. The mother who is the person sewing. The mother who brings the rags of our lives together. They say the Buddhas and ancestors serve another. That one. And.

That robe. We’re talking about something so simple it can seem like, of course. Of course. And with that, so?

And then from somewhere a bell rings.

In that moment. In this moment? The whole world presents. At that point a robe of seven stripes, a robe of five stripes, a robe of many colors.

The many robes. The one robe.

We just put it on.

And the fullness of our intimate way is revealed.



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