‘A messy, practical, beautiful type of perfection can be realized through a patient, faithful, dogged accumulation of the imperfect.’ — Rob Brezsny
A hand-sewn okesa, or Buddha’s robe, is a fine example of ‘a patient, faithful, dogged accumulation of the imperfect.’ I was taught the short strips represent delusion, the long ones enlightenment. It pleases me that this symbolism is skewed on the side of optimism. And that the strips are sewn together in a pattern representing the flow of water through a rice field.
I think the essential point is that delusion and enlightenment are tied together, that one flows into the other, and neither can exist without its complement. They aren’t opposites in the way we think of opposites, as things that negate or cancel each other, because enlightenment arises from and thanks to delusion, like the lotus rooted in muddy water. ‘Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.’ And since enlightenment is no more permanent than anything else, one moment’s enlightenment easily becomes the next’s delusion.
So how do we weave a coherent life? I finished sewing my okesa on Epiphany six years ago. I’d started it on New Year’s Day the year before. Unlike many priests-to-be and unlike the spirit with which I approach most things, I never worried about when it would be finished.
I trusted that whenever the moment came, it would be in time. Each stitch was a liberation from expectation and from time, much like zazen — sitting just to sit, not to get anywhere, not to be “done”. I had faith that eventually the stitches would add up to something that would hold.
Another unusual attitude for me was that I let the stitches be as they were — crooked, uneven, however they manifested themselves. I never went back and removed a stitch to improve it. I felt the stitches had their own integrity and were inviolable like moments flowing in a single direction — if I didn’t like how one turned out, I could try to do the next differently, but I had to accept what had already come.
At my first dharma talk after moving to Tassajara, the teacher characterized zen as a practice of acceptance. I surprised myself by raising my hand and objecting, “I thought zen was a practice of transformation.” The teacher smiled and said, “Yes. And transformation happens through acceptance.”
A dozen years later, I’m still grappling with this statement and its ramifications. Obviously, on the simplest level, one can’t hope to change something without first acknowledging its existence. But I suspect more is meant by the zen practice of acceptance. What is this?
All my life I’ve been driven by the desire to change myself and the world. I’m inspired by forward motion and growth. I don’t have much tolerance for denial or passivity or anything that feels like stagnation.
I support acceptance in the sense of seeing clearly and admitting, “This is the reality; this is what’s happening.” But if zen asks us to add, “And it’s okay,” that’s where I balk. Because a lot of things are in no way okay. It’s not okay that the United States will soon be presided over by a misogynistic racist. It’s not okay that a minority of people amass ridiculous amounts of wealth by contributing little to society, while others starve and freeze in the street. It’s not okay that human beings around the world suffer torture and genocide at the hands of corrupt governments and guerrilla groups.
The list of things that are not okay is a long one. What does transformation through acceptance mean in the face of these things? How does it work? And where do we find the faith to lay stitch after stitch in a pattern we can believe in?