During sesshin, we spend about 1.5 hours each day doing "work practice". The question becomes, how can I continue my mind of zazen while engaged in activity. Also, we need to do certain tasks to keep the place running - there are bathroom to clean and vegetables to chop - so it is a beautiful melding of practical necessity and practice. I freely confess that I love work practice, even when my job is shoveling shit (ok, it is really just compost), as it sometimes has been. For me, the bareness of the silence and stillness in zazen is far more challenging than being present while I slice up apples for the next morning's breakfast. Often my work practice seems more about letting go of work practice and my opinions about it - how I look forward to it and how I wish it would last just a bit longer. I even have had thoughts like, "we should have a sesshin that is all work practice!" until I realized that sesshin that is all work practice also could be called ordinary life.
This past week, however, my job was to learn how to make a student robe. I had essentially one pattern piece for the top of the robe and a closet of existing robes in various sizes as my guide. It was a little like showing someone a picture of a house and giving them a pile of lumber and saying, ok, now make a house!
At first glance, it was an impossible task. I had the measurements of two new students-to-be so this exercise was not just theoretical; real people will be wearing these robes for as long as they are students. But, you know, no pressure. I definitely spent the first day somewhat overwhelmed with the task. Then I took a deep breath and thought about how even the most complicated project (oh, say, like, you know, realizing one's own true nature perhaps?) is really just a series of steps taken one at a time. How could it be anything else? So, I thought about what I did know, what I needed to figure out and what the first step needed to be. And that told me what the next step needed to be. And so a conversation began between me and the fabric that wanted to be a robe.
This conversation was not all easy nor pleasant. The reality of fabric and thread isn't quite as smooth and simple as the idea of it, so I ended up tearing out almost every single seam I stitched in. But I learned a lot. And yes, I did wish I could have kept working each day. And yes, I did spend some time during zazen thinking about what I needed to do next and surreptitiously checking out the robes of the people sitting around me. Why does she have six little pleats in back and he has only four? There were so many questions to be asked.
By the end of sesshin, I had most of the top of a robe completed and all the pieces cut. More than that, I actually had a pretty clear sense of the order of things and the robe, that looked so impenetrably complex on Wednesday morning seemed much, much simpler by Sunday morning. But as I sewed and ripped out and sewed and ripped out, I began to wonder about the person who would receive this particular robe. He will be wearing all my mistakes - mistakes that were corrected! - but still. What will his practice be like in that robe? Was I stitching in good jou-jou - patience, perseverance, and a good dose of humility? Or was I guaranteeing that his practice will just be one mistake after another?
I guess it will be up to him. Meanwhile, I will definitely be (secretly) keeping an eye on him to see how it goes.