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True Zen Teachings

The Kesa

Teisho by Kodo Sawaki Roshi

Drizzle and dew, mist and clouds
cover our bodies.


This garment is the kesa.

We saw earlier that Buddha nature is the pearl of defenses. We now learn that it is also the kesa.

One day an unsui asked me the meaning of the kesa. When I replied, "The kesa is something which is not clear," he looked at me as though I were talking rubbish. But the kesa truly is something indefinite, both in its muted color (the indefinable color of ruins or rags) and in its measurements that obey no exact rules. Its color and measurements have no outward appearance. For this reason it has been called the garment of the rice-field of unlimited happiness.

It is said that Shakyamuni's kesa measured ten foot one inch, and that of Maitreya one thousand feet. It is neither large nor small, but without appearance. It really is very odd.

The kesa is the symbol of the substance of the Buddha's Law, the garment of "drizzle and dew, mist and clouds." Heaven and earth, the entire universe, are one single kesa. No world exists outside of the kesa. We do not fall into hell or rise up to heaven-we go nowhere, we come from nowhere. There is only one kesa. The towns of Kyoto and Nara were laid out in the pattern of a kesa. "Drizzle and dew, mist and clouds cover our bodies." We owe it to ourselves to wear the kesa.

Prince Shotuku, who introduced Buddhism to Japan, wore the kesa to run the affairs of state and to comment on the three Mahayana sutras. The emperor Shomu also wore it for governing. Generations of emperors have had faith in the kesa. It was the same in the world of warriors: Kikuchi Taketoki, Takeda Shingen and Uesegi Kenshin all benefited from the infinite virtues of the kesa. Wearing the kesa and transmitting the kesa is the supreme happiness of mankind.

People who think this is just a load of narrow formalism are the playthings of their bad karma. But those who rejoice in wearing the kesa have their full share of happiness.

The great happiness that the kesa brings from the entire universe was best expressed by Daichi Zenji:

I am happy in my kesa,
Calmly I possess the universe.
I stay or leave as it wishes.
The pure breeze drives the white clouds.


And in another poem:

Wherever it goes,
The snail is at home when it dies.
There is no world outside the kesa.


When "Drizzle and dew, mist and clouds cover our bodies" we are calm and unworried. By wearing the kesa, we find peace of both mind and body.

Source: Bulletin Zen No. 65. AZI Paris. Assembled by Raphaël Triet.


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