Many weeks in our Vashon Island workshop, Lidunn handcrafts beautiful rakusu. In this case from a few years back, she re-purposed a Japanese obi into a custom rakusu for a customer. A shortened version of Buddha’s robe, the rakusu is a symbolic garment worn by Buddhist practitioners. Its form has evolved over centuries, incorporating elements from various traditions as it’s made its way across geography and time.
Each element of the rakusu has a story. The many individual panels recall robes in Buddha’s time, when mendicants scavenged used pieces of fabric, even burial cloth, to make their clothing. The straight lines and right angles resemble cultivated fields, and the wooden ring is a nod to how Chinese monks fastened their robes to keep their arms free for physical labor. Today’s rakusu is most visibly linked to the Zen traditions from Japan.
Buddhist practitioners may begin wearing a rakusu to mark a milestone, such as receiving the precepts in a ceremony called jukai, or becoming a teacher. One’s lineage can inform certain aspects of the rakusu: Rinzai and Soto traditions each determine the number of strips of cloth, the pattern, and the color of the back panel. On the back of the collar of the rakusu there is an identifying embroidered stitch that represents each of the existing schools of Zen. The Soto school uses a broken pine needle design, the Rinzai school a mountain-shaped triangle.
After receiving the rakusu, it becomes part of the ordained Buddhist’s robes, serving as a tactile reminder of one’s lineage and devotion.
Some practitioners sew their own rakusu, perhaps taking weeks to complete the task. They may also choose to request help from a seamstress experienced in crafting Buddhist garments, like Lidunn.
Lidunn started work on this obi by looking closely at the fabric’s print, color, and texture to see what patterns emerged organically, and how to make it fit the traditional Rinzai layout. Next, she cut the fabric into individual pieces and ironed. Her advice to practitioners doing it themselves? “Always iron. It makes life so much easier.”
Once each piece was set according to pattern, Lidunn sewed them into place. It’s meticulous, challenging work, each rakusu is a puzzle to be solved. “It requires precision. And working with a fabric like this is very special.”
Lidunn made her first rakusu for her own ordination at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in 1999. Since then, she has made countless rakusu for practitioners all over the world.
At Still Sitting, we make each bespoke rakusu individually, so practitioners may choose one of our fabrics, or send in a fabric or a ring of their choosing. For more information, write to us at email@example.com