These are writings from my research into the Zen Refuge Ceremony, known in Japanese as Jukai, and the sewing of the Rakusu, which is the symbolic abbreviation of the kesa or Buddha-robe given to lay students in the Zen Refuge Ceremony. 



It was mentioned in our Refuge Class that some Soto rakusus don’t have rings.  The older tradition of rakusus has a ring, though the ring itself is not really functional on the rakusu but is emblematic of the functional ring on the full-length kesa which holds the kesa over one shoulder.  Both Soto and Rinzai Zen lineages have the rings in their traditional rakusus.

However, there is an interesting development of a newer tradition in some Soto zen groups, both in the U.S.A. as well as in Japan, following the teachings of Sawaki Kodo Roshi (1898-1965) a Soto Zen Master and well known Dogen scholar and zazen "reformer" in Japan; these groups sew their rakusus without rings.

For an informative academic study of the fukudenkai movement and the history of the sewing of kesas and rakusus from the Soto perspective, see the 45 page  "Fukudenkai - Sewing the Buddha's Robe in Contemporary Japanese Buddhist Practice" by Diane E. Riggs, written when she was a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Sawaki Roshi was reacting against the Soto religious administration which had established the official sewing instructions for kesas, rakusus, robes, etc., and issued licenses to manufacturers to sew the robes officially for selling them to the Soto priests and lay people.  Sawaki thought that this exclusivity was a form of highway robbery and also that it was a perversion of both the teaching and the traditional practice of sewing one's own.  He started a movement to return Soto people to sewing their own rakusus and robes. He called the groups fukudenkai, which means "field of merit groups" referring in a double entendre to the and the field that is seen in the pattern of the rakusu and kesa which gives them the nickname "field of merit," and also to the field of merit cultivated by sewing the rakusu and kesa oneself.

Riggs writes, "These groups are a small but growing movement among lay people and priests to reconnect to aspects of traditional Buddhist practices such as sewing one's own robe and practicing meditation."  The kesas cost hundreds to thousands of dollars each. Riggs also points out, "The clergy order by phone and have little if any direct contact with the robe maker, nor can they alter the design of the robe or ask for alternate fabrics as the Sõtõ Zen organization (Soto Shumucho) has established strict guidelines for the robe makers.  Fukudenkai groups present an alternative to the commercial relationship to robes that the Sõtõ organization recommends."

Basing his view on Dogen's writings, Sawaki Roshi's teaching emphasized that the kesas and rakusus were themselves foci of faith just as much as the Buddhist teachings were.  Sawaki Roshi emphasized that when Dogen spoke about the particulars of the robes that he added the proviso that the true robe is without set boundaries and is not limited to a particular form. This was of course a reference to the "Verse of the Kesa" which says,

Vast is the robe of freedom,
A limitless field of blessing.
Wearing the Tathagata teaching,
Saves all living beings.

PZI translation:
This is the robe of freedom
the bare field, the blessings.
I receive the Tathagata's teaching
which wakes all beings.

Sawaki Roshi's decision to learn more about the design and making of the robes was stimulated by an encounter with two nuns of the Shingon sect.  These nun's robes closely resembled his old teacher's robes, and he asked them where there robes came from. They informed him they had sown them from patterns in the line of the Shingon teacher Jiun Onkõ (1718-1804).  This began Sawaki's studies into the history and traditions of the kesa.  Sawaki came to be well known for his mottos about the importance of the Buddhist robe, "Shave the head, wear the robe, that's all"; and "my school is the robe school."

Sawaki's lectures inspired first nuns and then priests and eventually lay people to join together in the fukudenkai sewing groups.  The fukudenkai groups typically meet twice a year in sesshin to do sewing practice as part of the sesshin. The first period of the day is for zazen but the later periods are sewing and dharma talks.  There are also adjunct fukudenkai of lay people who meet more regularly with a more social emphasis.  Riggs says, "In present day Sõtõ these fukudenkai  groups have been allowed to continue, but the Sõtõ headquarters insists that priests attending ceremonies at the main temples of Eiheiji and Sõjiji must wear robes bought at commercial robe retail stores that have been made according to official regulations."

When it is said that the Soto people do not use rings in their rakusus it is the fukudenkai groups and the Soto sanghas that learned from them that do not use the rings.  The officially licensed rakusus of the Soto sect still do have the rings.  San Francisco Zen Center is an American Soto group that usually does not have the rings in their rakusus.  One can see Shunryu Suzuki's ringed rakusu in a photo in David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber" showing Suzuki leaving the airport in Japan in 1959.   It was not until Katagiri Roshi (then Katagiri Sensei) suggested the sewing of kesas and rakusus at San Francisco Zen Center that Suzuki Roshi accepted the idea and that fukudenkai people, including
Yoshida Roshi, came and gave instructions there about sewing rakusus.  Teachers in Katagiri Roshi’s lineage usually do not have the rings.


I have not heard of any Rinzai sanghas not using the ring in the rakusu.

In the fukudenkai groups a favorite expression of the teacher or older members to the newcomer is "stitch by stitch, sew with heart" (hito hari hito hari kokoro o komete). Doesn’t this apply to every day, step by step, breath by breath?




I came across a very interesting monograph titled "Precept Practice and Theory in Sōtō Zen" by David E. Riggs.
(I don't know if he is related to Diane Riggs who wrote about the Fukudenkai sewing of rakusus.)

In this paper David Riggs discusses the history of precept ceremonies in Soto Zen and compares the Obaku precepts 8-day assemblies brought to Japan in the 17th Century where hundreds attended and how that affected the Soto theorizing about the precepts ceremony. He also presents a description of a modern 5-day precept ceremony at Eheiji one of the two main Soto temples.

Among some of the more intriguing things he mentions is that in both the past and modern precepts assemblies in traditional Soto temples they give precepts to deceased people.  This practice of ordaining dead people seems to be derived from the tradition when Soto Zen monks would domesticate spirits by giving them the precepts.

Riggs writes,


"From the fourteenth century, there are frequent notices of Sōtō monks pacifying and converting local kami and spirits by administering the
precepts to them (Bodiford 1993-1994; 1993, 173-79). The local spirit was understood to be converted by the power of the precepts and would then become a supporter of Buddhism, which provided a way of including the prior powers in the new order. Such tales often formed a crucial part of the conversion of a pre-existing temple of another Buddhist affiliation to a Sōtō lineage temple."

I like that they didn't kill the kami spirits or drive them away but gave them the precepts.

Riggs presents some history on the controversy of which list of precepts to use and the manner in which the Soto eventually adopted the 16 precepts, in part as a way of distinguishing themselves from the Obaku sect or other Buddhist schools. The Soto officialdom created a legendary history about Dogen bringing the 16 precepts from China with a direct transmission going all the way back to Buddha thus making the 250 precepts superfluous.  Actually Dogen had been a Tendai Buddhist practicing its form of meditation before he studied under Eisai's Zen and then went to China.  The Japanese Tendai founder Saicho in the 9th Century about 300 years earlier had already gotten approval from the emperor to ordain Tendai monks with a simplified precepts model using the 10 Boddhisattva Vows from the Brahma's Net Sutra.  So Dogen didn't invent the idea of using a simplified precept model, nor did he simply adopt it from China. His creative contribution was in how he adapted what he found to his vision of complete unity.

Riggs writes,


"The precepts used in Sōtō Zen are related to the precepts used by the Tendai school of Japanese Buddhism, but the exact form and
arrangement apparently originate with Dōgen (Bodiford 1993, 169-73; Faure 1996, 55-57). Modern Japanese Sōtō Zen has settled on the view that Dōgen brought back with him from China this true Zen set of only sixteen precepts, which are traced back to Bodhidharma and the Buddha himself, and that these make the other kind of precepts (such as the full 250 precepts) irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, this is a historically untenable view, and this fact was clearly understood by the Sōtō clerics taking part in the Edo period controversies . The same scholar-monks who were carefully sifting textual evidence that showed that Chinese Ch'an monks were taking the same precepts and ordinations as anyone else were also involved in the Sōtō polemics to establish the correctness and superiority of the special Dōgen precepts, received in a direct line from the Chinese teacher Ju-ching."

In 13th Century China when Dogen sojourned there the Ch'an monks of all schools took the full traditional 250 precepts of the Vinaya for ordination as the legally official state recognized ordination. Since they were Mahayana too, the Chinese Buddhists also held Bodhisattva precept ceremonies after official precept ceremonies with the Mahayana attitude but these precepts were not for "official" ordination as much as renewal of vows emphasizing compassion and universal salvation, instead of the details of monastic life, that were suitable for both monastic and lay people. In fact this was the full precept model that Eisai returned with from China a few decades before Dogen's trip.  There was no official standard list of these extra Mahayana vows, but the most common was the list of ten major and forty-eight minor precepts as found in the Brahmā’s Net Sūtra. Riggs tells us that these precepts were taken along with other standard Buddhist expressions of devotion such as the three refuges, the three pure precepts, and ritual repentances, such as the Formless Repentance found in the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng.

It looks to me that Dogen returned from China with this information about the extra Mahayana precepts and combined it with his previous Tendai
ordination knowledge and created the 16 precepts version he wrote in his "Jukai" fascicle of the Shobogenzo.

When a new wave of Chinese Obaku Zen monks came to Nagasaki Japan in the Tokugawa period of the 17th Century they brought with them the traditional 250 precepts followed by the 10 Boddhisattva vows and 48 minor vows of the Brahma's Net Sutra and this stimulated discussion about what was the "real" Mahayana tradition of receiving precepts.  Some Soto adherents had interests in other traditions, or even doubts about their own tradition, and personally received the Obaku precept ordinations in the multi-day great assemblies. Other Soto followers were adamant that their Soto way of doing the 16 precepts was "real" tradition and fought the more extended precepts in the Obaku ceremonies.

One outcome of this controversy was the renewed interest in Dogen as the founder of Japanese Soto because his Jukai and related essays became the basis for Soto orthodoxy to assert its position.   Added to the controversy around the historicity of Dogen's 16 precepts was the question of what was actually happening to the person being ordained with the precept ceremony.  Was the ordinand merely adopting the Buddha Way and thereby vowing to live accordingly by receiving the precepts, or was something else going on?  As Dogen wrote, the precepts themselves were Zen and receiving the precepts meant receiving Zen which meant receiving enlightenment and becoming Buddha right then.  This mystical approach to the precepts is much like the controversy in the Catholic church around communion and whether receiving communion mystically brought communion with Jesus.

In the Chinese Buddhist mainstream view, including that of Eisai's, the precepts are an all-important part, but only a part, of Buddhist practice.
They are one of the three fundamentals of Buddhism: precepts (sila), meditation (dhyana-samadhi), and wisdom (prajna).  As Hui-neng said in the Platform Sutra, meditation and wisdom don't function together without an attitude of precepts: "For those whose tongue is ready with good words but whose heart is impure, Samadhi and Prajna are useless, because they do not balance each other . On the other hand, when we are good in mind as well as in words, and when our outward appearance and our inner feelings harmonize with each other, then it is a case of equilibrium of Samadhi and Prajna."

The other view that was based on Dogen's writings (as well as being similar to the Tendai view) was that receiving the precepts in some sense completes practice, rather than beginning practice as an initiation.  The Tendai of Dogen's time said that receiving the precepts was even a way to immediately realize Buddhahood, even a way superior to meditation. Apparently Dogen's contemporary the celebrated Rinzai monk Kokan Shiren虎關師錬 (1278-1346) also held this view, not following the teaching of Eisai.  Though Dogen of course did not place precepts above zazen, he wrote that zen and the precepts were a unity.

In the Tokugawa period with the influx of Chinese Obaku monks the controversy about the nature of the precepts heated up again.  The Soto
priest Menzan (18th Century) took a position (closer to Eisai) that no matter how important it was to take the precepts, the taking was a
confirmation of practice, not its completion, and one of the three legs of Buddhism along with meditation and wisdom. Though mainstream at the time, eventually Menzan's view did not prevail in Soto inner circles of orthodoxy, and based on Dogen's idea of complete unity of zen and precepts, the Soto practice developed of saying that when one received the precepts one became a Buddha.

In the modern precepts ceremonies of the Soto at Eiheiji, those newly ordained with the precepts step up in groups to the center of the altar
platform. Riggs then describes the scene in which "the main teachers of the ceremony circumambulate each group while shaking their staff and chanting that we have entered the rank of the Buddhas, a position equal to that of the great awakening."

Riggs ends his review with comments on the precepts ceremony at San Francisco Zen Center following the teaching of Shunryu Suzuki. He points out that Suzuki expressed the traditional Soto view of the unity of zen and precepts as Suzuki said,  "Zen precepts means to understand zazen. So another interpretation of zazen is precepts." But he also points out that there is no provision for mounting the altar or giving precepts to the deceased.

Riggs concludes with some interesting comments about the Zen Center precepts: "In this aspect the American Sōtō style is much closer to the
practice advocated by Menzan and other more mainstream thinkers of the Tokugawa. The belief that we are already Buddha is acknowledged in the beginning of the ceremony with the phrase 'In faith that we are Buddha we enter Buddha's Way', but the focus is on the meaning of the precepts and on how to follow them."

I see Hui-Neng's teaching as the common root of the two views. Hui-Neng said, "For ordinary man is Buddha, and delusion (klesa) is awakening
(bodhi). A foolish passing thought makes one an ordinary man, while an enlightened thought makes one a Buddha."   This shows that when one says "the precepts and Zen are a unity" or that by receiving the precepts one "attains Buddhahood," it is not some mystical transubstantiation that is happening. It is simply that ordinary people are Buddha, and Buddha is an ordinary person, and receiving the precepts does not change this or add to this or diminish this. Receiving the precepts awakens us to this, and to that extent receiving the precepts is awakening.  But if we then in the next "foolish passing thought" forget the precepts then we are again ordinary unenlightened beings.

One item of the Soto precepts assembly that Riggs describes is interesting in this regard. At one point in the ceremony each ordinand receives a little slip of paper upon which is written, "minor infractions are endless" (shōzai muryō小罪無量).  They then hand this over to the Abbot one
by one as an acknowledgement that our ability (or inability) to keep the precepts is most human.  The Abbot then supervises the burning of the slips and names in a registry in a fire and states "with his full authority, that those transgressions have been consumed in this fire."

While I think that the literalization of burning up transgressions by putting slips of paper in a fire has the odor of magic to it, the living meaning of the symbology is very potent.   Between the complacency of faith and the despondency of doubt is the practice of precepts.  The endless "muryo" in the phrase "minor infractions are endless" is the same "muryo" in the line "ho mon mu ryo sei gan do" that is chanted in the four vows when vowing to pass through endless dharma gates.  To me this is the "mystery" of endlessness that occurs in receiving the precepts.  On the one hand it is acknowledgement that we can't help but fall into the polarities of endless transgressions, and on the other hand it is recognition that endlessly "every day is a good day."


There are several famous stanzas of the Dhammapada and among the most well known are the lines that gave us the three pure precepts in stanza 183: 


To refrain from evil,

To do good,

To purify the mind,

This is the teaching of all the Buddhas


In Pali:


Sabbapapassa akaranam,

Kusalassa upasampada,


Etam buddhana sasanam.


I’ve been chewing on the usual translations and several others (see the eight variations in the end note below) and have gone back to the Sanskrit to see what I see.  I’ve come up with this version keeping the grammar of the original. (See below for my final version.)


The not doing of all wrongdoing,

Feet together on the good,

The complete clarifying of one’s heart-mind,

This, the teaching of Awakened-Ones.


I have translated upasampada as “feet (pada) together (sam) on (upa)” using the roots of the word.  Upa communicates a sense of nearness, with the idea of “approach from below” or “to rest on top.”  The more usual translation of upasampada would be “taking upon oneself” or “undertaking,” as for example “undertaking the good.” In Buddhism, upasampada is the technical term for the act of entering the order of  bhikkhus, i.e., ordination, or putting both feet together on or under the dharma.  A freer translation of “feet together on the good” could be “standing firmly on the good.” But I like the simple imagery of “feet together” which means that one is not straddling the line with one foot on each side but is committed with both feet together.The English idiom is to jump in with both feet.  I feel that the image of “feet together” creates the sense of standing or walking with both feet on the way of the good.


Sa before citta indicates the third-person pronoun “one’s” as in one’s heart.  Citta can mean heart or mind, intention or attention, and thinking, reflecting, or imagining.  It is definitely a word with open connotations. 


I have translated pariyodapanam as “the complete clarification” instead of the usual “to purify,” “cleansing,” or “purification.”  Pari is a prefix meaning “around,” “round about,” “all around,” or “completely altogether.”  Vodapana means cleansing or purification or making clear.  When pari and vodapana combine the “v” becomes a “y.” The suffix “m” makes it into a noun and adds a “the” in some cases.  Pariyodapanam thus means “the all around cleansing,” “the completely altogether purification,” or “the all around clarification.”  Vodapana is a form of the combination of vi+ava+dayati.  Vi is a prefix used to mean spreading out or away, or separation, or as an intensifier as in “very.” Ava is a prefix meaning “low” or “down”(e.g., avasura is sundown) or “away from”or “opposite of” as in the Latin “ab.”  Ava can change to avo in certain instances so the combination of vi+ava becomes vo.  Dayati means to mow, cut down, or reap, and becomes the form dapana when combined with vo to form vodapana which literally connotes an intense cutting down, thus cleansing or purification as an intense cutting out or mowing down of impurities or attachments. There are several forms of the word such as vodapeti, vodana, vodaniya, vodayati,and vodapana which all share the meaning to become clean or clear, to be purified or cleansed. The clearing aspect is described as “getting bright” as when the sun and moon are no longer obscured by clouds.  


In the Buddhist context pariyodapana is referring to the cutting down or clearing away of kilesa (Sanskrit klesa), the stains, soil, impurities, troubles, afflictions, pains, distresses, etc., of living. In Buddhism there are several outlines of kilesa or klesa, including the Five Mental Hindrances [note 2] and the Ten Impure Deeds [note 3] which our Ten Grave Precepts are vowing not to engage in.  In pariyodapana the clouds or obstructions of the mind are cleared away or cut down all around and completely together so that the clear bright light shines without impurity or .  Not employing the troubles of klesa in our daily life is what is meant by purification and all around clarity.


Buddhana is the plural of buddha and so means that all buddhas, i.e, every awakened one, teach this truth, not just Shakyamuni.                


The “m” at the end of the first, third, and fourth lines makes the verbs into nouns and in English adds a “the” in each of those lines.  To remove the “the” in favor of a more free flowing and readable translation which emphasizes the verb forms rather than the noun forms I have rendered the stanza in this way:


Not doing all wrong doing,

Feet together on the good,

Completely clarifying one’s heart-mind,

This, Awakened-Ones teach.


~~ End notes


[1.] Here are eight variations of Verse 183 of the Dhammapada I have found:


To cease from all evil,

to cultivate good,

to purify one's mind:

This is the advice of all Buddhas.


To abstain from all evil,

the practice of good,

and the thorough purification of one's mind __

this is the teaching of the Buddhas.


Abstention from all evil,

the doing of good deeds,

and the purification of the mind,

is the admonition of the Enlightened Ones.


The non_doing of any evil,

the performance of what's skillful,

the cleansing of one's own mind:

this is the teaching of the Awakened.


Not to commit any sin,

to do good,

and to purify one's mind,

that is the teaching of the Awakened.


 Not to commit any sin,

to do good,

and to purify one's mind,

that is the teaching of (all) the Awakened.


Not to do wrong,

to do good,

and to purify one's mind,

that is the teaching of the awakened ones.


Every evil never doing

and in wholesomeness increasing

and one’s heart well_purifying:

this is the Buddha’s Teaching.


[2.] The Five Mental Hindrances are 1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda) or unrestrained covetousness, 2. Ill_will (byapada), 3. Sloth and torpor (thina_middha), 4. Restlessness and remorse (uddhacca_kukkucca), and 5. Skeptical doubt (vicikiccha).


[3.] The Ten Impure Deeds are three of the body, (1) murder, (2) theft, and (3) sex abuse, four of speech, (4) lying, (5) slander, (6) blaming, and (7) selfish conversation, and three of the mind, (8) covetousness, (9) malice, and (10) scepticism.


[4.]   Links to Rakusu related websites:


Rakusu pattern in PDF file:


Rakusu rings online:


Rakusu pouches online:





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This page last edited September 19, 2005.