http://www.UrbanDharma.org ...Buddhism for Urban America


The Urban Dharma Newsletter... September 2, 2003


In This Issue:

1. Ritual loom: Weaving, cutting, dying, sewing.
2. Inheritance
3. No Dog Collars Allowed: A Justification of the Western Clergy Collar ...
Father Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.
4. Temple/Center/Website- of the Week:
Zen Meditation Groups in the California Central Valley
5. Book/Movie Review: My Master's Robe: Memories of a Novice Monk
...by Thich Nhat Hanh


1. Ritual loom: Weaving, cutting, dying, sewing.


In a remote part of the Thai Kingdom, a group is keeping alive an almost-extinct tradition. ...Phatarawadee Phataranawik from The Nation Newspaper reports.

In a remote village in northern Thailand, Mae Ui Jai carefully checks to make sure her weaving machine is in good condition. She will be weaving cotton into robes for monks in the Kathin Laen ceremony this weekend, an event she looks forward to each year.

Throughout their lives, Mae Ui - which means grandmother in northern dialect - and her neighbours in Baan Yang Luang, in Chiang Mai's Mae Chaem have been practising and keeping alive this almost extinct religious tradition, which is popularly known as Chula Kathin.

The annual ceremony is held to celebrate the conclusion of Buddhist Lent, when monks, after having stayed in their temples during the three months of rainy season, are free to travel again.

Chula means "a little", and reflects the Buddhist belief that sharing and caring in even small doses is beneficial and should be encouraged. It also reflects how during Chula Kathin, small pieces of newly made fabric will be cut and then sewn together into the five main pieces of clothing worn by a monk.

"The ceremony is a very important religious tradition that requires strong faith because it takes a whole day to complete the merit making," explains Paothong Thongchua, deputy director for Arts and Culture at the Thai Khadi Research Institute, which studies and help preserve Thai traditions with the support of Thammasat University.

Though Chula Kathin takes place on just one 24-hour period, the preparation is lengthy. The six-month process begins by planting specially chosen cotton seeds, and carefully tending the plants into which they grow. The procedure and ceremony are based on the story in which the Lord Buddha performs the humble task of preparing robes by hand for his monks.

In the contemporary Thai version of the practice, jackfruits are used to stain the fabric the distinctive yellow-orange colour of Buddhist robes. After they are woven, the fabric is dyed, cut, sewn, and ironed carefully before being presented to the monks.

Thai villagers traditionally went to such lengths in making the robes to honour the monks and their sacrifice of confining themselves to their temples for focusing on spiritual growth during rainy season. The ceremony also honours the teachings of the faith and supports the good deeds of the monks.

But in today's modern consumer society, its hardly surprising that many find themselves without the great amounts of time needed to prepare robes for the ceremony.

From years of research in Baan Yang Luang and other villages, Paothong has come to understand more about why this once popular tradition has fallen out of favour, and credits the unprecedented social and economic restructuring of Thai society over the last century and a half with the decline.

The young women who traditionally made the robes now leave their villages to find work in larger cities. He also says a declining faith in Buddhism is partially responsible. Ritualistic items needed for Buddhist ceremonies are easily bought in stores these days.

"The tradition of weaving monk robes for Chula Kathin decreased sharply during the reigns of King Rama IV and V with the ascendance of many religion-related industries," says the researcher. "Merit making became easier and less time-consuming. Convenience has replaced tradition.

"When I first visited the village over decade ago, the Chula Kathin ceremony had disappeared from the community. Wat Yang Luang then only had a few monks, and only four families in the village were still weaving. After my personal study and learning from the old generation and monks about the ceremony for many years, I helped reintroduce this tradition to Wat Yang Luang 12 years ago," recalls Paothong, who has his summer house in the village. He also works closely with weavers in the village in order to preserve skills and techniques called upon in the ceremony.

To celebrate the centenary of the birth of the late Princess Mother this month, the Thai Khadi Institute is helping organise an even more elaborate Kathin ceremony. On Saturday and Sunday, weavers will use one hundred looms to create what will ultimately be one special piece of 20-metre-long cloth. Since the small Baan Yang Luang does not have enough looms, villagers from over 20 villages, including members of a nearby Lue hill tribe community, will bring their looms for this special Buddhist ceremony.

The ceremony will start after the monks take their mid-day meal on Saturday, and runs for the next 24 hours until mid-day Sunday. The ceremony starts with weavers gathering in the main hall of the temple to pray that they will be able to complete the robes in one day. Then seven young girls, representing angels, will collect the harvested cotton from villagers, and present the cotton to seven veteran female weavers of the village.

On Saturday afternoon, the weaving begins, accompanied by dancing and drum beating in a parade, the highlight of which is the waving of paper-made flags, in the tradition of Lanna villages in the area. While women prepare the weavings that will be transformed into robes, make garlands and other handicrafts for the ceremony, men will craft objects such as terracotta bowls, tables and chairs, also to be given to the monks.

The long cloth will be cut into 100 small squares, one for each year that has passed since the birth of the Princess Mother. Efforts will then focus on sewing together the small squares into five special pieces, which will be worn by one chosen monk. These pieces are the angsa (a broad band worn across the shoulder), sabong (sarong), rad prakod (waist band), jeworn (robe) and sangkathi (special ceremonial robe). The remaining squares will be sewn into a special covering for the main Buddha image in the village's temple.

"These tiny square-shaped pieces of cloth are meant to resemble rice fields," Paothong explains. "Imagine, old and young, men and women joining hands and sewing these tiny pieces. That scene makes me to cry," he says. "These villagers have strong faith."

The delicate and complex process is designed to remind the villagers of the symbolic and spiritual value of the cloth, and bring them merit.

"Nowadays, we just spend money to get clothes," says the researcher, who usually wears the traditional fabrics that he studies.

Preparation of food also plays an important role in the ceremony. On Saturday villagers will prepare, khao thip, a special sticky rice dish incorporating nine ingredients. The number nine is auspicious in the Buddhist and Brahmin traditions of Southeast Asia. The ingredients are: peanuts, white sesame paste, black sesame paste, coconut, sugarcane, honey, milk, butter and sticky rice. Meanwhile, another group of older villagers will prepare kheepueng sue chata, a traditional wax which is believed by to protect from evil and bring good luck.

"In Southeast Asia, numbers are important and can bring about positive results. Odd numbers bring auspicious results. Even numbers are used for non-auspicious ceremonies, such as funerals, in which four monks take part," the historian explains.

The Chula Kathin reaches a colourful climax with, hundreds of merit makers parading the newly sewn pieces of fabric through Baan Yang Luang enroute to the village temple, where the old cloth covering the main Buddha image is replaced by the new one, and the five pieces of clothing are offered to the monk. In previous decades, several monks were given hand-sewn clothing.

But even if in this more modest modern form, the tradition survives. Thanks to the efforts of the villagers, Paothong and the Thai Khadi Research Institute, the future of the ancient Chula Kathin, and the Buddhist ideals it represents, looks more promising.

2. Inheritance


Belongings. The Canon states that when a bhikkhu passes away, his belongings all go to the Community of bhikkhus. The Commentary adds that this principle holds regardless of where the bhikkhu dies. If he happens to die while visiting a nunnery, his belongings still go to the Community of bhikkhus. Similarly, if a bhikkhuni dies while visiting a monastery, her belongings go to the Community of bhikkhunis. Furthermore, according to the Canon, the belongings of a dead male novice all go to the Community of bhikkhus; the belongings of a dead female probationer or female novice, to the Community of bhikkhunis.

The Commentary adds that even if the dying bhikkhu or novice says, "After my death, may my belongings go to so-and-so," the request is invalid. Thus, from the point of view of the Vinaya, a bhikkhu's last will and testament would have no force. The civil law in Buddhist countries recognizes the Community's claim on a dead bhikkhu's property, but this claim has yet to be adequately tested in courts of law in non-Buddhist countries. (If the highest court in the land were to rule against the Community's claim here, this would be an appropriate area to apply the principle of "complying with kings," stated in Mv.III.4.2, and not to further contest the issue.)

The Vinaya Mukha discusses a tradition, based on a loophole included in the Commentary itself, designed to get around the Commentary's ruling against last wills and testaments: a bhikkhu, on his death-bed, may say, "I give my belongings to so-and-so." As long as he does not add the condition, "after my death," the gift is valid. If he happens to recover from his illness after giving the gift, the recipient is free to return the items or not, as he sees fit. If the ill bhikkhu dies, the belongings go to the recipient and not to the Community. If, however, the bhikkhu adds the condition "after my death" to his statement, his belongings after his death go to the Community, and the intended recipient has no rights over them.

When the Community receives a dead bhikkhu's belongings, it may bestow his bowl and three robes on those who cared for him, in honor of their service not only to him but also to the Community in fulfilling the bhikkhus' obligation to care for one another (see Chapter 5). The procedure is as follows: One of the bhikkhus who acted as the dying bhikkhu's nurses approaches the Community, carrying the dead bhikkhu's robes and bowl. After he informs them of the death, he presents the robes and bowl to them. One of the members of the Community recites the transaction statement, consisting of a motion and proclamation, bestowing the robes and bowl on those who cared for the bhikkhu when he was sick. This statement is given in Appendix I.

The Commentary here discusses the question of who has a right to a share in the robes and bowl. If the whole Community had set up a roster for nurses, it says, there are differing opinions as to who counts as caring for the sick. Some teachers say that everyone in the Community deserves a share, even those who were not put on the roster. Others (and this makes more sense) say that shares should go only to those put on the roster who actually observed their duties. All sides agree that whoever helps -- whether bhikkhu, novice, or lay person -- should get a share. (The Canon states that each novice involved has a right to a share equal to that of a bhikkhu.) If one person took on a special burden in looking after the sick bhikkhu, he/she should get a special share. Bhikkhus who simply sent medicine don't count as "caring for the sick." Those who helped the nurses in washing robes, boiling medicine, etc., do.

As for the dead bhikkhu's remaining belongings, the Canon says that all his light/inexpensive articles (lahubhanda) and light requisites should be divided among the Community that is present. His heavy/expensive articles (garubhanda) belong to the Sangha of all four directions, both those who have come and those who haven't, so they are not to be divided up or distributed.

Here the Commentary adds that if the dead bhikkhu's bowl and robes are of low value and the remaining goods of high value, the Community should take funds from the remaining goods to provide a decent bowl and set of robes to the nurse-bhikkhu. Belongings left by a dead bhikkhu in another monastery belong to the Community in that monastery. If he held ownership of items in common with someone else, those items go to the other owner, not to the Community.

The same principles hold true for the belongings of a dead novice.

Funerals. Unlike some of the other early Vinayas, the Pali Vinaya contains no rules on how to conduct the funeral of a dead bhikkhu or novice. Writers have speculated as to why this is so, but the speculation tends to say more about the writers than about the Vinaya. The practical upshot is that the Community (or the bhikkhu's friends, relatives, etc.) may dispose of his body as they see fit in line with local custom and law. D.16 states that arahant, after death, deserves to have a stupa built over his/her remains, but the Vinaya contains no rule to enforce this.

One issue that arises at present is the custom of willing one's body to medical science. Because there is no rule that the bhikkhu's body (as opposed to his belongings) belongs to the Community, if he has willed his body in this way, that will should be honored.

Another issue arising at present is the cost of a funeral. In the Buddha's time, funerals could cost nothing. The body would either be cremated, in which case wood was easy to find in the ubiquitous forest, or the body would be exposed in a charnel ground, which involved little effort and no expense. At present, with the high cost of funerals, the tradition in Thailand is a useful adaptation of the Vinaya's rules. There, if no one else volunteers to sponsor a dead bhikkhu's funeral, the Community itself is the sponsor, and the funds for the funeral come first from his belongings. Only if any of his light articles and requisites remain after the funeral are they divided among the Community's members.


"The Community is the owner of the robes and bowl of a bhikkhu who has passed away. But those who tend to the sick are of great service. I allow that the Community give the three robes and the bowl to those who care for the sick." Transaction statement -- Mv.VIII.27.2

"The Community is the owner of the robe and bowl of a novice who has passed away. But those who tend to the sick are of great service. I allow that the Community give the robe and bowl to those who care for the sick." Transaction statement -- Mv.VIII.27.3

"I allow that a novice who tends to the sick be given an equal share." -- Mv.VIII.27.4

"I allow that the Community give the three robes and the bowl to those who care for the sick. Whatever light goods and light requisites (§) are there may be divided among the Community that is present. Whatever heavy goods and heavy requisites are there are for the Community of the four directions, both those who have come and those who haven't. They should not be transferred, they should not be divided up." -- Mv.VIII.27.5

"If a bhikkhuni, as she is dying, should say, 'After I am gone, may my requisites belong to the Community,' the Community of bhikkhus is not the owner there. They belong to the Community of bhikkhunis. If a female probationer ... If a female novice, as she is dying, should say, 'After I am gone, may my requisites belong to the Community,' the Community of bhikkhus is not the owner there. They belong to the Community of bhikkhunis.

"If a bhikkhu, as he is dying, should say, 'After I am gone, may my requisites belong to the Community,' the Community of bhikkhunis is not the owner there. They belong to the Community of bhikkhus. If a male novice ... If a male lay follower ... If a female lay follower ... If anyone else, as he is dying, should say, 'After I am gone, may my requisites belong to the Community,' the Community of bhikkhunis is not the owner there. They belong to the Community of bhikkhus." -- Cv.X.11

3. No Dog Collars Allowed: A Justification of the Western Clergy Collar ...Most Reverend Father Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.


As a long-practicing American Buddhist, I have realized the importance of being earnestly Western, and specifically, American. Too many Buddhists here are trying desperately to turn into some other race or nationality; it is beyond me why a born and bred Texan, for example, would want to convert to Soto or Rinzai Zen Buddhism just to turn into a Japanese.

This is nothing to do with racism, mind you- I once wanted to be Chinese and I also went through a phase during which I desperately longed to be a full-blooded Eskimo. That is neither here nor there. The point is that religions adapt to their cultural environments.

Buddhism, as an example, saw its monks scrambling for clothes when they first reached China. It had less to do with weather than with appearances: the Chinese would have no truck with raggedy mendicants. Indian Buddhists, accustomed to one thin robe and an even thinner outer cloak, found themselves swathed in Chinese yi, those lovely proto-kimonos. They had to put the old, thin Buddhist robes on top of the nice Chinese robes.

The modern Western clergy collar, sometimes wrongly called a "Roman" collar, is the example of the millennium. In surfing the web trying to find clergy apparel dealers, I ran across the most asinine debates about the propriety of, and necessity for, the clergy collar. The essays and comments ranged from the desperately pro to the rabidly con.

A clergy-collared shirt is an integral part of my daily dress. This is because in the West, a priest or minister is recognized by this particular detail of his "uniform". I was not the first to introduce Western clergy apparel to Buddhism in the West; that credit goes to Reverend Master Jiyu Kennett, Abbess and Founder of the Soto Zen Order of Buddhist Contemplatives in Mt. Shasta, California. Reverend Kennett saw the need to Westernize Buddhism in that particular way in order to ease it comfortably into American life.

My clergy dress on a daily basis always includes a clergy collar. I may or may not wear robes over my Western clothes, depending on the situation, and thus I will never be confused with a Christian. It is only meet that Buddhism should adjust to America as it has adjusted to the cultures everywhere else it has been. My Western collar is part of that natural evolution.

The controversial collar originated as a Mandarin collar on the black cassock worn by Catholic priests after the Rennaissance. The priests found their black collars becoming soiled, and covered them with a simple, folded band of linen which could then be removed and laundered. By the time they adopted the practice, everyone else had opted for long, frilly linens and lace at the throat. Thus was born the white "dog collar", and hence the term "man of the cloth".

The outer cassocks which were adopted later had a larger Mandarin collar with an opening at the front- this fit nicely over the linen-banded collar. It created the classic collar we know today: that rigid black circlet with a small square of white at the front. Today, cleverly and comfortably designed clergy shirts are available in a rainbow of colors and styles.

My favorite shirt is called a tab-collar, called a "tunnel-neck" by the British. It has a beautifully tailored standing collar with a small opening at the front. A strip of white plastic is inserted into the opening, and presto!- instant clergy. A few old school folks like myself sometimes also wear the old "parson's" white neckband collar.

It seems the disturbance is truly caused by the way others perceive the collar. I have read ridiculous apologetics written by clerics, and vitriolic criticisms about the abuses of collar-wearers. The problem is simple: if one is a minister, rabbi or priest, does it matter very much what strangers think? If someone sees me in a hospital and assumes I am somehow "abusing my privileges" because I'm wearing a collar, is that my problem, or theirs?

The symbolism of the collar or the message it conveys to others is not the point of wearing the collar, and never has been. Some hot-heads believe the collar's outer message/symbol is all-important, but is not. The whole point of the clergy collar consists of an inner message and symbol: that it cause discomfort, both physical and spiritual. In such a collar, any priest will tell you, one is reminded of the example one must set. (One has no choice but to guard one's behavior while strapped into one of these collars.)

Even at their most comfortable, they are uncomfortable. They are unbearably hot – even in the dead of winter- and are often soaked and grimy at the end of the day. No wonder so many spiritually lazy people want to toss them out the window. I say go ahead, if you want to surrender the least part of a faith worth defending. But, if you cannot be trusted there, how far can you be trusted? Einstein once wrote that a person not to be trusted in small matters can never be trusted in great ones.

It sounds contradictory and cheap, but yes: looking the part of clergy is inherent and implicit to any ministry, albeit the least important aspect. My heartiest agreement is with those who say it is ridiculous to tee off, garden, mow the lawn or dig a hole while wearing a clergy collar. My recommendation to such a collar-crazy person would be to check into the nearest "rest home".

Yet the collar is the sole identifier ministers have left- unless they belong to a religion that employs another habit of dress. Not so long ago, Catholics howled when priests first appeared in the clergy collar and black suit. "PROTESTANTISM!!" they shouted. Not long after, the pope ordered that all priests wear the "Roman" collar at all times while out of doors. Today, Catholic designs in clergy shirts are the standard, with the exception of the exquisite Anglican shirts- but even these descend from the modern Catholic designs.

Of course even a minister or priest must enjoy personal time, and no clergy collars are allowed then. One may relax alone or in company; casual dress can be excused. One may even find oneself in an emergency pastoral situation and not be appropriately dressed. (During the cold months, I keep a spare shirt in my car at all times.) At all other times it is the minister's duty to keep on his collar, if his religion employs the use of it for its ministers. When I was a boy, even seminarians and theology students wore "clerical" collars to distinguish themselves from other students.

I am one of those priests who loves wearing a clergy collar. It is my karma, a part of my service and duty to the universe in my vocation as a humble servant. There is no way I can imagine anyone abusing the ministerial office using the collar itself for the purpose. Americans are not that easily cowed.

Americans are generally a respectful people. They see a clergy collar - true, sometimes they can't see past it - but they respect it. It is one of the little blessings that helps ease the burdens associated with the collar itself. As with all blessings, it cannot be ignored or refused; it should be accepted humbly and gratefully.

I took note of the argument that wearing a collar elicits hoots, laughter, hateful stares and other ridiculous scenarios. Certainly I have experienced my share of this. If a person can't take that sort of childishness in his stride, why be in the ministry at all? If it's mocked or despised, isn't the collar its own best defense? After all, such rude people don't really know the person wearing the collar. Thus they are like dogs chasing automobiles.

Now, if the reader doesn't mind, I shall slip out of my little blessing and into a t-shirt for some puttering around the yard.

© Rev Antiono Hernandez September 2003, suriak@yahyoo.com

4. Zen Meditation Groups in the California Central Valley


This website provides information related to three Zen Buddhist practice groups in the Central Valley of California: Empty Nest Zen Group in North Fork, Valley Heartland Zen Group in Modesto, and Fresno River Zen Group in Fresno.

All three groups offer training and practice opportunities in the Soto Zen tradition and are led by Grace Schireson, an ordained Zen priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage.  All three groups offer a range of practice opportunities including the following:

Regular zazen (sitting meditation), introductory classes, and intensive multi-day retreats

One-to-one instruction, group lectures, and individual consultations with the teacher

Teaching and practice in the spirit of the Suzuki Roshi lineage

Common traditions with Berkeley, San Francisco, Green Gulch, and Tassajara Zen Centers

Guidance by an ordained Zen priest and experienced lay practitioners 

Opportunity to affirm one's faith in the Buddha Way through training and lay ordination

Opportunity to participate in engaged Buddhism through the Prison Meditation Project

Empty Nest, Valley Heartland, and Fresno River Zen Groups are all led by Grace Schireson.

Grace is an ordained Zen Priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage who has practiced Zen meditation for more than 35 years.  She has trained in Soto Zen in America under Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi of Berkeley Zen Center and in Rinzai Zen in Japan under Keido Fukushima Roshi of Tofuku-ji Monastery in Kyoto.  She has taught Zen classes throughout the United States and in Japan.  She is also trained as a clinical psychologist and is dedicated to teaching Asian methods of quieting the mind using techniques suitable for Westerners.

The Empty Nest Zen Group is based in North Fork, in the Sierra Foothills between Fresno and Yosemite National Park.  The group serves residents of North Fork, Oakhurst, El Portal, Coarsegold, Mariposa, Wishon, Auberry, and other nearby towns.  The group meets weekly on Sunday mornings from 8:45 to 11:30 a.m.  These morning sessions include two 30 minute periods of zazen (sitting meditation), a brief period of walking meditation, a Zen service, a Zen talk, and tea.  In addition, the Empty Nest Zen Group holds longer meditation retreats, ranging from one to five days.

The Valley Heartland Zen Group is based in Modesto, about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco, in the Central Valley of California.  The group serves residents from the wider Modesto community, including Merced, Stockton, Turlock, and Los Banos.  The group meets weekly on Thursday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Unity Church, 2467 Veneman, Modesto, 95356.  The evening session includes two 30 minute periods of zazen (sitting meditation), a brief period of walking meditation, a Zen talk, and tea.  In addition, the Valley Heartland Zen Group regularly holds half-day and one-day meditation retreats.

The Fresno River Zen Group is based in Fresno, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in the Central Valley of California.  The group serves residents of Fresno, Clovis, Madera, Visalia, and neighboring towns.  The group meets weekly on Tuesday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church, 4144 Millbrook, Fresno.  The evening session includes two 30 minute periods of zazen (sitting meditation), a brief period of walking meditation, a Zen talk, and tea.  In addition, the Valley Heartland Zen Group holds longer meditation retreats from time to time.

5. My Master's Robe: Memories of a Novice Monk ...by Thich Nhat Hanh


Book Description ...Thich Nhat Hanh's experiences as a novice monk in central Vietnam. As a young man, he tested Buddhist teachings and planted the seeds that would carry him through the ordeals of the Vietnam War. The simplicity and clarity of monastic life is the background against which the memorable characters in this Buddhist master's life are lovingly presented: the elderly cook, the Master sewing by lamplight, the daring lizard who eats rice offered for the Buddha, the young French soldier seeking understanding, and others. Two weeks ago, after the Buddha's offering, I approached the shrine to put out the flame of two white candles that rested in tall brass candle holders when I saw a small lizard leap out of the alms bowl. He had a couple of grains of rice in his mouth. He looked at me in panic, his eyes as bright as tiny crystal balls. I didn't chase him, but he ran off behind the statue of Buddha.

Amazon.com- Reviewer: from Lewisburg, PA USA ..."Tin Nguoi" is the Vietnamese title of this little book. It means "humanity," and humanity is precisely what Nhat Hanh reflects on in it. What it means to be human, what it means to seach for one's true self, what it means to live in community with other humans: each of these questions are explored through a series of short story-like reflections on Nhat Hanh's years as a young Buddhist monk.

At first reading, the book seems slight. But like most of Nhat Hanh's books, it's better thought of as simple rather than simplistic. We make the world too complicated with our rushing about and our efforts to master everything. Nhat Hanh's prose offers a simpler, slower, more meditative approach to reality, and thus mirrors the points he wishes to make.

So his stories about memorizing large books as part of his novice training, or of being assigned to look after the cattle (kept by the monks solely for their manure), or his delightful sketches of fellow-novice Brother Man or monastic cook Aunt Tu, generally aim to teach a lesson about what it means to follow the Buddha's path. They are parables, and as such will provoke any number of reflections on the part of the perceptive reader. The chapter dealing with koans is one of the most insightful treatments of the subject I've ever read. It alone is worth the price of the book.


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