Basic Buddhism
The Mendicant Saffron Robe: Origin and Significance
By Hoàng Phong
07/01/2011 23:59 (GMT+7)
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Kasaya in Sanskrit has nothing to do with clothing; it really means faded color, or muddy sludge, or perished and damaged. According to the Chinese texts, kasaya was transliterated to (1) fading color, or (2) dirty, polluted, thrashed, and also (3) neutral color or secondary color, or (4) tarnished, ruined, spoiled…

[Translator’s notes: The humble monk’s robe that historically the Buddha and his disciples wore, and now all the Buddhist monks are sporting in various shades of reddish-yellow, saffron or ochre colors are called Kesa in Japanese, Casa in Cantonese, Cà-sa in Vietnamese, has the root word kasaya in Sanskrit. For this article we will refer to it as Casa]

Kasaya in Sanskrit has nothing to do with clothing; it really means faded color, or muddy sludge, or perished and damaged. According to the Chinese texts, kasaya was transliterated to (1) fading color, or (2) dirty, polluted, thrashed, and also (3) neutral color or secondary color, or (4) tarnished, ruined, spoiled… In another word, the casa robe worn by monastics - those who chose to renounce worldly lifestyle and entered monkhood - should represent the poorest, simplest, humblest, most rudimentary and most commonplace of all clothings. For those of you readers who have no conception yet of what the monastic robe of Buddhism should be, you would probably be surprised at what you have read so far. Because normally the popular and general regard for the cleric clothing, which are just agreements and symbols for that particular religion, is seen as standard for veneration and respect. But here, in Buddhism, the reverential monastic members are merely sporting the simplest and most modest garment. Or to think of it in a complete opposite viewpoint - because the casa represents such humble yet dignified symbolism, the monks themselves are unworthy wearing it. Humble might means modesty, but humbling also signifies that one is unworthy to don the sacred robe on oneself. This is more of an abstract explanation of the term kasaya, which we would not discuss further in the context of this article, but it sure is a possibility.

In conclusion, the mendicant robe called casa should never be colorful, nor should it have adornment and embroidery. It should not be an icon for fantasy, and it should not be used to show off or deceive others. The casa should always be a representative of humbleness, simplicity, and the most ordinary garment that one could imagine. But at the same time, it should illustrate and symbolize Buddhism, meaning it ought to demonstrate the highest regard, and the most sacred virtue above our ability to comprehend and consent.

There are only a few known large monasteries in Sri Lanka, nowadays, where monks still observe the most ancient tradition of personally collecting old and thrown away cloth, or shroud that covers death people before they are cremated or buried; and to actually make the robes for themselves from these discarded materials. Each monk can only have 3 sets of garments, an alm-bowl, and a toothbrush as his sole possession. Not even a pair of shoes - they go everywhere barefooted.

This might be the oldest known practice that pretty much came from the time of Buddha himself. In reality though, the casa has changed a lot depending on local customs and traditions, diverse races and sects, and regional areas where Buddhism has migrated to. Nevertheless, even with numerous alterations and modifications, the simplistic, modest, as well as highly regarded and esteemed characteristic of the casa still remained intact. In this article, we will look at modifications over time of the classic casa, and explanation of such changes in the two main sects of Buddhism - that of the Theravada tradition (or Southern Vehicle) and that of the Zen (or Ch’an) sect in the Mahayana tradition (or Northern Vehicle).

The Origin, Name and Symbolism of the Casa

According to the Vinaya, at first the assembly of monastic members during the earliest time of Buddhism did not have a specific code standardized for clothing. The disciples wore what they always wore according to their previous traditions and practices. Only when King Bimbisana suggested to Buddha to come up with a different clothing design to separate and make more recognizable members of the sangha, did Buddha give instructions to his closest disciple – Ananda, who had been accompanying Buddha on their normal southward journey, to model the design of the casa accordingly to the squared fields of rice paddies which stretched out into the horizon. Due to this fact, in the Chinese translation of the Buddhist texts, there were references of “rice paddy clothing”, the garment in the shape of a rice field that is divided up into staggering rectangular parcels by the hard-mudded dykes for retaining water. The design symbolized the richness and prosperity of the land. In my own opinion, this particular story was the start of the clothing changes over time. Such comparison required a vivid imagination and complacency that was correlated with the ideals, conceptions and criteria for richness and prosperity in the common worldly sense rather than with a religious significance. Thus the casa was made by sewing together many squared pieces of cloth gathered from garbage and collected from graveyard. And that is how the casa represents the most humble, unpretentious and plainest symbol of modesty; it also reminds the wearers of their impermanent existence in this world.

In Chinese, the translated word casa was also referred to as “Denounced Robe”, “Dharma Clothing”, “Clothes of Patience”, and “Enlightened Garment”… All of these terms almost contain the same meaning of denouncing, getting rid of, and unrighteous, dirty, polluted, stained, damaged, or darkly colored… Also according to these literal works, the mendicant robe should not be dyed in the primary colors of blue, yellow, red, white or black, but a mixture of many substances to create a final darkish and unpleasant hue that was more appropriate with the real meaning of the original term kasaya in Sanskrit. The casa comprised of many pieces of discarded materials, each of which could sport a variation of dark and ugly colors.

In modern time, depending on the different traditions as well as specific regions and countries, with diverse culture, custom and climate, the casa has taken on many modifications, both in colors and in the specific shape and style of the garment. It sports a brighter orange-yellow color in India and many countries of the Therevadan traditions; it varies in shades of yellow, grey, and brownish red (due to the dye extracted from certain barks and roots) in China and Vietnam; it standardizes in a dark grey color in Korea; it assumes a pitch black or brownish black (tea color) in Japan; and it carries both the bright yellow saffron and dark red-brown in Tibet. But overall the casa presents with the official three colors specified by the code of laws in the Vinaya: that of the earth-toned color of mud and dirt (dark brown-black), of metallic rusty color (brownish green), and of color of fruits and vegetable (orange-red and yellow).


      Japanese zen kesa                Theravada casa                Mahayana casa                 Tibetan robe

The clothing of monastic members includes three parts: 1) the “little garment” or inner garment (s. Antarvasaka) is referred to as “five-paddies” because it is made with 5 pieces of materials; 2) the “middle garment” (s. Yttara-Samgha) is called “seven-paddies”, and is made with 7 different pieces of variable cloth; and 3) the outermost, largest “big garment” (s. Samghati) is made up of 9 pieces of cloth and is also called “nine-paddies”. Those were the clothing originated from India and from the time of Buddha on earth. And depending on the regional climate condition, either just two or all three of these clothing articles can be worn at once together.

The casa can be used to cover up the body as garment, to serve as a blanket for cold weather, as a pillow to lay one’s head on, or even as a folded up cushion for sitting meditation. The Prajna Paramita Sutra mentioned that Buddha folded his own casa to form a seat cushion upon which he sat and preached after the usual daily alm round and consumption of food received. At times, his disciples folded their casas and stacked them up to make a higher throne-seat for Buddha on these occasions.

The original practicality of the casa was later tagged with more virtues. The Great Compassion Lotus Sutra recounted the Buddha’s vow to wear his casa of five virtues upon his reaching the Way of Enlightenment, and listed them as: 1) - worldly human beings when revering the casa would receive the Three Yanas (including the Sravaka-yana, the Pratyekabuddha-yana, and the Bodhisattva-yana); 2) - heaven and hell dwellers when paying tribute to the casa, also can earn their Three Yanas; 3) -spirits, deities and sentient beings only need a partial piece of the casa in order to be self-sufficient and not go hungry; 4) - all sentient beings who always respect and remember the casa can definitely develop a compassionate demeanor; and 5) - a small piece of the casa out on the battlefield would be enough to bring victory.

Another sutra named Contemplating the Mental Ground Sutra also mentioned ten benefits of the casa: 1) - as body coverage for modesty; 2) - to aid in avoiding insect bites and inclement weather; 3) - to display the good characteristic traits of a monastic member; 4) - as storage of Dharma wonders; 5) - as courage and effort to follow one’s precepts and discipline; 6) - the dark and humble color helps prevent greed and contempt; 7) - to promote peacefulness; 8) - to eliminate sins and wrongdoings; 9) - a fertile land for developing bodhi-mind; and 10) - to serve as a body armor where delusions and afflictions cannot penetrate.

The reason why I went into detailed explanations above was to serve as an example of how the casa was modified and altered over time even in the symbolic meanings of the casa. For example in the fifth virtue of the casa mentioned in the Great Compassion Lotus Sutra that stated: “even in battles, if one carries just a small portion of the casa, one can have victory over enemy”… This particular virtue does not correspond well with the non-violence teaching of Buddhism, in my humble opinions. Nevertheless, let us go on with more.

Numerous Chinese writings have given the casa twelve different names that are listed and explained below: 1) – Casa (most common name); 2) – monastic or monk clothing; 3) – garment of the worldly denouncer; 4) – dharma clothes (the clothes made according to Buddhist guidelines); 5) – clothes for stopping the objects of the mind; 6) – clothes for eliminating afflictions and delusions; 7) – lotus garment (like an untainted lotus in a muddy pond); 8) – faded clothing; 9) – compassion robe (the wearer enhances his own compassion and love); 10) – paddy field garment (with squared patches representing prosperity and richness of the fertile land); 11) – for use as sheet to lay down upon or as cushion to sit on; 12) – for use as blanket to cover up when cold.

Now we would go into the changes and modifications of the casa procured in Theravada (Southern tradition) and Mahayana (Northern tradition).

The Kathina Ceremony of Theravada Tradition

In the countries that follow the Theravada tradition (also known as the Lesser or Southern Vehicle), Kathina (Offering clothes to the Monks) is one of the biggest and most important ceremony usually conducted at the end of the Monastic Summer (Rain or Monsoon season) Retreat (s. varsavasana or vassa, v. an cư, “an cư” literally means “tranquil living”). It is the last day after three-month retreat where members gather together to reside indoors (usually at a large monastery or temple) and avoid all outside and ordinary activities as much as possible; together, they devote diligently to their practice, further assess their conducts, absorb new teachings, and renew their vows. Kathina ceremony is celebrated very solemnly every year on this occasion. Actually the term Kathina in Pali or Kathinya in Sanskrit, does not mean clothing, or to offer clothes. The word actually translates to as “strength”, or “durability”, or “solidity”. Another meaning of the word in Pali also refers to a weaving frame or loom for making clothes.

During this ceremony, the Buddhist followers would offer the monastic members the specific cloth materials (and others common necessities) for them to make their casas. These offering items are reverently placed on a tray and carried on people’s head in a solemn procession throughout their village on the way to the temple. In the olden days, the monastic members received the offerings, and within that same day, they have to divide up the cloth, and finished making their robes before going to bed. This tradition commemorates the Buddha’s Aunt and foster mother to Prince Siddharta – Mahaprajapati Gautami – who stayed up all night to make a new casa for Buddha. When Siddharta was only 7-day old, the Queen Mother passed away; it was Mahaprajapati who assumed the responsibilities in the care of the young Prince. After Buddha realized enlightenment, Mahaprajapati renounced her worldly life in the castle to follow in Buddha’s footsteps. It was she who begged Buddha to let her start a monastery for bhikkhunis (female disciples). She was considered the Mother of all Bhikkhunis.

The Summer Retreat, according to tradition, should have at least 5 individuals. Each would receive about 3 meters of cloth. The old tradition has it that at the end of the retreat, the whole group gather together to make the robe for one of the poorest and most needed monk, or if everyone has decent and fairly adequate clothing, then the new robe would be offered to the master monk, or the oldest and wisest of the group. Once finished with the product, the robe was stretched out onto a “looming frame” (kathina in sanskrit) for all to admire. This particular robe is called the mahakathina – the great robe. Afterwards, the casa was taken down, and the frame taken apart – denoting more leniencies with rules and regulations now could be applied. During the retreat, the frame was kept intact as a reminder to observe one’s precepts and strict statutes. That is why the ending ceremony in the Southern Theravada tradition after the three-month summer retreat was called Kathina ceremony. And Kathina in both Sanskrit and Pali has the same meaning of tight, secure, and strong as the moral discipline and precepts should be.

Of course the above traditions have been altered and modified somewhat over the years. But the Pali canon did relate a story regarding the casa as told below: Before a certain monsoon season during Buddha’s time, a group of around 30 to 50 disciples from remote terrains decided to make the trek back to Savatthi to spend the summer near Buddha. But on their journey, they faced inclement weather and other traveling hardship so that by the time they got to Savatthi, most of the clothes on their backs were tattered and dirty, and the retreat was almost over. So Buddha kept them behind longer in order for their robes were mended or new robes made.

Another indication from other teachings also explained that the first month of the retreat every year was reserved for mending and making clothes for the sangha, thus the rules and regulations during this time were a little less strict. In the present time, clothes-making is not such an important issue for the monastics, but traditions are usually kept to remind that sangha members have to share, and help one another in providing means for having appropriate and necessary garments. And to remind the lay Buddhists to earn meritorious deeds by providing cloth and material needed by the monks.

The above stories also showed some diversions in the meaning of the monks’ casa in Theravada tradition. But even with added modifications, the traditional significance and meaning of the casa still remained over the time. These modifications tended to further reinforce and embellish the practice of ascetic monks, and provide means for others to help them achieve a bare-necessity monastic life.

The Casa and Zen tradition

Before pari-nirvana, Buddha gave his alm-bowl and casa (note: according to tradition, the “passing-down” of alm-bowl and casa ceremony from master to disciple was being practiced before death of the master) to his most learned and erudite disciple Maha-Kasyapa. Buddha also advised other disciples to revere and listen to Kasyapa as Buddha’s own representative. But in reality, Buddha had given the casa to Kasyapa the very first time they met. Back when Buddha was on his way from Rajagrha to Nalanda district, Kasyapa and his group crossed path with Buddha, Kasyapa recognized the Enlightened One from afar. As the group approached, Kasyapa went down on his knees at Buddha’s feet; and as such, Buddha proclaimed that Kasyapa has become his greatest disciple: Buddha then took off his outer casa and gave to Kasyapa and started a sermon just for him alone. Only eight days later Kasyapa reached the Arhat fruition. But we need also to understand that probably Kasyapa was already endowed with Dharma-nature from birth and had already begun his eons of practice way before he met the Buddha. The story told that Kasyapa left his home to go searching for the Truth on the very same day of Buddha’s Enlightenment. After Buddha went into nirvana, it was Kasyapa who assumed leadership of the sangha and organized the First Synod for Compilation of the Dharma to formally write down and preserve the Buddha’s teachings. Legend has it that Kasyapa lived many hundred years. According to the Anguttara Agama (v. Tăng Nhất A hàm), in his last days, Maha-Kasyapa went up to a rock cave on Kuddutapada mountain; he put on the same casa that Buddha had given him, sat cross-legged in the lotus position and vowed that his body would remain intact physically until the arrival of Maitreya Buddha to save sentient beings. Afterwards he passed into nirvana.

On another occasion while preaching on the Grdhrakuta mountain (v. Linh Thứu), Buddha just held up a flower to the audience without saying a single word. While everyone was still wondered what the meaning of it all, it was Maha-Kasyapa with his extremely radiant face, who smiled broadly full of understanding. This occasion was famously known as “Hold up the Flower… and Smile”, and it indicated the supra-powered and intricate force of enlightenment which normal words can never express and declare its meaning. The silence represented a direct recognition, far above and beyond any language or understanding of worldly beings like us. This was also a specific and extraordinary characteristic of Zen studies, thusly often Kasyapa was recognized as the First Patriarch of Zen meditation tradition in Buddhism from India.

Maha-Kasyapa later handed-down his alm-bowl and casa to Ananda. This tradition of transmitting the begging bowl and casa continued for 28 succeeding patriarches in the land of India-Nepal. The 28th Patriarch was Bodhidharma (roughly 470-543 ad), which corresponded to about one thousand years after Buddha passed into Nirvana. Bodhidharma was known historically as the first Patriarch of Zen tradition when he brought Buddhism to China. After Buddhism progressed in China, the tradition of genealogically “passing-down” alm-bowl and casa continued in this country to the 6th Patriarch – Master Hui-Neng (638-713 ad) (v. Huệ Năng). This period spanned roughly another two hundred years.

The Casa and Fifth & Sixth Patriarches

Zen Master Hui-Neng was given the symbolic casa robe – insignia of Dharma Seal - from the Fifth Patriach Hong-jen (v. Hoằng Nhẫn) (601-674 ad). The transmitting custom traditionally represented the selection of the next Leader / Successor for the Ch’an tradition in China (aka Zen in Japanese, Dhyana in Sanskrit, Son in Korean, Thiền in Vietnamese, and Meditation in English). Master Hui-Neng was chosen in testament for his highest understanding of Zen among all disciples, by-passing over other monks with more seniority. Hui-Neng respectfully received the casa, and with it the responsibility and leadership of the Chinese Ch’an school of Buddhism. He also knew that with this power came a lot of jealousy and dispute among his dharma brothers. Even Master/ Fifth Patriarch Hong-Jen also anticipated the possibility of an uproar after Hui-Neng assumed leadership, so he advised Hui-Neng to retreat immediately to the deep South until proper time and suggested that the tradition of “handing-down” the casa and transmission of leadership be terminated for good.

At the very early rays of sun the next morning, Hui-Neng in a disguised tattered cloak left the temple, holding the sacred symbolic casa wrapped tightly in a cloth bag, and relentlessly headed south. After many days and nights running nonstop southward, Hui-Neng now was reaching Dai-Chau mountain, he finally looked backward and was shocked to see an army of hundreds loudly chasing behind him. Leading the gang was his dharma brother Hui-ming (v. Hue Minh) – a retired general who entered the temple life for ill-purposed and who wanted the leader position for himself. Exhausted, hungry, but not scared, Hui-neng decided to face the roaring crowd; he laid the robe bag onto a larger rock, told the approaching army that “the casa robe was nothing but a symbol representing the transmission of Dharma, and that unworthy people who possessed it by forced robbery, would be just like having the image of flowers reflecting from a mirror.” Then he retreated into a nearby bush and meditated.

When Hui-ming arrived and saw the precious wrapped casa on the rock, he ran to it and grasped it with all his might but the bag held fast on the rock without moving. Hui-ming then realized the enormous force of the Dharma, repented his wrong doing, and seek Hui-neng in the bush for master.

The legendary story went on with Hui-neng leaving Hui-ming and continued his southward journey to Tao-khe, in the Thieu Chau province, and resided at the Baolin temple. Many months went passed. Then one night a large group of monks with masks, came to the back door demanding the Dharma representative robe, Hui-neng grabbed the bag and ran for his life into the woods. The crowd chased after but lost sight of him. Hui-neng from his hiding place saw the throng of pursuers with red burning torches that resembled a long and giant dragon-snake crawling up the mountain. They set fire to the woods hoping that Hui-neng could not stand to be burned and would come out of hiding.

Hui-neng then remembered the Dharma power of the robe when Hui-ming could not pick it up from the rock. He knew the casa would not burn by the fire; he calmly took out the robe, put it on himself, and once again sat down amid the burning trees to meditate on a large rock. He felt his body became heavier and penetrated deeper into the boulder, and the burning sea of fire, together with black smoke and flying ashes surrounding him seemed to just disappear. Everything went very calm and peaceful.

When he finally came out of meditation because the bright sun rays shone onto his face, he saw that the whole mountain burnt down and covered with dust and ash. His robe was also full of ash but completely unharmed and un-burned. Once standing up, he noticed with surprise and amazement that even the rock bored imprints of his own sitting lotus-style, completed with the two knees as well as the flap of the robe and its thread and sewing hemline. Master Hui-neng deeply understood the powerful force of the True Teachings.

The Casa in the Zen School of Buddhism

Now we are discussing the Japanese Zen and its modified robe. The Japanese called the monk’s robe kesa or okesa with the same derivative from sanskrit kesaya. Okesa literally means the remnant of cloth to be thrown away, or a dirty rag. Japanese people sometimes call it Fukuden-e (the robe of blessed happiness) or Mu-soo (the non-form robe) which denotes the wearer should have “emptiness of self” or “egolessness” (s. nairatmya, v. vô ngã). He should make the robe for himself and wear it like “the body has no form”. The zen monks also possess three kesas: that of the 9-pieces, 7-pieces, and 5-pieces like in the time of Buddha. The only difference is the 5-piece robe – now called the rakusu - is a modified symbol that looks more like a bib for all zen practitioners to wear, no matter whether they are monks or lay followers.

The rakusu itself changes appropriately with the different schools of Japanese zen. It is sewn together with 5 pieces of material, either brown or light grey, bordered by cloth strips at the edge to divide it up into rectangle or square sections, and backed with white or ivory silk on the reverse side. One edge has an attached wide strap also made of the same material. The rakusu looks like an enormous cloth bag with the strap hanging over one’s neck. The rakusu is worn hanging free on the chest outside of other clothings, or tuck inside the robe. The back side is usually scripted with the wearer’s dharma name, and often inscribed with a koan (c. gong-an, v. công án, meaning an imprtant adage or a saying that helps remind one of his zen practice) or haiku poem, and the signature and stamped emblem of one’s master.


       Zen Master kesa                                                rakusu

One interesting note that needs mentioning here is rakusus are self-made by each individual seeking to take refuges and receive the precepts. If one has the opportunity to witness the pre-ordination class to learn “how to make your own rakusu”, one would be very moved emotionally by the total dedication and absorption into sewing each piece of cloth together – by hand… Keep in mind that even westerners - some of them are famous doctors, scientists, learned scholars, etc…(probably some have never held a needle in their life), when seeking to become zen Buddhists, each would have to go through the same process of making their own rakusu. When the sewing’s gone tangled up, or when the thread line turns crooked, they patiently take it apart and re-sew until achieving the perfect rakusu. In a way, this is indeed a method of concentration applied in zen practice. What to appreciate is the true Dharma revealed in their dedication, enthusiasm and determination in each movement and action taken.

The lay zen Buddhists without the blessed opportunity of monastic living would have the rakusu to remind them to observe their precepts and as a mean to protect their mind-consciousness from evil deeds and thoughts. Before they actually put on the rakusu, Buddhists reverently place it on their head and recite a mantra. And when they finish with it, the rakusu is carefully folded, stored in its own small bag and placed on the altar until the next use. Zen master Dogen used to say:

“The ordinary clothes of human beings increase lust, greed, passion and desire – but the casa robe, the clothes worn by Enlightened Ones, is able to destroy from deep roots all of their desire-nature.”

And here are some more relevant references about the casa made by Master Dogen. Master Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) was one of the greatest zen monk/teacher and a remarkable philosopher of Japan. He went to China to learn Ch’an meditation in 1223 with Master Tiantong Rujing (1163-1228), the leader in the Caodong (j. soto, v. tào động) lineage. He returned to Japan in 1227 and became the founder of Soto Zen school of Buddhism. He was known for his extensive writings, including the most famous collection called Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma (J. Shobogenzo). Master Dogen said this about the casa:

“Those who have been enlightened have such respect for the casa, and believe fully in its force. They see it as the garment for enlightenment, an immense paddy of happiness, a non-self, non-form piece of clothing, the robe of Tathagatha, and of Anuttarak Samnyak Sambodhi (fully and perfectly Enlightened, nothing could compare to.)”

Another quote, also found from his collection Treasure of the Eye of True Dharma, specifically reinforces all wearers who have taken the precepts:

“Human ideology is a non-stop movement; the thoughts come and go, rise up and die out continuously in time; likewise, all parts of the body also arise then disappear in instantaneous moments.

The casa is not a human development, neither is it not a human production; it does not stand at any particular place, but there is no place that it would not stop by… the ultimate and absolute truth of the casa is only understood fully by the fully-enlightened Buddhas themselves. However for those who assiduously practice the Dharma and head toward the Right Path, the benefits brought to them by the casa is immeasurable and indefinitely bountiful…

In this world, the casa is always state of the art and newly renovated itself. Our existence in one infinitesimal minute is also the everlasting existence. In this very moment, we have favorable conditions to listen to the Dharma teachings, as well as the graceful condition to observe, feel, touch, receive and wear the casa.

That favorable circumstance is likened to the opportunity to present ourselved in front of Buddha in body and flesh, and listen to his own voice preaching. You can consider this favorable condition as the transmission of Buddha mind, and reception of Buddha flesh and blood.”

Now we will go on learning more about the mendicant robe worn by monastics.

Discussion on Meanings of the Casa

We have gone through observing changes in forms, features as in significance of the casa through time and space. Although the modifications are necessary, they do not in any way alter the thousands-of-years traditions and Buddhist style. From variable customs and practices in the Theravada Buddhism to the symbolic formality in Zen school, none would stray outside of the Dharma teachings.

Indeed, the ordained monks once draping the casa over their shoulders would be in constant prompt to observe their precepts and moral discipline – never to kill, to steal, to commit adultery, to hate and enrage, to attach and desire, etc… The casa in the mean times would bring peacefulness, open up their compassionated capability, and further augment their courage, fearlessness, power, vigor, perseverance, and wisdom.

The majority of us, however, do not have this favorable condition, and graceful chance to renounce and become ordained as monastics; we have no opportunity to put on the noble robe of Dharma; we are like naked caterpillars and worms, readily exposed to the world full of tempestuous nuisances, dangerous afflictions and un-pleasantries in the realm of desire and samsaric transmigration. So what do we need to do then?

Without the physical casa on our body, but we can certainly wear a “spiritual robe” of paucity - an imaginary cloak made of bits and pieces of indigence and poverty, agony and distress found aplenty around us. We can make for ourselves a casa of modesty and humbleness, but with true Dharma, pureness, honesty, nobleness and pride. We can walk around in the most stylish, expensive and beautiful outfit on our physical body, but it wouldn’t bring as much pleasure and pride as the faded and simple “spiritual robe” we are wearing internally. Or even if we are less fortunate or destitute, our physical clothing might show hardship and poverty, but we can walk with our head held high and unashamed, because of the beautiful and brilliant internal garment we are donning on our mind-spirit.

This spiritual casa that we are wearing on our mind-consciousness also will protect us in this fast-paced world filled with ambition, fraud, resentment, and atrocity. It will help remind us and prevent us from fast-expressing anger and hatred. Sometimes when we blend in with society on a daily basis, we usually judge other people just by their outer appearance, the clothes they wear, their expression and guise, their language, their social status, and the way they carry themselves… we hardly ever pay attention to the inner beauty of a person, because on casual acquaintance, we can’t really see this deeper inner side. Some people’s appearance reflects elegance and richness, beauty and mannerism, but their mind and demeanor is naked, dirty, and full of worries, misery and shame. Then there are those with ragged clothing, poverty-stricken look, but their mind is a happy, compassionate, clean and pure one and full of satisfaction and righteousness. These examples are just two of the extreme and typical representations; the world actually is a whole lot more complicated; there are plenty of different types of people with varieties of mixed manners and qualities. The human world (s. saha) or the world of transgression (s. samsara) – is comprised of three realms of existence (s. traidhatuka, v. tam giới): the realm of desires and passions (s. kamadhatu, v. dục giới), the realm of beauty or forms (s. rupadhatu, v. sắc giới) and the realm of non-forms (s. arupadhatu, v. vô sắc giới). All sentient beings who still have to go through cycles of birth and death are living together, inter-mingly in these three realms of existence – whether be they animals, ghosts and demons, human beings, heaven-dwellers, or godly and angelic beings. Only when we wear a wholesome and pure spiritual casa on our inner mind, will we be able to recognize the saintly and heavenly beings around us, so that we can approach them and learn from them the good virtues and qualities. We will then learn – as they have done – to lend the untainted mind-casa to those in need, those who are naked and shameful, those who suffer and despair… so that their pain will be somewhat diminished, their tears decreased, their wound and hurt healed and their ill-treatment lowered. The unfortunate souls are numerous among us, but then so are godly and heaven beings as well.

In conclusion the so-called “spiritual casa” is like a fence that protects and guards us from mal-actions and bad deeds due to our ignorance and sinful nature. It also acts as a high and strong wall-defender that encloses us within our happy and safe haven. But at times we need to know how to take it off and let someone else borrow, or better yet teach them to create their own fence to keep out sinful actions, and a build a high wall of protection to keep them happy and peaceful.

But should we stop at just that? A meaningful practice is to observe the precepts, live accordingly to moral discipline, and to improve and enhance love and compassion - these are very important, but they are just the first steps of one’s practice of Buddhism. Compassion needs to bring Wisdom, Wisdom then leads to Enlightenment, and Enlightenment guides one to Total Salvation. The path is still very lenghthy ahead of us

We will now go further and discuss much more about the significance of the casa robe.

Discussion on the Meaning of the Casa

To start out this discussion, I will try to translate the poem of Zen Master Suzuki Shosan (1579-1655):

Together we walk in the Tathagatha rain,

Saffron casa soaking wet on small frames.

Oh ho! On all the lotus leaves,

Not a drop of rain… remains!

And next we will quote a few verse of Zen Master Ryokan (1758-1831). Master Ryokan was very mild-mannered, graceful, and almost saintly. He lived a simply insipid life. He wrote poetic verses using calligraphy. There are lots of his scattered works in such high demand that museums and collectors pay big sum of money for them. In the year 1790, his master – Zen teacher Kokunen – took a retreat for good, leaving the monastery and the sangha to Ryokan to take care of. He was nick named Ryokan Taigu, meaning ‘master with a simplest and most generous spirit’. But just a year later, his master passed away, he realized such impermanence, passed the responsibility of the sangha and temple to others, entered a high mountain cave to lead an ascetic life. This is one of his poems:

In the green mountain

Just the grass cottage

Only lost wandering soul

would stumble upon it.

Not a single noise from saha world

Just a woodcutter’s whistling sound.

Thousands of high peaks, ten thousands of water creeks,

Not a soul – no one.

But then one afternoon, returning from a leisure walk, he found that his grass hut was robbed; the bandit took everything of poorest means from his shack. Immediately he penned:

The robber forgot

to steal the moon

from my window!

Uh oh! Guess we need to return to our discussion of the casa – seen as the fenced gate that prevents us from commit sinful precepts, and the high-walled protector that keeps us happy and peaceful. Such a wonderful robe, such an effective fence, such an adequate protection, but is it really true Dharma? The answer is no, because those things are just symbolic, just like the example of the finger pointing at the moon; the finger is definitely not the moon, not the Dharma itself. Buddha taught us that Dharma is just like a bamboo skiff we used to reach the other bank of the river. Once safely on the other side, we need to let go of the skiff, and not carry it atop our head on our journey. Likewise, the moon is symbolic, the casa is symbolic. If we let ourselves be attached to the robe, or to the fence, or to the protective wall, or to the moon… we would never get to salvation. No attachment needed!

Let’s take a look at Master Suzuki’s verses above. Even the rain drops of Buddha – which represent the Noble Teachings – aren’t standing still on the lotus leaves, but then, why are the casa all soaking wet? We are living in a world where all phenomena are just consenting approvals, and symbols. They aren’t real, they are certainly not the Way, but we like to adhere to and be “stuck” with them. From the faded mendicant robe sewn together with generic-colored cloth, to the radiant silk brocade robe worn by the Fifth Patriarch Master Hong-jen – which represents the Dharma - all are just symbolic badges. Remember, we live in a world of emblems, insignia, equations, icons and logos. And they are just productions, alterations, creations that come from the human mind and imagination. Even language is also just an agreement. That is why Buddha needs only to hold up the flower in complete silence, without a single word said.

The transcendental, one-origin, Prajna mind of Buddha already exists in the Enlightened mind of Maha-Kasyapa, and the Enlightened mind of Maha-Kasyapa already exists in the transcendental Prajna mind of the Buddha. The flower is only a sign. Words are only accord and agreement. In the magnanimous and compassionate mind-spirit of a highly practiced individual, there is the open-mindfulness nature of the ordinary human; and within the open-mindfulness nature of the mundane man, there exists the magnanimous and compassionate mind of the high master. The robe is only a sign, an emblem, or a ‘go-between’ among them.

Just like wood exists in the table, and the table already has wood. The fact that a carpenter converts wood to make a table is merely just human creation. And in life there is death; likewise with death, there is the seed of rebirth. Humankind often wants to separate life and death, which is the result of our understanding of Dualism (s. dvaja, v. nhị nguyên) – the two extremes and opposition concept. Besides, all of the the multi-formed changes and diversifications of the casa again are just man’s creations from his vivid imagination.

Because of this symbol that Sixth Patriarch /Master Hui-neng faced death a few times. Whenever symbols exist, men are sure to attach themselves tightly to them. The representative casa, literal “mind-seal” leadership of the whole school of Buddhism, is enough to cause greed, envy, competition among brothers. Now think of the worldly social influence and status, money and power, there would be a whole lot more greed, envy and competition for them. Luckily, both Fifth and Sixth Patriarches anticipated such complication and agreed to abolish this symbolic transmission to succeeding masters. If not, who knows what would happen to the lineage: monks still fight over a piece of clothing, and lay people - though having quite a unique chance to assemble for the transmission ceremony – all would tend to forget the true practicality of their own practice.


From the Buddha’s original time, the casa is an assembly of discarded, dirty and faded pieces of material to make a wearable and useful garment. The original sangha as well as Buddha used it to cover up their body, to protect and keep warmth from inclement weather, and to use them as cushion-seat. The casa robe first altered to represent the richness and prosperity of orderly, staggered patterns of rice paddy fields; then modified again as symbol of succeeding leadership of a sangha and school of Buddhism; then transformed again to respectful rakusu for zen practitioners.

Are all of the above changes and additions impractical and unnecessary? Certainly not, those additions and alterations necessitate the practice; even though they are not the Teachings, but they act like beautiful flower petals to the Dharma. True, the finger is not the Way, but without the finger pointing at the moon, we would not see the way to Dharma, wouldn’t we? From the Buddha’s compassion and love, from his practical teachings bloomed innumerable flowers, colors, and born millions and millions of Dharma pages of teachings. Therefore the casa, though just a representative symbol, is such a “must-have” item, worn by the monastics, as a reminder, and as example for us to follow by. We can imagine that we have our own “spiritual casa” to protect us, to literally use it as our pillow onto which our nightly sleep would be peaceful, without unfathomable nightmares. And it prevents us from acting crazily, thinking horrible thoughts, or experiencing unstable feelings.

Buddha taught us about non-attachment: even the Dharma and his teachings are just like the skiff to take us across the river to the other side. But without the skiff we cannot reach the other bank; without the Teachings, we aren’t able to overcome the forceful stream of ignorance and delusion (s. avidya, v. vô minh). The same with the casa, it is just a means for us to hang on while still submerging in the midst of delusions and illusions. Wouldn’t we gladly grab any floating piece of wood or bamboo when we are fighting with the torrent? But don’t think that the small bamboo stick would take us to the other side yet. We might want to gather up many pieces of bamboo and make a skiff large and strong enough to carry us over, and maybe helping a soul or two along the way – many of them next to us could not even find their bamboos. So go ahead! Start collecting the discarded thread and cloth in this impermanent life, to make our own symbolic casa.

I shall borrow a prayer-vow from Japanese Zen Master Ryokan to end this writing. He had lived a solitary life on a deserted mountain top: all he possessed was the grass cottage, the casa on his back, and a bright moon on his window sill… but I am not reluctant to say that probably his mind-consciousness always wanted to spread wide arms to embrace all sentient beings. Here is his vow:

“I truly hope that the casas of all practicing individuals - I among many, can expand enormously in size… so that together, the casas would cover all beings who are suffering and in pain in this impermanent world we live in.”

                                                            Viên Minh (The Buddhist Translation Group)

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