Saturday, 4 August 2012

Kesa 袈裟 Buddhist Robes in Japan

I flirted around with Buddhism since arriving in Japan 24 years ago. At first by studying Buddhist painting and scroll making at a Shingon Shu temple for years after arriving in Japan.  The Buddhist priest's wife, took me into her family. We travelled together to Italy, Indonesia, Kyoto, India, Nepal (we hiked the Annapurna circuit together) and even Washington DC together. Her son and I hiked for a week along the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island.  They opened a Mandala museum on the grounds of the temple and I was able to participate and observe many religious ceremonies. They encouraged me to study and become a Buddhist Priest. I was told that there are many mountain temples in need of a live in-priest. I could do my natural dyeing to my hearts content as long as I chanted sutras at funerals and performed other simple rites.

The whole idea was too overwhelming.

I did make the trip to Mt Koya  to check out the two-year Buddhist University course. It looked intriguing but I wondered if I could make it through. Religion was something you 'believed in'.  I just knew I would never fit in or swallow some non-sensical doctrine etc. Twenty years later I view it all differently and slightly regret that I didn't jump in and use the two years (they would have been generously sponsored) to have learnt so much that was available.

I settled for books and self-study into the history and art of different Buddhist sects and the roles they played in Japanese history.


 I went to museums to see exhibitions of Buddhist relics.


I went to dozens of temples to see gardens and the buildings and pick up non-related trivia of the history of a particular building place or person. I travelled to the birthplace of Buddhism in India and Nepal. I visited dozens of Buddhist temples from Indonesia up through to Laos.


 I love books, and museums and sightseeing. But they don't really resonate as well as first-hand experience.

To get something more substantial I studied the Japanese tea ceremony for many years from a master. (It is closely related to the study of Zen Buddhism.) He looked a lot like Yoda. Once he had a mosquito bite on the top of his ear, making it pointed and I couldn't stop grinning as I tried to make the tea. (Yeah, I really took the path to enlightenment seriously.) You study architecture, poetry, flower arrangement, pottery appreciation, food, Japanese gardening. Everything cultural. (And incidentally how to make a bowl of tea.) I loved it. It is impossible to write about the tea ceremony as it goes deeper and deeper in every direction. Even practicing it for many years  it takes time to get even a glimpse at the full picture.

All this Buddhist stuff. Of course there were textiles along the way. The cloth on the sutra scrolls. The hanging banners in a temple. The prayer flags in Tibet. (I was pretty busy with Buddhism come to think of it.) The silk cloth for Buddhist paintings. But the most impressive of all was the clothing. The saffron robes for monks and the full regalia of a high priest.

It seems a bit taboo to write on this subject.
Buddhist priests ceremonial robes.

I love these textiles and can't help myself. I want to give you a glimpse of what there is. There just is not much out there in the popular textile books and Internet information. Here is a book that is filled with gorgeous pictures of Kesa robes. The book comes form an exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum in 2009.  The book is packed with new information both written and visual. I can only give you a small glimpse.

Kesa were the simple robes the monks and priests wore in India where Buddhism started. As it spread to colder countries over the Himalayas and through to Korea and Japan it became more of a draping shawl over one shoulder than a full one piece robe.

These Kesa were collected from temple's repositories from all over Japan for the exhibition in Kyoto. Some are over 1000 years old. Buddhism came across the sea from China. Japanese monks travelled there to get their credentials and bring back new teachings. The looms and weaving techniques changed over time and geographical area. The kind of weave is important in determining not only the age of the item but also the value and concepts they were literally woven into the object. The weave structures are clearly explained and pictured. The ever-changing values of the religion and different sects over a thousand years are there to read right in the cloth itself. The priests and their writings related to each of the robes is documented.  And the kesa of Shinto and Taoist priests interconnected to Buddhism are documented as well. Japanese Emperors would retire after a few years and become priests. They were not obligated to follow the strict rules of design and had some fascinating robes designed along the lines of the kesa to wear that signified both their royal background and their Buddhist humility.


Too much gushing unorganized information. I just find it fascinating. I am almost willing to give up all my worldly possessions and become a kesa maker! Eri says she will join me. Dripping with history and significance and pure beauty that stretches across the spectrum of refined poverty to divine angel wings. Here are a dozen snaps from the book. The book itself is almost impossible to get so you will have to drop by for a coffee and take a look for yourself.

They are all silk. The design is supposed to represent rice paddies. The patchwork to make the wearer humble. The original kesa were made from rags. Remember one of the central tenants of Buddhism is that everything is an illusion. We suffer because we are attached to material goods and other things in an endlessly transient world. The goal is not to be emotionally attached. (I fail here...I am really attached to these textiles...Oh how I suffer.) These values are somewhat forced into a tangible existence in these robes. (Our human instinct and desire to create meaning!)

Sorry for the lousy snaps.  My enthusiasm is high this morning. Perhaps I will get back to the topic with a more thought out narrative and higher quality pictures. Just a quick look at another facet of Japanese textiles.


  1. I enjoyed your post... and it has resonance with my family. My brother has been studying and dancing around with Buddhism for many years. He is single and is also hiking a portion of the Annapurna circuit every year (last year was Manislu (sp) I'm not sure which portion he's doing this October but he will be visiting his foster daughter he's sponsoring through school in Kathmandu.
    He's yet to do the West Coast Trail and he lives in Vancouver. I'm on the Island near Duncan. And no, I won't be trekking!

    I'd rather weave...
    :) Susan

  2. Hi Susan,
    Sounds like your brother has the same form of travel bug I've been afflicted with. After working in Laos for years I lost it slightly. Seeing so much corruption and witnessing how the cards are so stacked against people I can't just sit back and enjoy the basic exoticness I used to love. I had some relatives living in Duncan many years ago. Beautiful, slow paced, healthy place on the planet. I wouldn't mind a quiet life weaving in that neck of the woods.

  3. So pleased I have found your blog! I have been following it for a while but I loved your last post. I spent a night on mount Koya many years ago and waking up to an early morning Buddhist ceremony is one of my lasting memories; the sound and the smell of the incense and the rain falling gently in the garden.Beautiful.

    1. Hi Max, Koya san is wonderful. I spent a week in the deep snow over the New Years Holidays. It snowed and snowed. Soooo quiet and beautiful. All those candles in the stone lanterns in the graveyard amongst the cedar trees....

  4. Thank you for sharing your heart and thoughts Bryan. Your knowledge and enthusiasm is inspiring.

  5. Thanks joy, My knowledge of Kesa need some serious study though. The subject is exciting for some reason.

  6. great post, I love the original kesa, not sure that some of the more elaborate silk ones encourage humility. my all time favorite textile was a Buddhist nun's robes/kimono, plain silk in a soft bluey-grey that looked like beaten metal. magnificent!

    1. The Kesa weave and gorgeousness certainly bring up some questions of humility. I know that charcoal under dyed with indigo beaten metal color. It is from another world.

  7. thoroughly enjoyed your post.i believe i was buddhist in another life. in this one i am drawn to it and the zen aesthetics.
    something to ponder: values and concepts woven into a cloth.
    and don't tempt me i might drop in for coffee!

  8. where to find the words amongst the thoughts rushing about? if i weren't already in love with you, i certainly would be now! ha! now, at least, i know who ended up with the life i dreamed of as a child!

    your "gushing unorganized information" was like reclining on silk cushions while someone cast jewels and treasures faster than one could concentrate, and yet be filled with awe and wonder at the beauty of it all in any case!

    should you ever become a kesa maker and need some humble assistance to fetch and carry...and study at the burgeoning master's feet, i'm your man!

    1. Hey Joe,
      Thanks for the love. I had a long tough day today and had to deal with a few people who seemed they would rather tempura me up and feed me to the dogs.

  9. Bryan, What you're doing is incredibly special. Enjoy yourself!!!