Dai sai ge da puku
Mu so fuku den e
Hi bu nyorai kyo
Ko do sho shu jo
The sounds of the robe chant live in our breath, in our bodies. We reverently repeat the Japanese syllables before our English translation, communicating our connection to the lineage. Many of us have learned the robe chant simply by repetition, syllable by syllable, without much concern for meaning. Some version of these words has been carried forward in time through many generations. Knowing that we have this chant in common with practitioners over great distances and over much time locates us in the concatenation of an honored faith tradition. We’re not out here in our own orbit; we are connected.
When these heart to heart connections are evident, as in recent time with Suzuki Roshi, with Katherine, with our current colleagues and leaders at Warm Jewel Temple and within the broader Sangha, the great effort people have made over time is also evident. Centuries ago, nuns and monks were continually bringing forward the Dharma for the benefit of future generations. And we in accord endeavor for the sake of others.
In a conversation from 1995, when David Chadwick and Sojun Mel Weistman discussed an early memory of Suzuki Roshi, Mel said, “Just the way he stood up and sat down. His body language was his greatest teaching. Also his subtle way of teaching. At Sokoji, we used to do the Robe Chant but in Japanese. I didn't know what it was called even. So I went to him and said, ‘What is the meaning of that chant that we do right after zazen?’ Suzuki-roshi said, ‘I don't know.’ I stood there and Katagiri-roshi was in the office with us. Katagiri was trying to think about it and he started looking through the drawers looking for some kind of translation and Suzuki-roshi gestured to him not to do that. And then Suzuki-roshi pointed to his heart and said, ‘It's love’.”
Nonetheless, we have a tendency to follow Katatgiri Roshi’s impulse of that moment long ago, and pursue the question, What does it mean? We are compelled to look through the drawers and find something; we may think, “All those syllables can’t just mean ‘love.’” So we study, translate and interpret, applying our understandings of the doctrine and the stories of our lineage to arrive at phrases that convey both the subtle heart and the literal meaning.
Dai sai ge da puku:
Dai translates as great, and the Sai part is really just an exclamation point Ge da, means to become free, or unhindered. And Puku, means clothes. When we use American English syntax then, it is easy to see how a translator arrived at “Great Robe of Liberation!” Dai sai ge da puku has some heart in it. I believe this is why Suzuki Roshi chose to say about it only “It’s love,” because it is this intuitive, visceral and completely heartfelt relationship, not just with the fabric but also with the lineage and the teaching, that is held in this first line.
Mu so fuku den e:
Mu can mean ‘nothing, no, not, beyond’ and it has also been interpreted as ‘all-inclusive, everything’ or ‘not everything’. How can it be that one syllable can mean something, everything and nothing all at the same time? If we look at it through the lens of doctrine, we can say, ”Oh yeah sure, I get that. Everything is nothing. No problem.” But then our rational mind steps in with, “What? Everything is nothing? You lost me there.” Just the word Mu can simultaneously be an obstacle and an opening. So means a phase, a sign, a form, characteristic or countenance. Thus we can understand Mu so as signless, beyond form, or without characteristic.
Fuku means merit, virtue, blessings or good fortune. The Den of this phrase is ‘rice field’ and the ‘E’ of this phrase is robe. The entire story of the Buddha with Ananda on a hillside above rice fields – together designing the patched robe made of cast off cloth, articulating the ‘field of merit’ – is embedded in Fuku Den E.
In one translation this entire phrase could be, “signless field of merit/blessings robe." English grammar and precise meaning begin to break down in our attempt to apply our usual syntax. Is it Field of no form? Is it Virtue without characteristic? Is it Robe beyond appearances? The interpretation of this second line, “Field far beyond form and emptiness” may only be understood through our own embodied practice together with the cultural literacy we gain through study.
Hibu nyorai kyo:
Hi is to unfold and bu, the character for wear, has roots meaning ‘skin meeting cloth’. Nyo Rai, is the Tathagata, the original teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha. In this context, Kyo means teaching. Thus we understand this phrase to mean something like, “based on the wisdom of the original teacher, we reverently wrap ourselves in cloth.”
Ko do sho shu jo:
Ko do means to save over a broad range. Sho means various Shu is people or multitudes and jo is alive or sentient. Thus we understand this to mean, saving multitudes of people or multitudes of various beings that are sentient;. When we chant these four lines each morning, we are preparing to enter the day, enacting our vow to save all beings.
At the end of Dogen’s Kesa-kudoku in Shobogenzo, we find the following descripton.
During my stay in Sung China, when I was making efforts on the long platform, I saw that my neighbor at the end of every sitting would lift up his kashaya and place it on his head; then holding the hands together in veneration, he would quietly recite a verse.
How great is the clothing of liberation,
Formless, field of happiness, robe!
Devoutly wearing the Tathagata’s teaching,
Widely I will save living beings.
At that time, there arose in me a feeling I have never before experienced. [My] body was overwhelmed with joy. The tears of gratitude secretly fell and soaked my lapels. The reason was that when I had read the Agama sutra previously, I had noticed sentences about humbly receiving the kashaya on the head, but I had not clarified the standards for this behavior. Seeing it done now, before my very eyes, I was overjoyed. I thought to myself, "It is a pity that when I was in my homeland there was no master to teach this, and no good friend to recommend it. How could I not regret, how could I not deplore, passing so much time in vain?”
Now that I am seeing and hearing it, I can rejoice in past good conduct. If I had vainly stayed in my home country, how could I have sat next to this treasure of a monk, who has received the transmission of, and who wears, the Buddha's robe itself? The sadness-and-joy was not one-sided. A thousand myriad tears of gratitude ran down. (Translated by Nishijima and Cross)
Because a devout anonymous monk sat next to Dogen in China around the year 1223 and recited the robe chant, and because Dogen valued and carried this teaching forward, we now engage this sewing practice, this chanting practice and this wearing practice. “Dai sai ge da puku…” being the first sounds we make in the morning, our voices start out kind of creaky. Somehow musically our voices find each other, adjusting until harmony emerges; now one voice and one body, we are in the company of trusted friends repeating these words.
When we simply chant, with many in the room placing the robe on our heads and holding our palms together in respect, we are chanting as a demonstration of our vow to save all beings. By the time we have done our morning ritual – zazen, robe chant, formless repentance, and taking refuge, preparing to do service, bowing, reciting a core teaching, then moving into the activity of temple cleaning and morning circle – we have cleared away the dross and are ready to begin anew. We are wrapping ourselves in the Buddha’s teaching, prepared to enter a full day of work and family life with this depth, connection and warmth as the foundation of our activity. Really, all those words simply mean, “Love.