This guest post is from Dorothy Stafford. Dorothy has been a member of the Center for almost six years and she is a part of our Foundation Program study class. Last summer, she traveled to England to take a course on sewing Buddhist robes. Here’s her story.
If you’ve been to the Center or viewed pictures, you may have noticed Gen Nyema and Tabkay wearing outfits unlike anything that the rest of us have on. I bet you never saw anything like what they’re wearing at a department store. Did you ever wonder where they get those unusual clothes? When I first started attending classes at the Center, of course I noticed the way Gen Nyema dressed, but didn’t really think about it much. Soon, however, I had good reason to think about it.
When I was very young, my grandmother taught me to sew. I was completely captivated by the concept of cutting up a flat piece of fabric then sewing it back together so that it turned into something beautiful and useful. Thus began a lifetime love of sewing and a whole lot of experience making all kinds of garments. Pretty much everybody who knows me, knows that, and word got around the Center that I was the person to talk to if needle and thread was involved. When Gen Nyema needed a bit of mending done, she asked me and I soon found out just how complex the construction of those garments is. It still never occurred to me to find out where her robes came from.
Sink or Swim: The First Robes I Made
Fast forward a few years. Tabkay would soon be ordained and Gen Nyema explained to me that a new monk’s robes were custom made by . . . somebody. In this case, it would be me. I was so happy to do this! But . . . how? I started contacting people at other Centers and asking for information on who sews these robes. Are there any patterns? Any instructions? Help!! After a lot of forwarded emails, I found that there is a book of basic instructions which are used to make a pattern for each person and was given a copy. I also got in contact with someone who had made some robes and had taken pictures of some of the more difficult parts of construction and she was happy to share. Yay!! So with the instruction book, the pictures, and a lot more emails, I managed to get our new monk outfitted in time for his ordination.
Let me tell you, those things are hard to make! Even for a seamstress with much experience it took a lot of time, but it was probably the most fun project I ever did. So now I knew that robes for the monks and nuns in the NKT are all made by individual sewers. I also found out that there are very few people doing this work – not enough to keep up with the demand. I started to consider offering this service myself.
Then, at an event at KMC Georgia, a friend pointed out a poster on the wall – an official robe-making class was being offered! I was so excited and immediately planned to attend until . . . I read the fine print. This class was for a week at a time I already had obligations. In England. Airfare is expensive. Really expensive. No way could I do that. Not a chance. It just wasn’t happening. I told my friend all this in a very sad voice. She pointed out that I was looking at it the wrong way and reminded me of intentions and that everything begins in the mind. She said, “You make a strong determination to go, with a good motivation, and you’ll get there, you’ll see.” And guess what?? She was right. I changed my way of thinking, help was offered, favorable conditions arose, and off to England I went!
This was an adventure. I’d never been to England. I didn’t know how to get around once I got there. I was going by myself. I was scared! Sure enough, the trip started off with a canceled flight. Other things went wrong the whole way there. But I remembered what I’d learned at the Center. When obstacles arose, I remained peaceful and took what action was necessary, appreciated the people whose jobs it was to get me there, and the obstacles dissolved. I was in England!
Note: being a passenger in a vehicle on the “wrong” side of the road making right turns (seemingly into oncoming traffic) is terrifying!
The Robe Sewing Course at Madhyamaka Center
The robe-making course was held at Madhyamaka Center near Pocklington, not far from York. The Center is in an old manor house called Kilnwick Percy Hall. Amazing place, just beautiful. There are pastures all around with sheep everywhere, a walled garden, courtyards and patios and lawns and a World Peace Café with wonderful coffee and pastries. The rooms were huge so we had plenty of space for our course. We took over half of the dining hall for the sewing room and half of the parlor was filled with ironing boards. Massive windows everywhere let in plenty of natural light.
There were 10 students in the class with experience levels ranging from beginners to professional tailors. Our teacher, Kelsang Drima, was so kind and patient. After our first day of introductions and getting settled, we jumped right into making items for a stack of orders. There were no practice or test things, we were making real robes for real people! There was no formal classroom instruction – we had bolts of cloth, bins of thread, an assignment, and . . . GO! At first I was nervous about not knowing what to do, but very soon got into it and wow! . . it was fun!
Every morning we went over what was needed next, who would make which thing, what help or advice was required, and then got busy. Of course, there were breaks and plenty of time to walk around the Center or have our 11:00 and 3:00 coffees at the World Peace Café, but we got a lot of work done. One really fun part was that a few of the things we were making were for a monk who lived at Madhyamaka Center where we were. So a couple of times we got him in the sewing room for fittings and experimenting with making things a slightly different way to get a better result. He was a really good sport and we only stuck him with pins a couple of times. He was really happy with the robes we made for him.
Also every morning we had a lesson about the meaning of the robes. Did you realize that everything you see the monks and nuns wearing has a special significance? For example, the colors of the robes: saffron yellow represents wisdom, maroon represents concentration and compassion. Also, all the details of the construction of each garment and robe are meant to remind the wearer of certain aspects of their spiritual path. Drima explained this and we had meditations on the meanings. We kept a whiteboard in the sewing room and noted any questions we had and each evening Drima sent off emails to the person who would know and got answers to discuss the next day.
One thing about this class that really stood out for me was the experience of working with others on a sewing project. I have always done this kind of work on my own and I was a bit hesitant about a group situation like this. It was awesome! Even the experienced sewers sometimes had questions or needed a bit of help to get something to turn out correctly. Others would just jump right in and figure out the best way. When we had different opinions, we tried everything and determined which worked best. Everyone was peaceful, patient and kind. We all remembered the people we were making the robes for and were determined to do the very best job we could for them. If we weren’t sure about whether something was being done properly, someone else would always say, “Would you do it that way if you were making it for Geshe-la?” That always worked to answer the uncertainty.
We had enough time to get to know one another and had some great discussions about the different Centers people came from. About half the class was ordained, one was from Australia, one from Hong Kong, one from Malaysia and I was the only American. So we had plenty of differences to get to know and also found out what we had in common. We went home with new sewing skills and new friends and a lot of inspiration.
Here are some things I brought back with me:
- Working together with patience is a good learning experience for both the teacher and the student.
- Ask for help – it’s okay, not a sign of weakness, and benefits the helper as well.
- Just because someone does something differently, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
- You can learn as much about robe-making on the patio of the World Peace Café over coffee as you can in a classroom.
- Messing something up doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It can be fixed! And no one will be mad about it.
So now I’m an official, certified, NKT robe maker. This is wonderful! If it turns out that I can offer this service to the monks and nuns of this tradition, I will know how to do it correctly. If not, that’s okay too. The robe-making course was an amazing learning experience about a lot more than the technical aspects of sewing a garment. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to meet so many kind and generous people and learn from them. I’m a better person for having done this and better able to benefit others.