By Francisco “Paco” Genkoji Lugoviña
YONKERS, NEW YORK STATE, USA. Lay practitioners of Zen Buddhist lineages who take refuge in the Buddhist precepts and vows prepare and wear a rakusu – a cloth garment around their neck – representing the monastic robe, also known as the kesa. In the days of the Buddha, it is said that certain materials called Pamsula were taboo for use by society. This included materials used for shrouds covering the dead, those gnawed by rats, or menstrual rags. These were collected to create the monks’ robes. The late co-founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order, Roshi Sandra Jishu Holmes, first conceived the Zen Peacemaker Rakusu that is made up of pieces of discarded cloth from origins meaningful to their wearer’s life and practice. This series of posts named ‘Rags to Rakusus’ showcases the personal stories of Zen Peacemakers’ rakusus around the world.
Jishu’s Pamsula Project
My introduction to Pamsula and the Zen Peacemaker rakusu was through Jishu when she started a program called Pamsula at Greyston in Yonkers, New York. Jishu started the Pamsula project because she wanted to create something that allowed the people in the neighborhood to receive their own empowerment. Jishu was the first person I met who really understood the frame of empowerment as providing people with the means to realize their own voice, autonomy, and freedom, as opposed to creating cycles of dependency.
Jishu structured her Pamsula program so that designers would take the cuttings from cloth that fell to the floor, put them in boxes, and send these boxes to Greyston, the project’s central location. Jishu would then take this cloth that would be thrown away and give it to low-income women of color, who were also labeled “disposable” by society, so that they could create beautiful, vibrant art. These women would sew all of the different pieces together to create one big cloth, and out of that cloth, which symbolized life and chi energy, garments would be created, sandals, wall-hangings, anything that was made out of cloth. The women would be able to create exquisite items of which every single one was one of a kind, because the cloth came from scraps.
This project was actually very Buddhist in that it followed the story of how the robes that we wear as Priests were formed. Allegedly, the mythology is that Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and also his assistant for many years, went to the Buddha like, “Dude, man, these guys are wearing super fancy temple robes with silk and stuff. That’s not really part of our practice. We need to design something that’s really cool, but at the same time is more apropos to our message.” As Ananda was talking to him, the Buddha was looking out at a landscape of mountains and rice fields and he responded, “That’s the design. The way the rice fields make a geometric, linear pattern,” and Ananda said, “Well what kind of cloth will we use?” and the Buddha said, “Take cloth that has been thrown away, the cloth that literally nobody wants. Pick those up, wash them, and that’s what you’ll wear.” So it’s in this spirit that Pamsula was created.
The second aspect that emerged was the economic development piece. This was the context in which these items would be sold; the money would be used to keep the project going and eventually, would provide livelihoods for the women sewing the Pamsula. The main person was a Central American woman named Eugenia who taught all the women how to do the sewing. It was a very complex process. First the cloth had to be sewn, second the garment had to be designed, third the pieces had to be put together in the form of the design created, and finally those designs had to be sewn.
Paco’s Pamsula Kesa
Jishu asked her students to take cloth from different places for their rakusus and kesas. I used a piece of my father’s underwear for part of my rakusu; I have my kid’s hair inside of it. She was telling us to be creative when normally with Japanese rakusus, it’s a damn, boring black.
When I did my kesa with Jishu and Bernie, I asked everyone in my community for pieces of cloth. One of my friends that I contacted was living in Mexico City at the time. A month later, I got a package from him, and inside the package were these beautifully folded gray sheets, meticulously cleaned. So I called him up, and I said, “Jeffrey, these sheets are gorgeous and there’s enough cloth here to make a whole bunch of kesas. Where did you get these from?” He responded, “So you told me to look for throwaway cloth, so I started looking in the neighborhood. I went with my servants to go look in a dumpster, and in the dumpster were all of these sheets. I had my servants use gloves to take the sheets out, and then we took them to the laundry to wash them. The dumpster was right outside of a brothel, after clients were done with the sheets, they’d get thrown away.” So turns out, my kesa was primarily made of sheets from a brothel.
The Pamsula Lineage
Jishu was my core teacher, the core teacher for my wife, Noemi, and many others. After Bernie decided that he didn’t want to take any more students, he would respond to us when we all came around trying to get him to be our teacher by saying, “You go study with my wife.” Bernie kept directing his overflow to Jishu, which is how she became the core teacher for a whole bunch of us; there were about 15 or 20 of us in total. After Jishu died within 2 weeks of moving to Santa Fe, we became Bernie’s students all over again, as per Zen tradition which states that after a teacher dies, the person next up in the pecking order inherits their students.
Going forward, I decided that I was going to create a Pamsula lineage to honor Jishu, and that when I was to give transmission to my students, I was going to do so in the Pamsula tradition. All of my students were given transmission under this tradition, so angel Kyodo williams, Daiken Nelson and Joaquin Ryusho Salazar are all part of the Pamsula lineage. Daiken has created the Pamsula Zen Center in Harlem in the spirit of this tradition. In addition, he and I are working on a program to bring back the Pamsula vests. Back when Jishu was operating the Pamsula project, she constructed Pamsula vests that quickly became known as Zen Peacemaker Vests. Anyone who was a peacemaker within the Zen Peacemaker Order at that time aspired to have a Pamsula vest. We want to recreate these vests to honor Jishu and her revolutionary work with Pamsula.
Rev. Francisco “Paco” Genkoji Lugoviña is an ordained Buddhist priest in the Soto Zen lineage and in the Zen Peacemaker Order. He is the co-founder of the Hudson River Peacemaker Center-House of One People in Yonkers, New York. He works with gang members and youth and has participated in Bearing Witness Retreats and pilgrimages to Tibet, Auschwitz-Bierkenau, India, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, as well as on the streets of New York City and other USA cities.