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Portraying a Japanese Buddhist Monk in the SCA

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Portraying a Japanese Buddhist Monk in the SCA

Basic Garb

The standard uniform for a monk of the Tendai, Rinzai, and Soto sects in our period is quite similar. I am not well enough versed in their dissimilarities to give you the idiosyncrasies of each. However, this basic outfit should work for most recreation attempts. Note that our model is dressed for travel and sports his travel pack and wrapped begging bowl.

Kosode: This is a general term for a kimono-type garment with less-than-huge sleeves. Essentially, this is also an undergarment and is not usually worn alone unless one is secluded in one's private residence. Style and proportions varied throughout the period. Colors: white, light gray, taupe.

Kukuri-bakama: These simple "work hakama" would typically be worn when laboring or traveling over the kosode and under the koromo. Color: usually the same as the kosode.

Kyahan: These gaiters or leggings were another typical traveling accessory. Color: same as bakama.

Obi: The obi is normally a flat sash worn around the waist to help keep one's kosode layers closed. Lay people would sometimes have colorful obi, but the monk's should match his kosode. Note: this is worn under the koromo and tied at the back. (Note: if you are a samurai, it is under your hakama and shouldn't show much) The monk would also typically wear a second obi to hold shut the koromo. I have seen flat versions, but for an average traveling/working monk, the koromo obi is stuffed. Similar to the stuffed obi one sees on suits of armor, the monk's obi is about an inch and a half in diameter (I used commercially available drape-cord cotton batting to stuff mine - very easy) and long enough to wrap around the waist at least twice and tie in the front. (similar to wearing a modern karate obi) The knots used to tie it could be quite intricate. Since this outer obi can be a fairly hefty item, I will sometimes dispense with the inner, flat obi. Colors: Black, white, gray. Since white and gray are not a good idea unless you're a knight, black is preferable. I have seen some personae use purple or orange. I am not certain of the periodness of these colors, but they do look well.

Koromo: The koromo, also called hoi, is constructed similarly to the kosode. However, it lacks the triangular front panels we see on an ordinary kimono. Thus, while it has enough slack to overlap, it does not overlap as much (i.e. where the point of the triangular panel of a kimono will usually reach around to one's hip bone, the koromo may not reach that far) The sleeves of a koromo are often very full and long and have a slash opening in the underarm to allow freedom of movement. Koromo are almost invariably black silk, though hemp cloth, I suspect, would have been a probable alternative for low-ranking monks. The silk is often light enough to be transparent. My koromo is made of a fine silk organza. Like the kesa, tradition holds that the koromo is hand-made and dyed by the monk from discarded, donated fabric.

Kesa: The kesa is the official garment signifying ordination and dharma transmission from a master to a disciple. It would be worn with a kosode (there are many variations), but not necessarily the koromo, for official functions. Legend says the Buddha made his kesa from cremation shrouds he found along the banks of the Ganges. According to the strictest tradition, every ordained monk sewed his/her own kesa from scraps of discarded fabric or fabric donated to him by well-wishing lay people; a sort of special alms gift. Like the lotus rising from the mud, a kesa made this way is symbolic of enlightenment and the dharma. Depending on the wealth of the contributor, kesa could be quite colorful and intricate indeed! While tradition says monks sew their own kesa, it is evident by the Momoyama period that kesa are being tailored by professionals as gifts; particularly for high-ranking priests and abbots. Therefore, if you are a poor sewer, I do not think you need to feel ashamed if your kesa is made for you by a friend. My wife made my rakusu. I myself have played with the idea of collecting scrap fabric from SCAdian gentles in order to make a formal kesa. It's a persona project which I think would be most interesting.
Kesa are constructed in a quilt-like manner with several pieces of fabric arranged in rows, overlapping and "underlapping" in some areas to form a pattern reminiscent of a rice field. The number of vertical divisions (Jap. "jo") denotes the rank of the wearer. The highest rank I know of in Zen sects is 25 Jo; the lowest being 11.
Size can vary widely. The Buddha's kesa is said to have been 10 feet and 1 inch. To the westerner, full-size kesa can be described as rather like a toga and are worn over one shoulder and wrapped around the body. Kesa feature ties at the upper two corners. These ties are brought together and knotted through a ring made of wood, metal, ceramics or even jade (Chinese). Color can vary according to the preferences of the lineage of the school and the rank of the wearer. In Zen, muted colors were generally preferred. (at least in less decadent times!)
Another tradition states that one always prays silently before donning one"s kesa. Supposedly, both Nara and Heiankyo were laid out in the pattern of a kesa. (the holy grid system?) It is said that the kesa is also symbolic of the universe itself; that to wear it is a reminder of one"s connection with the universe and the illusion of duality.

Wherever it goes,
The snail is at home when it dies.
There is no world outside the kesa.
- Daichi Zenji

I am happy in my kesa,
Calmly I possess the universe.
I stay or leave as it wishes.
The pure breeze drives the white clouds.
- Daichi Zenji

Rakusu: The rakusu is a sort of mini-kesa. As far as I can tell, it is a Japanese invention. It's purpose is to allow the monk to wear a vestment which is more convenient for work and travel. Size seems to vary and at some point, the line between kesa and rakusu becomes blurred. My rule of thumb is that a full kesa comes close to touching the floor when the wearer is standing while the rakusu may only come down to the waist or just below it. Also, a rakusu does not wrap around the body so much as it hangs in front like an apron. Rakusu seem to have been popular and one can find several examples in portraits. For the samurai, this is the form of vestment one would wear over one's armor. (along with or instead of a hefty ju) Takeda Shingen is an excellent example.

Ju: (Sanskrit. "mala") This is the Buddhist rosary. The most typical design consists of 107 beads strung together with one slightly over-sized bead through which a tassel is tied. (a convenient way of hiding the knot) Type of ju varies with sect, but the 107-bead version seems fairly standard. The 107 beads represent the venal sins of man. Like its western counterpart, the ju is used to pace ones self while reciting prayers. It is also a powerful symbol of the Dharma and the discipline of monkhood. Materials include Bodi seeds (seeds of the type of tree under which the Buddha sat when he became enlightened), rosewood, jade (Chinese and rather pretentious in my opinion), sandalwood, cherry, and so forth. Ju are easy to make or may be purchased at most meditation supply shops. One note: stick to wood, avoid wearing the bone, skull-shaped bead mala which is, I believe, solely a Tibetan item.

Shakujo: The priest's staff is common to most sects. Based on its design, I suspect it began as a symbol of either the Shingon or Tendai sect and then disseminated as other sects shot off of these two. The staff is thin, made of light wood or bamboo, and mounted with a brass finial. This varied in design, but most commonly included five or six metal rings. These originally represented the realms of existence on the wheel of life (Humans, Animals, Hell, Hungry ghosts, Gods, and Jealous gods). The shakujo is symbolic of priesthood. The noise made by it's rings as one walks is said to act as fair warning to all sentient beings of one's approach (i.e. if you step on an ant, it's not your fault because you tried to give it a warning). The sound may also represent the "ohm" or universal sound of creation. It is certainly a good rhythm to walk and meditate to. During alms rounds, the leader of the procession will typically carry a shakujo and thus announce the coming of the monks. It is also sometimes speculated that the shakujo could serve as a weapon, but this is more typical of China where the finial looks more like the head of a mace!

Gasa: The typical monk's traveling hat is an over-large bowl- or mushroom-shaped, woven rice straw hat. It does not come to a point like a farmer's hat. It does not ride high on the head like a samurai's traveling hat. It is just a big bowl covering the upper half to 2/3rds of the face. Thus, it helps mute the identity of the monk and allows him to be undistracted by sights around him as he travels. (you can only see about four feet ahead while wearing it) Keeps the rain off, too. How about that!

Zukin (hoods and other hats): There are a variety of hoods and hat-like head-coverings; many ceremonial. One looks like a cross between a "Poet's hat" and a French Legionnaire's cap! Another looks a little like hats you may have seen Tibetan priests or Chinese nomads wearing (roughly conical with an up-turned brim and flaps). Then there are the simple "scholar's hats" such as Sen Rikyu sported. Lots of variety, probably lots of hidden symbolism of rank, sect, etc. There was also the famous head cowl worn by the Sohei, which seems to be a simple rectangle of fabric with ties or a separate headband.

Garb Variants:

Shingon: Shingon monks are often portrayed with a koromo which is more like a kesa; a large toga-like garment draped over one shoulder. (It is similar to the outer robe the Dalai Lama wears) Usually this is saffron orange in color. It is possible this IS their idea of a kesa, but I am not certain.
Yamabushi: Yamabushi garb is quite unique and difficult to describe. It seems to consist of kyahan, work hakama and a kosode (beige or off white), worn under a sort of vest similar to the late-period samurai's kataginu. Attached to the collar of this jacket are four large red pom-pom balls! The Yamabushi also wears a small black lacquer "pill box" hat. Yamabushi sometimes wore ceremonial swords.

Komuso: Unfortunately, I do not have any period images of Komuso. Edo-era Komuso are rather distinct. They usually are shown without a koromo, but with a rakusu worn off to the side, sometimes over the shoulder like a cavalier's cape. Presumably, this is to help keep it out of the way of the shakuhachi flute the Komuso is constantly playing. Often they are shown wearing a lacquered portable shrine box hanging about their chest. I do not know what this would contain. Most distinctive of all is the Komuso hat which looks for all the world like an upside-down waste-paper basket! With a small slit cut in the side (or a section of loosely woven straw like a window) for the monk to look out of, this hat totally obscures the entire head. Komuso are typically shown wearing a wakisashi or other small sword stored in a draw-string bag. I have no idea if this is period.

Some online resources: (I can not stress enough how essential these sites are!)
Lady Fujiwara's site: www.reconstructinghistory.com
Master Effingham's site: http://www.geocities.com/sengokudaimyo/Miscellany/Misc_home.html
Kyoto Costume Museum (Japanese): http://www.iz2.or.jp/fukusyoku/busou/index.htm