“Do you have a hole in your brown jacket?”
When my teacher asked this question during a recent Dharma talk, it brought to mind something Sister Annabel said when I received the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings at Magnolia Grove Monastery in 2017. Sister Annabel reminded us that we now have a “Fourteen-Precept body” and that our task is to look after it with great care.
For many years, first as a pre-aspirant, then as an aspirant, and recently as a member of the Order of Interbeing, I have diligently attended recitations of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I treat my physical brown jacket with care. I fold it mindfully when I take it to Sangha; I recite a short gatha when I put it on and take it off. Then I hang it carefully in the closet at home. I can assure you that my brown jacket does not have a single hole.
But what about my energetic brown jacket? What does it mean to have holes in this jacket? What are these holes made of? I can name some reasons: doubt, fear, jealousy, judgment of myself and others, and the need to be liked. These are but a few; the biggest holes grow out of shame and the wish to keep secrets so that I
look good in front of my teachers and my Sangha brothers and sisters. In a nutshell, the biggest holes are created by my holding fast to the illusion of a separate self—which is the very opposite of the insight of interbeing, to which I aspire.
The best way to prevent moths from eating holes in my woolen sweaters is to keep them clean and exposed to fresh air and sunlight. Moths love when my sweaters are tucked away in a dark closet or drawer. The same goes for my brown jacket body. Shame and secrecy are like moths eating away at the fabric of my practice. How lucky I am that we are offered so many ways to bring fresh air and sunlight into our practice life. We have Dharma sharing groups, Shining Light practice, Beginning Anew practice, and lay and monastic Dharma teachers on the path to help us become free of the illusion of a separate self. Above all, there is joy in the practice of taking care of our brown jackets.
I own some pieces of family china that were mended by being stapled back together. It was standard practice in England in the nineteenth century. It is utilitarian and not very aesthetically pleasing, but the cups and plates that were mended in this way are manifestations of the care that went into maintaining treasured possessions. Even today, there is a sweetness about their ugliness that holds the energy of love and care.
In Japan, by contrast, the tradition of Kintsugi is the art of mending ceramics in a way that enhances their beauty. Some of the bowls that have been mended in this way are breathtakingly beautiful. In America, and no doubt in other cultures, there is a tradition of taking scraps of old fabric that have worn out and stitching them into something new and beautiful. Some are so beautiful that they are now museum pieces!
How joyful it can be when we, as Sangha brothers and sisters, can take out our jackets (brown or otherwise); and in the light of mindfulness, we begin the slow process of mending the tears and holes together by sharing and bringing our secrets out into the open. Soon we will see ourselves wearing our jackets—a small hole darned there, a rip sewn there, a patch applied over there, each one being uniquely beautiful. We will stand together with our patched and mended jackets, a testament to our willingness to look into our suffering, holding nothing back, and allowing our baby of pain to be cradled by our Sangha brothers and sisters.
This is how we can take care of our Fourteen-(or Five)-Mindfulness-Training bodies. All of this mending is being done in the face of our fragility as individuals, and above all, in the light of our love for each other and this beautiful path we walk on together.
Jill McKay, True Transmission of the Path, lives in Maryland, US, and practices with the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax in Oakton, Virginia, and the Opening Heart Mindfulness Community in Washington, D.C.