Sewing book covers
hands stiffen in the cold air
so sharp the needle!
The first day I lived at a Buddhist centre I was admonished for reading a dharma book at the breakfast table, lest it get covered with jam. I was similarly reprimanded for taking a text into the toilet to read. While I don’t completely agree with arguments that dharma texts should be treated as something totally sacred and that their care is greater than the fact they should be read, I do understand that how we treat books of importance to us says something about our relationship to the contents.
One thing I definitely took away from there was the practice of covering favourite books with pieces of coloured fabric, and tied with ribbons. I like this, as it seems to be an offering to the book itself, and a way of indicating that it is important to you. Of course, a book can’t receive an offering, so the effect is in our own mind, but I similarly like the practice of making offerings to favourite trees and rivers to mark them out as special to me.
While I lived at the dharma centre I covered three of my books but these early attempts were completely lacking in any kind of finesse. I therefore decided to spend part of my Losar (Tibetan new year) retreat recovering those texts and covering some new ones. Placing dharma texts on the shrine as a literal symbol of the second jewel of refuge is common in Tibetan Buddhism and maybe other forms as well. Without the words of the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, most of us would be left floundering in the dark for answers. While we can naturally arrive at answers through our experience, I have personally found that reading of the experience of others to be a great help. Even without a physical teacher, books can help to shed light on the events in our own life and help us to use those to grow as a person.
So, with cold February hands, I set about creating and recreating covers for some of my favourite dharma texts, in between retreat meditations. The first five texts were an easy choice, maybe even the first six. These were the three of volumes of the Lam Rim Chen Mo (Stages of the Path to Enlightenment) by Lama Tsongkhapa, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa and The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment by Atisha. Together, these five books form the basis of two of the primary schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara was similarly accorded the honour as a renowned classic of Mahayana Buddhism.
The next two books were less obvious but ones that have helped me greatly in my own meditation practice – Mahamudra by Takpo Tashi Namgyal and Wake Up To Your Life by Ken McLeod. I have previously noticed a tendency within myself to take more seriously the classic texts that were written long ago by figures who have assumed mythic status in the Buddhist world, just as often long dead composers and writers are awarded a greatness rarely accorded to living artists. Death is often held to be a good career move! However, it is said that living Buddhist teachers are just as important as the Buddha, and Buddhist ‘saints’ if not more so. None of us can hear the Buddha or past masters speak now, and receive transmission of their words through modern accounts. In the west, we particularly need to have teachers to translate and interpret the dharma for our own particular circumstances. For me, it is Ken’s book which does this to the greatest degree and has an importance which equals, if not outweighs the old classic texts.
I once read of someone who liked sewing because it kept her hands busy so that her mind was free to wander. For a long time I agreed with this statement but now see things to the contrary. Even with my cold stiff hands, and occasional slip of the needle, the sheer physicality of sewing is what appeals – the texture of the fabric, the push of my fingers on the needles and the tension of the thread in my hand. Perhaps the silence of the retreat led me to think so but each session of cover sewing became an act of devotion in and of itself rather than to any end purpose, although clearly there was one. Although a sewing machine will usually (but not in my hands!) give a neater result, I like the simplicity of sewing by hand; the ritual threading of the needle and pinning of the fabric acting as a prelude to the stitching itself, and the cover slowly taking shape with each movement of the needle.
As I mentioned the mind-clearing action of cleaning in the last post, so I have discovered a similar focussing of my mind through sewing. The similarity, I suspect, is not because of the spiritual intent of the activity, but the mindfulness with which it is done. Washing-up and dusting cobwebs can be carried out with a similar attention to the task at hand and bodily sensations and with similar results.
A modern text on needlework puts sewing on a par with yoga and meditation for its ability to calm the mind and soothe the spirit and it is a long-held aphorism that sewing mends the soul. While much of our life is in continual flux, I can see how mending and creating can provide a quiet space in which there is nothing but needle, thread and the movement of the hands. Sewing, it turns out, is a well kept spiritual secret. At least it was to me!
The wind is sewing with needles of rain.
With shining needles of rain
It stitches into the thin
Cloth of earth. In,
In, in, in.
Oh, the wind has often sewed with me.
One, two, three.
Spring must have fine things
To wear like other springs.
Of silken green the grass must be
Embroidered. One and two and three.
Then every crocus must be made
So subtly as to seem afraid
Of lifting colour from the ground;
And after crocuses the round
Heads of tulips, and all the fair
Intricate garb that Spring will wear.
The wind must sew with needles of rain,
With shining needles of rain,
Stitching into the thin
Cloth of earth, in,
In, in, in,
For all the springs of futurity.
One, two, three.”
– Hazel Hall