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A Beautiful 18th Century Silk Kesa

November 13, 2008

From my last trip to Japan–I returned to New York about two weeks ago–I brought back this wonderful, silk brocade, late eighteenth century kesa: a kesa is a Buddhist priest’s garment, whose origin is the ragged, mendicant garb worn by the historical Buddha and his disciples.  As is popular knowledge, the Buddha renounced worldly things and begged for food to survive; his clothing, too, reflected his renunciation of the world.

As you can see from this kesa, Buddhism flourished and changed as time went on, and so did the “original” kesa, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit, kashaya, which means, to some extent, ‘colorless.’  It is a self-effacing word.  Latter day kesas from  China, Korea and Japan, were hardly self-effacing: ragged kesas were transformed into regal garments of prestige and power–and were made of the finest cloth, usually luxurious, silk brocades.  They were still, however, stitched from pieces of cloth, albeit golden silks of the highest quality.

Of the many things that I like about this particular kesa, chief among them is its eccentricity–look at the unusual combination of cloth and the mixture of the scale of pattern across the surface of this garment.  Often, silk kesa are beautifully symmetrical and emit an air of inapproachability, probably owing something to the sanctity of ceremony and ritual to which they attend.

This kesa, on the other hand, has charm; it has wear; it seems to have belonged to a small temple in a small city; it has a kind of home made look and lacks the ulta-sophistication of a rich “city” kesa: note the combination of many different kinds of silks; it even seems that some of the end pieces from the bolt of brocade are used to make this gorgeous thing (I’m referring to the fragments of cloth that are made of multi-colored, stacked rectangles).

The border pieces show roundels that depict a stylized phoenix, a sacred Buddhist symbol brought to Japan from China.  Most likely the luxurious cloth used to make this kesa was donated to the temple by the congregation or by a rich donor family.

The kesa is meant to be sewn in a meditative way using specific stitches and imbued with good intentions. The act of sewing a kesa was thus considered a devotional pursuit. Receiving the kesa, because it symbolized Buddhist teaching, was an important part of the ordination ceremony for a Buddhist priest.

I’ve listed this kesa on my site this week, so have a look at the entry there to learn a bit more about this one.  My other site entries on kesa are here, and if you follow that link, you’ll find a bit more information on these beautiful, antique garments.

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