Posts Tagged ‘brocade’

Here in early November, as I look out on the faded reds and golds of the Western New York landscape, I’m reminded of two verses from The Book of Equanimity, a foundational text of the Soto Zen tradition:

   Mother Nature goes on weaving warp and woof;

   the woven old brocade contains the images of spring–

Derived, oddly enough, from the same root as broccoli (L., broccus, pointed, projecting), the word brocade refers to a woven fabric in which a pattern of ornamental figures, often floral in character, stands out in low relief against a plain, contrasting background. Embodied in what is called an “unstructured weft,” the threads that form the figures of brocade were at one time made of silver or gold. The complex, labor-intensive process of brocading was performed by hand, and for most people its materials were prohibitively expensive. For those reasons, brocade has historically been associated with the royalty, the nobility, and the ecclesiastical hierarchies. In earlier centuries, in countries as diverse as India, Japan, Italy, and France, handwoven brocade was the fabric of choice for exquisite saris, kimonos, dresses, vestments, and the like. In keeping with this illustrious history, the word brocade connotes luxury, antiquity, and uncommon beauty.

In the verses from The Book of Equanimity, Mother Nature is the weaver of the “old brocade,” and the fabric she weaves is the natural world. Her brocade includes the fall colors, but it also contains “the images of spring.” In this inclusive metaphor, the cyclic rhythms of the seasons are evoked, as are the contrasting colors of the changing seasons. The one contains the other. And, just as the figure of the “woven old brocade” celebrates the enduring beauty of the natural world, it also brings to mind, in the image of the weaver, such human qualities as patience, care, and the capacity to envision a time and place other than the one immediately present.

In her essay “A Brocade Cannot Be Woven in One Color,” the Soto Zen priest Shundo Aoyama Roshi alludes to The Book of Equanimity and examines the figure of the brocade in relation to human experience. More specifically, she relates that figure to what are known in Zen as the Eight Vicissitudes: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. All are components of the human condition, and to a large extent, all lie beyond our control. But if we cannot always prevent the vicissitudes from occurring, we do have some say as to how we respond to them. Aoyama Roshi puts the matter this way:

Life goes on without regard to our partial or selfish desires. Accordingly, joy and anger, sadness and happiness, love and hate, and all kinds of thoughts and emotions are woven together. If everything, including misfortune, illness, and failure, is unconditionally accepted as it is, then all experience may be constructively enjoyed.

Extending the metaphor of weaving from the realm of objective, external changes to those that shape our inner, emotional lives, she underscores the metaphor’s inclusive nature:

Birth, old age, illness, and death, as well as happiness and misfortune, gain and loss, love and hate—all these are important tools for weaving the brocade of human life. A brocade cannot be woven with the single color of happiness. Given time, place, and occasion, everything “contains all colors.”

Rather than view adversity from the narrow standpoint of the immediate present, or expect all of our experience to manifest the “single color of happiness,” we are enjoined to take the long view and to embrace those conditions that we are inclined to deny, resist, or avoid.

In The Book of Equanimity, the figure of the brocade appears in “Case 1,” a “case” being the original term (“public case”) for a Zen koan. The general theme of Case 1 is the unconditional acceptance of things as they are. Such acceptance, it must be said, does not preclude corrective action. Paradoxically, full acceptance is the most reliable basis for such action. But as the figure of the brocade implies, and as Aoyama’s commentary makes explicit, such radical acceptance requires us first to set aside our “partial or selfish desires” and acknowledge the totality of human experience. Such a response is challenging, to say the least, especially when the reality we are admonished to acknowledge is changing rapidly, and the conditions to be accepted are dark and dire. But the figure of the brocade is also consolatory, insofar as it suggests that in the fullness of “time, place, and occasion,” other and potentially better conditions may lie ahead. However worn or tattered, the woven old brocade contains the images of spring.


Gerry Shishin Wick, The Book of Equanimity (Wisdom, 2005), 11.

Shundo Aoyama, Zen Seeds (Shambhala, 2019), 20-21.


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