Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #21 - What an apprenticeship in tailoring might tell us about the making of a creative, free spirituality or religion . . . - A thought for the day

February 24, 2024 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 21
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #21 - What an apprenticeship in tailoring might tell us about the making of a creative, free spirituality or religion . . . - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.  


Last week I introduced you to an idea offered up by Imaoka Shin-ichirō, the Japanese “Yuniterian” (sic) and advocate of jiyū shūkyō — that is to say a creative, free spirituality or religion. Imaoka-sensei felt that all the great spiritual teachers fully understood it is not that the established religions exist first, and we only come after, but, on the contrary, we humans exist first, and only then comes the established religions. 

I then noted that one profound, and deeply challenging consequence of this insight is that, just as some of us understand that when we are trying to buy a new suit or dress, the ready-made cuts and sizes are never going perfectly to fit us, some of us also understand that the ready-made religions are never going perfectly to fit us either, and that something more fitting can be made. This kind of realization is, of course, precisely what drove the reforms Shakyamuni Buddha, Jesus and many other great spiritual teachers before and after them, sought to make to their own ages’ established religions and spiritual traditions.

And I concluded by suggesting that, amongst other things, a creative, free spiritual or religious community finds its role in the modern world by offering people who can’t be fully satisfied with ready-made, established religions, the opportunity to begin to create for themselves more fitting, that is to say, more “tailored” spiritual and religious ways of being in the world.

Well, today, in an attempt better to make clear what I think is truly being offered to any person who chooses to be connected with the local Cambridge community, I want to use the image of creating a spirituality that fits us well by pursuing the idea of “tailoring” more fully.

You see, I’ve increasingly come to realize that many people are tempted to fall into thinking that what’s being offered within the local community is the well-fitting, bespoke spiritual suit or dress itself. But it’s not. What’s on offer here, in the company of fellow students and experienced free religious and spiritual seekers, is an apprenticeship in how to tailor for yourself your own well-fitting, bespoke spiritual garment suitable for every aspect of your everyday life. [For those who don’t know what happens in Cambridge we offer a Sunday morning service of mindful meditation, music and conversation, and a parallel Thursday morning and evening Kiitsu Kyōkai Zoom sessions offering Seiza mediation (i.e. quiet sitting) and conversation exploring the idea of jiyū shūkyō.]

Now, as some of you may already know, in the world of tailoring, a Saville Row apprenticeship can last up to six years, during which time a person will learn, amongst other things, hand and machine sewing techniques, measuring and fitting, the characteristics of different types of fabrics, the anatomy of jackets, waistcoats, trousers and dresses, and also the vocabulary, history, spirit and ethos of tailoring.

However, in the world of jiyū shūkyō, the apprenticeship lasts a lifetime because, as Imaoka-sensei pointed out, in the university of life there is no graduation. This open-ended way of thinking about in what consists the nature of a genuine, creative free religion or spirituality was echoed by the 20th century philosopher, Yoshinori Takeuchi (1913-2002) who observed that religious and spiritual reflection, “is not a cumulative science in which one generation can build on the foundations of its predecessors; it is a conversion that needs to be repeated fundamentally again and again. No one can secure religious truth for another; the whole length of the road spreads out anew before each individual, beginning to end” (From James Heisig’s “Translators Introduction” in The heart of Buddhism : in search of the timeless spirit of primitive Buddhism” by Takeuchi, Yoshinori, Crossroad, New York, 1983, p.xiv).

But despite this open-endedness, along the whole length of the road that always spreads out anew before each of us, in places like Cambridge, a person can, as in a tailoring apprenticeship, learn how to pay better attention to the materials that make up a life of the spirit. A person also begins to get a good understanding about how to use the basic tools of awareness and openness to the world — particularly the major ones of meditation and conversation — that are required by any tailor wishing to make an authentic, bespoke spirituality.

But in attempting this, we must never forget that although in such an apprenticeship a person is being taught and encouraged to create a finely tailored, bespoke spirituality that genuinely fits well that same person’s unique qualities, it must also teach them how to make a garment that displays what we may call the “timeless” and “universal” quality that gifts every individual sentient and non-sentient thing its being and particular form. In different religious and philosophical traditions this “timeless” and “universal” quality goes by many names, such as God, divinity, Buddha-nature, Brahman, the Spirit of Life, the Light, and many more besides. And, to return to the language of tailoring, what I am talking about now is the lining. As all good tailors know, the lining of a garment — which, remember, you never see from the outside — the lining is only known by the way which the suit or dress hangs and, as Robert E. Carter perspicaciously noted: “One sees the lining by not seeing it, but by reading its nature from the hang of the formed [garment]” (Robert E. Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God, New York, Paragon House, 1989, p 98).

The basic point I am wishing to make is that the fit, quality and hang of any kind of bespoke spirituality a person is trying to make, must not only express that person’s own uniqueness — their “form” — but also the “timeless” and “universal” aspect of reality — the “formless.” But in spirituality and religion, unlike in tailoring, this lining is not something we can ourselves make or get hold of and tailor. The lining we must use is something always-already mysterious, and mysteriously given. In itself, the spiritual lining of all the world’s forms is ineffable, but despite this it is everywhere made effable through the visible, finely tailored, bespoke forms of spirituality displayed, not only by all the great teachers, of which Shakyamuni Buddha and Jesus may stand as iconic examples, but also by the best of our own, often more humble examples.

So, to be absolutely clear about it, the Sunday and Thursday events here in Cambridge are not themselves the bespoke, tailored spirituality you might think are on offer. No, no, no. Instead, what’s on offer is simply one possible ongoing course of apprenticeship in jiyū shūkyō that is absolutely necessary if you wish to create your own finely tailored, unique spirituality over the course of your whole life. But, as I say this, it is important honestly to acknowledge that other, and I’m certain much better apprenticeship courses in jiyū shūkyō are available elsewhere, even if, alas, they are very hard to find.

Now, I fully recognize that this is not the kind of spiritual apprenticeship for the impatient and faint-hearted, because a), it really does last a lifetime, needing to be repeated fundamentally again and again, and b) because the ineffable, formless and mysterious lining it must patiently and attentively learn to work with, is never something in our gift or control, but is instead, as the Gospel of John beautifully puts it, a creative, free spirit that blows where it chooses, and although we hear the sound of it, we do not know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8).

If this apprenticeship sounds like being a too difficult way to follow — or indeed, if this particular apprenticeship course and its tutors in Cambridge, such as me, turns out simply not to be of sufficient quality — then please don’t despair, because ready-made spiritualities and religions are always-already available everywhere around us. Some of them, naturally, are very dodgy and poorly made, and you really should avoid them as they’ll quickly fall apart. But, if you take the time to look around carefully, you will find some that are truly quite lovely, excellently made, and much, much more than merely serviceable. I’m always very happy to point you to some of those if you ever wish me to.

However, despite the real difficulty of pursuing a life-long apprenticeship in jiyū shūkyō — this creative, free spirituality or religion from which there is no final graduation — some of us find we need to hang in that apprenticeship because we have come to know through long experience that all ready-made spiritualities and religions, as good as they can be, are never likely to fit some us as perfectly as we need and would like. People who come here and stay, are always going to be those who have seen that, somehow, somehow, it is possible to tailor a spirituality or religion that better fits our own utterly unique way of being in the world, but which, at the same time, is still able to display something of the beautiful “timeless” and “universal” lining shared by all things.