Katags as Emptiness

The katag — a white scarf used to give and receiving blessings in the Tibetan Buddhist culture — is a wonderful example of emptiness. In Buddhism, emptiness is an important concept. It points out that no person or object has a separate, inherent existence. We are all interdependent, connected, impermanent. Once you realize the emptiness of all things, there is no need to be attached to them in an unhealthy, clinging sort of way.

When I got my first katag, it seemed like a big deal. I ironed it, smoothed out its fringe, and thought of it as “mine.” I put it on a shelf as a decoration, and there it remains. Oh, but I had a lot to learn.

KatagThe next time I got a katag, I got a simpler one, with no fringe. I soon had the opportunity to actually “use” it, when visiting the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. I can’t remember the exact occasion, but I remember following everyone else up and leaving “my” katag on a table, as a way of honoring someone or something — again, I don’t remember exactly, all I knew was that “my” katag was no longer mine. I had given it away.

Soon after, a friend lent me “her” katag to go up and receive blessings from Rinpoche. To my surprise, this time we were not leaving the katag behind…it was being returned to us right away. I asked my friend if she wanted it back and she said no. So I took it home and wondered what I should do with it. Should I hold on to it as a memory of the person who had blessed it? Should I wash the stain off of it? Soon the answer became apparent, because there was another occasion where a katag was appropriate to bring out and offer, and once again, I gave it away.

As I continued to experience how katags are used in Tibetan Buddhism, a wonderful thing happened. I realized they belong to no one, and the blessings are shared by everyone. There is no “I” getting something in exchange for something, or giving up something to someone else. There is no “you” taking something from me or giving it back. We are all swimming in a sea of shared katags (and anything else you can imagine).

So now I always try to have a katag in my purse in case I am in a situation that calls for its use. And what is it’s use? It is a symbol. It’s the idea of showing respect for someone or something. It’s the idea of being humble and generous enough to give.  Sometimes we present them and they are put immediately around our necks. Sometimes we pile them up and leave them on the shrine or a lama’s table. Sometimes we see a pile of katags for sale and wonder if the one we gave away last time is in the pile somewhere, being recycled endlessly, like the water droplets that evaporate, turn into clouds and then rain back on us, a shower of endless, shimmering blessings.

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