December 22nd 2019

I recently saw a video (“The Dangerous Pursuit of One of the World’s Rarest Colours”)
put out by the BBC on Dec. 11, 2019 about an indigenous community called the Mixtec
who live in Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, Mexico. They have preserved a long tradition of
dying cotton with vibrant purple ink from mollusks that they call tucohoyi tixinda (scientific
name: purpura pensa). The Mixtec people are, perhaps, the only ones who have continued
to preserve this tradition to this day. For centuries, Mixtecs have traveled 230 km, walking
eight days to reach Puerto Angle, the coast of the rocky shoreline where the tucohoyi
tixinda thrive. It is the men of village who do the dying. They must climb up and down
steep rocky crags to reach the mollusks that thrive near the surface of the water. The
tucohoyi tixinda live not underwater, but near where the waves break. They can only be
reached during low tide, so there is just a short window get the dye. The Mixtec men lower
themselves down the cliff with clean, washed cotton thread, which are dyed by extracting
the milk from the tucohoyi tixinda. They remove the sea snail which latch themselves on to
the rocks. With the thread wrapped around one’s hand, they squeeze out the ink from the
snail gently, not to harm the snail, and pour the ink over the thread. The secretion from the
snail is first white in color. But, as it is exposed to air, the white color turns to yellow, and
then to green. Interestingly, when it is laid to absorb the suns rays, the thread turns purple.
After the ink is drawn from the snail, the snail is carefully replaced in a damp place so that
it can attach itself to the rocks again. It should not be placed where the waves would hit
them as it takes a few minutes before they can stabilize themselves. These sea snails have
decreased in number because some people harvest them for consumption. There was also a
time in the 1980s, that a Japanese company called Imperial Purple came and exploited the
snails for their ink. They took the snails for their ink without knowing that the snails could
be milked without killing them. As a result, their numbers dwindled. Gladly, the Mexican
government stepped in with a measure that limited their access to the indigenous Mixtec
community. For the Mixtec, preserving the tucohoyi tixinda is equivalent to the
preservation of their own identity and culture. As such, the Mixtec dyers are extremely
knowledgeable of these mollusks. For example, they would strategically avoid milking the
mollusks during certain periods, such as in the summer months which is their mating
season. Then, in April and May, they start laying eggs. The dyers also know that that the
mollusks, once milked, will require one moon cycle to regenerate more milk. The Mixtec
limit their dying activity to the months of October to March.
According to Mixtec dyer Mauro Habacuc Avendano Luis, there were once fifteen dyers
from their village, but now there are only fourteen. Young people are leaving the
community to find jobs elsewhere because of the difficulty of making a living from just
dying the threads. Dying is very tedious work as one can only get so much dye from one
mollusk. According to a PBS news article, “The dy(e)ing art of Mexico’s Mixtecs” (Sept 5,
2015), it requires a thousand snails to color four ounces of cotton thread. And, one must
accomplish this in the short time that the tides are low. It is also very dangerous work as
one would have to work near the waves, while climbing its steep cliffs.

Inasmuch as there are so many things that work against the Mixtec community, I can see
that they are still passionately intent on continuing this tradition which some researchers
claim have been passed on since the 16th century. I was very impressed by the fact that they
need to exert so much effort. Traversing hundreds of kilometers to reach the mollusks is by
itself a daunting adversity. But, I thought that they have continued this for ages because
they understand its worth. They are of the conviction that the purple dyes are so precious
that it is worth all its pain and risk to attain.
The great lengths that the Mixtec go to obtain the purple dye remind me of the Buddha’s
strong ambition to attain the teachings of the Lotus Sutra when he was still a bodhisattva.
In chapter 12 of the Lotus Sutra, “Daibadatta”, the Buddha, then still in training, asks, “Who
will expound the Great Vehicle to me? If there is such a person, I will make offerings to
him, and run errands for him for the rest of my life.” A sage then appeared, who said, “I
have a sutra of the Great Vehicle called the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful
Dharma (Lotus Sutra). If you are not disobedient to me, I will expound this sutra to you.”
Upon hearing this, the Buddha danced with joy, and immediately became the sage’s servant.
He offered the sage anything that he wanted. He collected fruits, drew water, gathered
firewood, and prepared meals for him. He even allowed his body to be the sage’s seat. He
never tired in body or mind, serving the sage for a thousand years. In order to hear the
Dharma from this teacher, the Buddha served him so tirelessly that the sage was not be short
of anything.
The Buddha devoted himself completely, giving up his own time, energy, and health,
just so that he can gain the great wisdom of the Lotus Sutra. So, just as the Mixtecs see
great value in the tucohoyi tixinda’s purple dye, and are willing to sacrifice of themselves,
the Buddha is said to have given up everything of himself to learn the Lotus Sutra. That is,
the chance to gain the teaching of the Lotus Sutra should be worth giving up everything.
(Eisei Ikenaga)