Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Robes for the new millenium (get thee to a Vinnies store!)

Early in my exploration of the dharma I went along to a conference (the Mitra Conference) organized by the Buddhist student societies from a number of universities in Sydney. It was the first time I’d come into personal contact with Buddhist monks and nuns.

There was a variety of speakers at this excellent conference which I enjoyed very much. As I watched and listened to the goings on around me however, I noticed something odd. It appeared that the monastic speakers were treated somewhat differently to the lay speakers. The words ‘kid gloves’ came to mind and the monastic robes seemed to trigger what I could only describe as reverence. As the organizers spoke to them they hung on their every word, seemed to be putting on their very best ‘goodie two shoes’ personas and fussed over them like royal princes and princesses.

My curiosity was piqued. On one level, this dharma I was discovering seemed to be so grounded and real. On another, there seemed to be a moving mist of superlative niceness and accommodation that hovered around its devotees wherever they went.

During the second day of the conference I had the opportunity to take part in a small group discussion lead by a Buddhist nun. My experience of her was that she was in fact very grounded, quite lovely, with a sense of humour, wisdom, and no airs and graces. She seemed happy to discuss anything and answer any questions. Indeed she fessed up and said she thought that the monastic life was pretty cruisy and that lay Buddhists had a much tougher gig.

I started to wonder about the function of these robes – why someone so down to earth would be treated as if she were floating around on a cloud. Clinging to a fixed identity is one of the primary causes of suffering as taught by the Buddha and I couldn’t help feeling that there was some identification going on here by the lay people who seemed to treat the monastics like royalty. It is easy to imagine that these magical robes might also lure the monastics to identify with them – with such perks it would be hard not to.

Why did they need to wear robes? Even Catholic Brothers and Sisters have mostly ditched the traditional garb these days to try and fit better in to society. So what function were they serving for this lot?

A while later I discovered where this tradition came from. Robes were pretty standard attire in the Buddha’s neck of the woods (India 2500 years ago) and he and his mates would make their own. They’d go to the local cremation grounds, pick up bits of leftover material from dead people’s robes and stitch them together to make new ones. All pretty un-glamorous but what you’d expect from someone who taught that sense pleasures were a disappointment on the true happiness stakes and that building up an ego or identity was the cause of most of our pain.

As I thought about this, the idea of any Buddhist in the modern world wearing robes seemed all wrong. My husband has traveled through India and so I asked him whether people still wear robes over there – I know they wear saris and the like but I wasn’t sure about robes. He told me that only the spiritual identities wear such things – so even in the birthplace of the Buddha’s teachings people don’t wear robes any more. It is clearly a habit (no pun intended) designed to ‘identify’ the wearer as a monk or nun.

Surely our western equivalent of the Buddha’s DIY robes would be to go down to Vinnies[1] and fill a plastic bag with second hand delights. In fact even that would be positively fancy compared to what the Buddha and his mates did, but given our limited access to dead people’s offcuts it’s probably the next best thing.

The more I thought about it, the more wrong it seemed. Buddhist robes in Western society seem to serve the function of attracting attention to the wearer, attracting veneration for the wearer, and bestowing upon them an exotic, wise, and religious identity. While the Buddha definitely attracted attention in his time, it was due to his teachings, not his sartorial peculiarity. While some may have revered him, his anti-ego views would have precluded him from lapping up any veneration, and his core teachings point to the clinging to identity as the root cause of much of our suffering.

With no disrespect intended to the wearers of said robes, it really does seem like the Buddhist monastics have lost the plot with this tradition – the Buddha’s plot that is. Monastic robes appear to be a historical barnacle that has been mistaken for the boat.

[1] The nick name in Australia for the St. Vincent de Paul Society – a charity that runs well known opportunity (second hand) shops.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Taking care fearlessly - blog introduction

The dharma (teachings of the Buddha) is an incredibly valuable resource for living life. However it's come to us through 2,500 years of Asian history and unsurprisingly, it's come in certain traditional dress(es). The western world needs it badly to cut through the fog of lost-ness that has depression and other 'mental illnesses' at an all time high.

My exploration of it so far has been energising and liberating, not just because of the wisdom contained in the dharma, but because, despite some popular misconceptions, it doesn't ask us to leave our minds at the door. Nor does it ask us to make any leaps of faith. This makes it fit beautifully with our rational world view in the west.

Despite this, and despite meditation's increasing popularity in the West, I think that the 'traditional dress' I referred to deters many people from exploring it - seeing it as another religion. That's such a shame and such a waste of an incredible body of insight that is now being discovered through another avenue - science. Ironically, the traditional dress also encourages others to identify with the dharma (e.g. indulging in Buddhist paraphernalia to identify oneself as a Buddhist, speaking of oneself as a 'Buddhist' when it's not necessary, putting on one's 'nice Buddhist voice' when discussing spiritual issues, mindlessly following rituals without questioning their purpose and impact). The Buddha was very clear that much of our stress and unhappiness is created through the building up and clinging to a fixed identity, so this outcome is also highly unhelpful.

The Buddha himself instructed his followers to go forth (no two in the same direction) and share the insights in a way that the people they encountered would understand. He was all for adaptation to suit the audience. He spent over 40 years of his life adapting his insights to make sense to the people he was speaking to. Yet I hear, see and feel a certain reluctance to do this for ourselves in the West - almost as if our cultures are less valid or meaningful contexts for embodying the insights.

A couple of years ago I went on a combined Zen/Insight Meditation retreat to a wonderful bush venue owned by the Sydney Zen Centre. The flags covered with Japanese characters looked so out of place in the Australian bush and created in me a sense of divorce from my colleagues there, and from the place because I didn't know what they said. Shortly afterwards I sat through a lecture from one of the Zen practitioners and missed the whole point of it because he kept using Japanese dharmic terms with which I was not familiar. I mentioned this to the group the next day and felt a strong sense of having just struck a sacred cow on the nose. A day or so later one of the teachers who is a Zen and an Insight Meditation teacher told me that she had been a bit of a frontier pushing girl in adapting Zen. An old teacher of hers warned her to 'take care' because the changes in the dharma to date had occurred over a very long time and essentially, we don't want to be rash about making them.

I agree with the need to take care, to be diligent, educated and honest about our intentions when adapting something so valuable. However I also think we need to be fearless. We need to look honestly at our reluctance to change traditions and I suspect that often, if we do, we'll see that the motives to follow traditions are actually at odds with the dharma itself. An important caveat here is that we educate ourselves well about what the Buddha taught so that we don't go throwing any babies out with bath water and to test them out fully against our own experience so that we don't swallow any stale bath water.

I also discovered on this retreat, that most of the Zen practitioners knew little to nothing of the dharma itself - the most original version of which is the Pali canon. They knew ONLY the traditions and some of the concepts as intepreted and taught by Zen teachers. They also seemed to have a veneration of the position of 'teacher' - something I have always found unhelpful if learning and practising learning is the main game. The emphasis on one's 'lineage' connection to the Buddha also struck me as strange - pretty hard to verify anyway I thought, and either what? The Buddha himself was deliberate about refusing to appoint a successor - he wanted people to use the teachings as our guide, not to get hung up on who's head honcho at Buddha Corp.

I don't mean to pick on the Zennies here, they are in no way alone in this. I also thought they had some wonderful traditions in which I could see great value. For example publicly taking 'precepts' - declaring your intention to live according to a certain principle and making a bit of a song and dance of it. I can see this could help us keep our resolve when things get tough - a bit like getting married helps you stick with your husband even when he's being a pain in the bum. The reason I've pointed out the things that set off my crap detector is that for me, they detract from the trustworthiness of the tradition overall because it has privileged certain rituals - relieved them of the obligation to stand up to the question:

How does this help?

I've also had numerous other experiences, many of which I'll share as I write these posts, where I've found my 'in-built crap detector' going off at things I've heard in dharma circles. I'll use the question above as my guiding light as I explore. Specifically, what I'll ask is: how does this help me let go of the stress, angst, anxiety and suffering I cause for myself?

I'd really like for this blog to be a forum for taking care of the dharma by:
  • fearlessly questioning what's taught and practiced out there
  • relating it back to the teachings in the Pali Canon
  • subjecting it to the 'how does this help?' test
  • practically applying the helpful stuff to our modern lives, and 
  • consciously shedding any of the barnacles that have been mistaken for the boat.

I hope you'll share the ride.