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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.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous made a comment on my introductory post that is relevant to this post. He/she said 'robes are a symbol of renunciation'. There are two thoughts that come to mind in response to this.

    First, as with the comment made on the 'To chant or not to chant' post, I think the issue of the gap between intent and impact is relevant here. I think if you surveyed 50 people on the street and asked what the robes of a monk or nun meant to them, they might mention simplicity (perhaps mildly relevant to renunciation), but most would mention holiness, spirituality, religiousness, and exotic cultural identity. Wearing ordinary non-fuss second hand clothing would potentially be more in line with symbolising renunciation in modern secular society.

    The second thought that arises for me is why monastics need to symbolise anything to others. From what I know about the Buddha and his buddies, they weren't wearing robes in order to tell everyone that they were renouncing the material world. They were wearing them because they were the garb of the time and they had no money. So the true reflection of that in modern society is to wear the garb of our time that doesn't cost money.

    Renunciation is something that happens on the inside. Sure, it will show up in our outward behaviours too, but the main shift toward renunciation is an internal one. My sense is that the minute we start dressing a certain way in order to communicate something to others we need to be vigilant because identification is likely to be lurking in the shadows.

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  2. I couldn't help but think of Thoreau, writing in Walden: "It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes."

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