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
. It was the first time I’d come into personal contact with Buddhist monks and nuns. Sydney
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 (
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. India
As I thought about this, the idea of any Buddhist in the modern world wearing robes seemed all wrong. My husband has traveled through
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. India
Surely our western equivalent of the Buddha’s DIY robes would be to go down to Vinnies 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.