I’ve decided to make a change in our upcoming retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, April 5-7, 2019 (sign up now, we’ve still got a few open cushions). We’re not going to wear Buddhist robes this time.
I’ve had two main Zen teachers. One of them never wore robes. The other one always wore robes. So I sometimes wear robes, but I always feel weird about it. If you were being kind you could call this an expression of the Middle Way. If you weren’t being kind you could call it being half-assed. It’s probably both.
Nishijima Roshi, my teacher in Japan, the one who always wore robes, never did chanting services. He thought that Zen in Japan had devolved into nothing but chanting services, so he took a hard line against them. I learned how to do Zen chanting services when I visited Tassajara. I’d been doing zazen for about three decades by the time I participated in my first Zen style chanting service.
I liked the morning chanting service they did at Tassajara, and thought they’d be a good way to start the day at our Mount Baldy retreats. So I taught a few other people what I’d learned at Tassajara and we started doing them.
It seemed appropriate to wear the robes when performing these services. I looked upon them like costumes for a performance. When Haruo Nakajima performed the role of Godzilla, he wore a big rubber dinosaur costume. This was appropriate for the role he was playing. When he put on that costume, he pretended he was a monster. When he took it off, no one mistook Haruo Nakajima for Godzilla.
That’s the way I treated the Buddhist robes during our chanting services. I put them on and pretended to be a Zen Buddhist priest. I took them off and I was me again.
I’m going to try doing the services without robes for a bit, though. Because I am concerned that people still think I’m Godzilla even when I take off the rubber dinosaur costume.
The original intention of wearing robes, back when the Buddha did it, was to express humility and a commitment to a disciplined life. In his earlier life, the Buddha had worn fine fancy clothes. These clothes asserted his position as an important person and a man of leisure. The plain robes he wore later in life expressed the opposite.
But it wasn’t long before the robes Buddhists wore began to express something else. Rather than indicating a humble position, they began to be seen as signaling a special and exalted status. Robes made of cheap cloth gave way to robes made of fine silk with elaborate embroidering. Funny hats were added. Before long, those robes were the very same kind of clothing the Buddha had rejected.
This didn’t happen everywhere in every case. But it happened often enough that the symbol of the robe started getting lost and confused. So the robes were changed and simplified. Then a few generations later they got elaborate again. Then a few years later they’d get simplified. And so on it went.
In Japan these days you see a lot of fancy-schmancy Buddhist robes. But I also feel there’s a general understanding that those robes don’t really mean very much. Japanese people in general are not very religious. They aren’t impressed by religious rituals and spiritual leaders. They understand that the people who wear those robes are not really the characters they’re portraying in ceremonies any more than Haruo Nakajima was really Godzilla.
If you look at the way Buddhist monks are portrayed in films like Rashomon and Fancy Dance, which I reviewed a few months ago on my YouTube channel, you can see what Japanese people generally think of Buddhist monks.
In America, on the other hand, we take our religions very seriously. Especially if those religions are exotic imports from the mystic east. Someone who wears the mysterious robes of an enlightened master from a far off land is a very special person.
I got my first taste of this when I wore my rakusu — a miniaturized Buddhist robe that hangs from your neck like a weird looking bib — to Green Gulch Farm, the San Francisco Zen Center’s farming community/monastery just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Nishijima Roshi had given me a light brown rakusu to indicate I’d been given dharma transmission. I never thought much of the color choice until I saw how people reacted to my rakusu at Green Gulch. When I put it on I suddenly transformed from being just another dude walking around the place into a celebrity that people were breaking their necks trying to gawk at as I passed. It was weird and disconcerting.
I’ve tried hard not to let people who come to our events at Angel City Zen Center or our retreats at Mount Baldy start seeing the robes that way. But lately I think it’s not working. I feel a vibe that I don’t like whenever I put on those robes.
So I’m trying something different starting at this upcoming retreat. Neither I, nor anyone else, will be wearing Buddhist robes even when we do the morning service. I’m also changing the way we offer incense to the Buddha at the morning services.
Usually, at the beginning of the chanting service, the most senior priest, dressed in fine robes, offers a stick of incense and bows to the Buddha on behalf of the community. This was originally intended as another show of humility and commitment. But I feel like it’s now being seen as an expression of special priestly privilege.
Starting at this upcoming retreat, a different volunteer from among the those attending the retreat will do the incense offering each morning. I will stand back and bow along with everyone else in the group. The honor of offering the incense will be circulated among those who attend our services at the Angel City Zen Center too.
I’m gonna see if this works to deflate some of the special-ness that seems to go with wearing fancy robes and playing fancy roles. Maybe we’ll start seeing that we’re all Godzilla.
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