On Buddhist Robes in 21st Century Western Culture

In Chicago's Union Station

At the outset, I would like to thank the other two other people in the discussion that made it happen. Thank you. And now, on with the show:

On Buddhist Robes in 21st Century Western Culture

Facebook talk and lengthy outtakes from this unpopular (actually nearly unknown!) misleader of wrong views Sherab Gyatso Alex – All views tend to be subjective.

In the facebook or so called “social media” we have a possibility very dynamic communication of back and forth, at times no one knows who will join in and what feedback will they affect.

Many choices are available:

-A one-liner that that seems consequential but too short to be meaningful.

-An argumentative post that seems to argue no matter what comes about even if agreed with.

-A series of argumentative posts, where no one knows after a while as to who is arguing with whom, let alone why.

-Posts written without any adherence to spelling, grammar or punctuation, making intent of the author hard to understand.

-All other choices are also available obviously.

Now, sometimes there is a discussion that can be recognized as one on a relevant topic. What makes a topic important or relevant in my eyes one may ask? If you have repeatedly heard these same ideas, similar discussions online and importantly: offline. Also, for a while. Then, there maybe something to it, but it’s just a lucky guess, because all you will get is a few opinions, let’s hope it is of help.

Let’s open up with who is who in this particular one. I will replace their names enough so that they are or anyone that read it knew who is who but general public would not get all the details of the sort. Original post was written by some one from Europe and after a while I wrote up a few messages in reply. Then author came back into the discussion and politely continued, acknowledging my comments. Then we had an input from some one with a “Geshe” in their name which indicates about 20 years of scriptural study in a major Tibetan Gelugpa Monastery and successful passage of final exams. Contribution of the Venerable Geshe opened up the discussion to better degree, it became more interesting.

The Original Post [OP]:

“…[OP] My dear friends, especially Tibetans, I. want your competent opinion. Recently I saw a lama dressed in a dark red “skirt” (shamtap) like a monastic skirt and a yellow shirt with long sleeves. No additional articles. Is this lama a monk (when judging on his clothes) or a layperson? What do normally wear Tibetan lamas who are not monks? Your comments are welcome both here and as messages…”

[My later commentary on the above:]

This is very interesting idea, the dress codes capture a lot of attention because nearly always there is quite a bit of difference in regards to what spiritual or religious practitioners wear and other people who say are going to work, or are going shopping wear. All with quite natural level of fascination, usually towards the minority of the spiritual practitioners. Also, as we seem to like all sorts of simple linear structures like top to bottom hierarchy. As well as structure of uniforms that could help us as we hope “understand” something. So, we want to unfailingly figure out who is higher, lower, more or less distinguished, learned, or married, or not married -celibate.

The [OP] post, shows acute interest from the original poster, because they have gone back and edited it a bit, working the discussion material in. Hope they do not mind my usage here.

[ASG My posted comment:]

Could be anyone. Best, healthiest way to treat this as just another type of clothes. That person was emulating the Buddha in the dress-code. What his commitments and meditations are? That is a different thing from what they wear. Dress\suit\clothes do not have any importance by them selves and people are mostly free to wear what they want.

[My later commentary on the above:]

There are so many, many different particulars that come up in regards to the clothes that Buddhist Spiritual practitioners wear. The original idea is to wear something that is by no means is expensive or beautiful. Rather to illustrate act of renunciation, In original Indian context monk’s robe should be always previously used and possibly rejected by others for any other use. A robe made from something quite torn and patched, a robe in which a dead body was previously wrapped, there are many old, traditional ideas on how to illustrate the act of crossing the invisible border that separates everyday life and the life of some one that renounced all that is associated with it. All in order to devote them selves to the spiritual pursuits.

While in the past in countries of Asia some of these clothes could be identified as similar to the mainstream and in the same time still identifying the wearer as not being part of. Come today and some of these dress-codes are hard to fit in. Imagine a male Buddhist follower with possibly shaved head (or a long, uncut in a while hair) wearing what amounts to a skirt and a shawl and walking in mid-town Manhattan. They are unlikely to fit in and somewhere outside of the middle of world’s class mega city it maybe even harder.

What we are left with in the 21st century is to try to figure a common sense role, what do these clothes mean? In a Christian background country we can come across the idea that robes are bestowed and with the robes comes bestowal of a higher, priestly status of some sort. Which in fact goes contrary to the original Buddhist ideas of non-establishment, renunciation and individual practice, decidedly on the margins of the society. The idea of the Clergy, the institution, how does it work?

If some one is highly realized when it comes to the timeless wisdom of Buddhism, on the ultimate level it is never a reason to be above anyone, the words “high priest” can’t apply, it is rather a means to be on anyone’s level and be able to connect ever-so-perfectly, high, low, anything. The idea of veneration comes only from our recognition of good qualities of others and in Buddhism it is more so that no one will ever ask for the veneration, ideally even the common formula of “it is not asked for, it is only earned” would not really work, because any kind of veneration is never by any means the goal from the side of the person venerated. After demonstrating perfect awakening Buddha Shakyamuni remained silent for a long while because he found his experience to be pointless and impossible to communicate. However after recognition of his highest realization and requests for teachings from others there came to be what we know as teachings on the many paths to awakening (the Buddhahood).

[OP reply:] “…Oh, thank you very much for your reply! It was lama [name removed] ,one of quite well known lamas on the [name removed] lineage. I saw him in Moscow. I believe he is a good lama. I simply could not find out whether he is a monk or a layman. (I still cannot 🙂 Yes, and I understand Russian, surely. Thank you much once again!…”

[ASG posted comment:]

Well, what a practitioner wears can clear these questions only some of the time. “Layman” also works better if exchanged for married or householder.

[OP reply:]

Yes, I meant householder, it really sounds better.

[ASG posted comments:]

This is an important distinction because sooner or later within Tibetan Buddhism you will be getting glimpses of Mahayana and Vajrayana, while monks / nun / lay vows are common to the transmission of Hinayana vehicle practice these other higher vehicles also have practices and vows. Keeping these 3 in perspective is very important topic. As a side note on monks and nuns ordained with Hinayana vows of individual liberation in a monastery. There is a total of 5 robes plus one more zen available (possibly 6 then) and lower golden robes are the ones that should stay on even during the night. Here is a link on that, that however does not discuss Mahayana and Vajrayana.

[My later commentary on the above:]

There are these robes that a fully ordained monk can wear:

Skirt and sleeveless shirt of golden color, over that skirt and sleeveless short of mostly red color. A red colored zen (shawl) and a yellow colored zen made of patches. The above is in Tibetan Buddhist monastic traditions that draw the lineage of commitments from India in unbroken line from the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. All in accordance to the Hinayana tradition teachings of Vinaya (vowed morality) common to this casual vehicle of individual liberation.

Second Chapter in the discussion

A learned Geshe enters with an important comment:

[Geshe:]

If he/she follows the vinaya rules, there’s no place to say that they can wear what ever they want.

[ASG, My posted comment:]

Good point. Thank you.

[My later commentary on the above:]

There is a difference in perspective here. In the initial post one maybe left under impression that the person whose clothes we are talking about could be on the street, possibly just walking by. If however it is from the point of view of the an actual person assuming commitments, if that is what we are talking about now, turning to this point of view of practice and commitments, from their point of view, then if they took the commitment to wear the clothes of a renunciate, abandoning such will constitute breakage of these very commitments. Unless, and this is important and huge “unless” they would like to demonstrate to all of us that whatever was the goal of the path that the dress-code was a part of is perfectly attained. And they are realized as an awakened Buddha. So, as a result of this gap in our perception of what appears and our less then perfect understanding, because of that we are told not to worry about judging others until we can clearly know their mind, which is possible if one themselves is realized or through long time and of a logical effort. And after all Buddhism is a living, breathing tradition that makes it possible, if not required.

[ASG My posted comment:]

To sum this important point if some one undertakes to uphold monk/nun vows the dress code is an important part of upholding that.

[ASG My posted comment:]

Also it is a custom to already wear monks robe if one is studying for ordination. As wearing these robes is considered to be a positive act. In the Christian countries there is a persistent belief that robes “make the man” while it is somewhat true. It is study/meditation/realization that is really important. Milarepa famously at one time had nothing to wear at all.

[My later commentary on the above]

General idea that is common to this discussion here is that this spiritual path, even if it does contradict general dynamic of the society it is the path of virtue, path of cultivation of all things positive, not so much the path of identification of negative. It is in these terms more of the path of focus and of positivity. As is illustrated by possibly an oldest Buddhist teaching continuously extant in this world today. It is attributed to the Buddha Kashyapa, Buddha previous to the of our time, Buddha Shakyamuni, it is something along these lines:

To avoid negative

To cultivate positive

To master one’s mind

These are the Buddha’s teachings

So, the focus seems on really on mastering one’s mind rather then common to today’s thinking of imaginary judgment of others, because however wrong they may possibly be, we are all here still in need to master that mind of ours. To find a good teacher and to emulate them is a good and meritorious thing then, if it is possible to do in a way of wearing similar clothes, that that is too easy to pass by.

Third chapter in the discussion

[OP reply:]

Oh, thank you, Geshe-la. It is Lama [name removed] of the [name removed] lineage. I believe he is a good lama. I just do not know if he is a monk or a layman. Do laymen wear monastic skirts? Or can all practitioners wear them?

[ASG posted comment:]

The layman is not a good term to use as I have pointed earlier. I am offering following choices: married and householder.

Everything in outer expression of a practitioner is connected to their inner work. Guru Padmasambhava is pictured wearing 3 types of robes to offer a metaphorical message of realization of 3 paths for example. Also our opinion of some one as good Lama is highly subjective quite naturally, until we get a bit more learned, experienced and realized.

[My later commentary on the above]

I should offer this better wording to illustrate the idea that I did not present clearly before: Everything in outer expression of a practitioner can be connected to their inner work. –In our own understanding, if we are thinking about them. In other words from a perspective of a spectator.

Then: Everything in outer expression of a practitioner should be connected to their inner work. –Quite naturally, from our own perspective, we are able to make many, many choices all the time. And it is an important part of the spiritual practice, the choices that we make.

[Geshe:]

Well we are talking about Buddha and HIS followers Buddhist. So it is correct to make a precise distinction between ordained (monk) and not ordained (lay men) person. No ordained person is not necessarily be a house holder either. There are many son/daughter of noble one (rigki phu, phumo) who looks forward to become a (vinaya follower) monks/nuns. Padmasambhava also shown one aspect of Gelong (fully ordained) monk, which wore chokhoe and shamthap, which means to show the difference. So, strictly speaking, shamthap is given to those who takes the vows of give up lay cloths. He/she should not embrace the lay dress.

[My later commentary on the above]

My comments to the above are along the lines of the idea that some people accept Guru Rinpoche the Padmasambhava as a 2nd Buddha with complete mastery of all 3 types of paths, as nature of a Buddha is something we can only speculate about, it is correct to rather talk about “depictions” for the sake of establishing a common ground. In the other words it is easier to talk about picture painted by an artist that we can see, then an experience of a Buddha. Even Buddha himself preferred talking to us about the direction, the path to these experiences. So, the common Padmasambhava images in the form of Lake Born shows mastery of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana through display of various garments and accoutrements that are like lay person, monk, king and yogi would wear.

[ASG My posted comment:]

Thank you venerable. Can we agree that to emulate Buddha in dress-code is meritorious? For the benefit of the readers?

[My later commentary on the above:]

Comment on the above. In my narrow understanding, it is important that Buddhists should not seek to establish a Christian-like clergy. We can instead concentrate on generation of merit through our body, speech and mind. One of such things without doubt is to emulate Buddha in body / conduct (wearing of particular clothes), speech and mind, -Go to teachings, read books, master teachings to the best of your ability, meditate.

[ASG My posted comment:]

In case of visible spiritual practitioners there are is a number that are married (a good number of famous Sakyapa lamas for example) and these are the people that we seem to be talking about. So to call a married Lama “lay” may be a bit off. Reason for this is that in Tibetan Buddhism there is both, strong celibate monk and married yogi (whom it may be a bit off to call lay) tradition.

[My later commentary on the above:]

There is no special magic, recognition or entitlement. If you received the teachings, if you practice them, if you feel that “this is it” for you, then obviously it is. It is very easy to encounter the Buddhist teachings from the point of view of logistics, there is a sea of books in many languages, many Buddhist Temples everywhere and connection through internet is even more effortless. It is only really a matter of personal inclination, of your previous karma. All that we have done in the past makes for who we are here and now. Quite naturally some people are inclined to search out Buddhist teachings and feel it is “it” for them and some even after connecting to these teachings remain as spectator.

There are many levels of practice that are available within Tibetan Tradition of the transmission of Buddhism. None of these transmissions are there for their own sake, all are there to lead disciples to the ultimate result of awakening. And ultimately it is up to us to make our own journey. On that journey we work on refining our perception of others in positive direction, not judging them in any way negatively especially if they are seemingly to us, are failing. Because there is always a possibility that we have no idea of their inner experience, at all. Or, even if they are failing, how our condescending judgment is any good to them? –That would be the time, if we could, to try to hold them up, to offer support. And even possibly, worst of all, we can be just producing useless act of criticizing others, that is of no help to no one.

[ASG My posted comment:]

Then, there is “lay vows” That are from the same level as monk vows of individual freedom, as you already mentioned.

[Geshe:]

Upasaka/ upasika (who holds the lay vows) and gotra (rig ki phu/phumo) are different. However, I think whenever we talk about vinaya (codes and conduct) we have to look into vinaya, not what people does. It helps me a lot. No matter how high and practitioners they may called, according to vinaya, even Buddha himself have to wear the chokhoe and shamthab. here are many bodhisattva who are lay and there are also many ordained one. From the vinaya prospects we could say lay/ordained bodhisattva.

[ASG My posted comment:]

Well If you call a Lama “Lay” I find it off in a way of English Language, because Lama (if some one is called thus) most often means a realized person, so I would call them Householder Lama, or a Married Lama, not a Lay Lama. This was the original point.

[My later commentary on the above]

The above discussion would make sense if we were to make some substitutions: Substitute Lama for somewhat synonymous here: Master.

Then substitute Lay Person for a Beginner (which they could in many instances be). While it is possible to say that some one is a Lay Master, it is all about their style of outer expression. They still are master. However if one is in some way thinks that to be a married realized practitioner is somehow less, they contradict the fact that that practitioner is established to be realized, to be the master. They just are taking road that does not set marriage aside. But from the point of view of result, their path even if  more challenging is the same, if not more complete then a monastic who with care avoids all distractions. –This is contrary to the “common sense” wisdom of everyday, the material values that tell us that abandoning the everyday material values is the hardest thing to attain. However that attainment can never figure as ultimate goal, because the goal then would amount to nothing, possibly madness. Renunciation is cultivated in order to focus on the path of wisdom of awakening. And when there are distractions of a household, this path is much harder to focus on.

[ASG My posted comment:]

In regards to The Buddha. Well, there are many depictions of many Buddhas. Buddha Tara, Buddha Vajrakilaya, Buddha Kuntuzangpo. Usually these representations do not wear any of the monk’s robes, some are naturally depicted in union with the consort.

[My later commentary on the above]

Within Tibetan transmission of Buddhism, which is if researched is thought to be the most complete transmission possible that encompasses living tradition of practices of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. To ignore one or two of these three in favor of one or the other will in reality contradict the spirit of the living transmission that is out there. Also, over time there is quite a lot of thought and guidance that went into how to practice all three together, without conflict. Above mentioned Buddha Tara, Vajrakilaya and Khuntuzangpo have most prominent places in the Vajrayana, which because of it direct explanation and direct method of practice is thought of as the highest of the three. So, it can’t be ignored. If at least for the simple fact that from the point of view of the result it is the path that allows perfect awakening of the buddha and in one lifetime. Unlike other two paths that do not account for a possibility of the result in one lifetime at all, with much greater focus on the path of cause and effect and inherent to a long path hardship.

[ASG My posted comment:]

In regards to what Guru Padmasambhava instructed his followers to do is to adopt very humble Hinayana outer conduct, to be as peaceful as possible on outside and to have highest possible view inward. As Buddha himself told us that there is no one responsible for our own liberation but us, that idea of “high view” the inner practice becomes very personal matter, in most cases no one also even cares.

Final remarks, in conclusion on all of the above

How to deal with the different robes? The robes can be purchased in a store, they can be worn as any other types of clothes. There are even famous beggars on the streets on New York City that smoke cigarettes, text through cell phones with heads of full hair that wear a kind of Asian monk outfit with a hat and beg for money. A lot of what calls these into focus today in the West has to do with the idea that these are outdated (very old) fashions of a country far away. The ideas in so many cases are not known, because often they are too cryptic even in their native countries of today.

Unlike some special garments bestowed on the clergy of say Christian denominations that elevate the person to the higher rank. These robes are thought to be by some Buddhists the best dress code, simply because they are same as what previous masters down to Buddha and Padmasambhava wore and made famous through their practice and realization. By wearing same, we say in our heart, I dedicate to the practice and I want to be like you. Even if by a simple act of wearing something.  Curiously by wearing these totally dated fashions today in the West, a renewed sense of renunciation of materialistic, societal values is required.

This article does not address “Upward Inclusion” which is established to be the principle by which Tibetan Buddhist paths can be practices cohesively. And is the most important principle point, by which a realized master of Vajrayana is determined to be also the master of Mahayana and Hinayana, without fail.

If I could, if it was in my power, I would do anything to encourage others already entering into Buddhism to engage in the practice on all levels, to make it their own, to become comfortable, to call it “home”.

It is too easy to try to stick to some sort of “Dogma” or even take a thing that is most alive and try to convert it into a dogma. It is hard to stay open minded, simple spoken (that one is my problem too often!) and also eloquent (which is clearly the challenge here as well). With best possible wishes from unlearned foreign yogi in an alien land that was called Alex by his parents and Sherab Gyatso by a miraculous Lama that I imagine frowning at me, kindly from above my head.

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Author’s: What’s What

Summer Retreat 2005

Excerpt from the book to be published this summer under title of What’s What, the book of mish-mash, of far-out ideas, idle talk, gossip and musings on the spiritual path of the search for the truth, from your’s truly, the misleader of the wrong views, Sherab Gyatso Alex.

Few Words of introduction

It is often heard to be said,

Just about any effort:

“To preserve the past and build the future…”

-It is just that mindset turned towards illusory conventionally agreed upon dreamlike reality that causes suffering.

Then,

Past is a history and is never now,

Of course,

Future is a mystery and is also never now,

Because,

Present is now and is all there is.

Also,

Tomorrow is the day that never comes, that day is by definition is always tomorrow.

And,

-These can become a practical mindset that encourages action or non-action, encourages presence in here and now and puts this dream-like that seemingly surrounds us into actually practical perspective.

Rather,

Than preserving that which can not be preserved because it is gone. Or building that which no matter the effort will be there, but can not really be known in here and now completely, unless one has clairvoyance of a fully actualized Buddha.

So,

Without any stress or sense of urgency it is important to know that the time to act is always now.

Without making plans for the actions of the future, lay down foundation for the future by rather doing what you could plan for this present moment, knowing of cause and effect and possibilities without limit as everything arising depends on causes and everything can act as a cause.

In addition,

It’s such a good idea to be able to evaluate theories from point of view of application and benefit.

Therefore,

Let us find true benefit and when it instantly happens make it so.

Special note on the Now, the present.

There is practical difference to learning, or following a teacher and in a confused, ego driven way “trying to figure things out”.

In the 1st instance there is a possibility of open minded learning, in the second there is a possibility of identification of what one already knows and while there are things to be learned and experienced, chance of that is blocked. Ultimately ideas of past, present and future are there with focus on present but as a gross springboard, a launching pad to affect liberation from all three. And not to be stuck in.

Take it Easy Man…

dude

Take it easy man,

Draft for an essay on the Dude and the spiritual fatigue

History of anything can be written as history of appropriation. Americans got pasta from Italians who got noodles from China, that kind of idea. With that in mind it is an all fun game of tracing histories of ideas and appropriations in written form. For the actual fact that there must always be a point of view, in other words of who appropriates who / what. And not the other way around. Much harder to establish on the level of ideas.

There is a long standing highly respected tradition of attribution of all or as may quotes as possible, writing of bibliographies at the end of any book or even composing commentaries onto texts with use of only already recognized as classic texts, without much addition at all. Within this dynamic even at a slight glimpse of one feels the weight. The responsibility, it is hard to think, impossible to write and dangerous to draw the next breath in a manner of speaking.

Questions arise:

Is it an original breath or just like others?

If others -which ones?

Mine or some one else’s?

-If only I was properly educated to quote the source materials…

Along comes a movie “Big Lebowski”, which over time effortlessly gathers huge following and status of the classic, or a cult classic.

Because of it’s fame we are all more or less familiar at this point. Now, imagine my incoherent thoughts when in a small meeting of Buddhist minded individuals on the second floor of a café in a small upstate NY town we hear a friend coming along, telling us that they in fact are ordained as Dudeist Priest? Quite frankly it took me a whole day for the idea to sink in to turn to google and look it up. It sure did produce some strong degree of initial interest right away, but muddied, like “is it a joke?” or “do people really take themselves seriously in all of this?” or “This is a thing of a status of a religion based on just a movie?”. I hope you notice the big shadow in the last one that the status of something as a “religion” could cast. It is like a huge figure made of stone propped up on a rooftop high above, -no one wants it falling down to crush a busy market square. So, we hope that it somehow could over time keep getting higher and higher, and away from us, lost in the clouds at last, to possibly affect the all important judgment, but only after a very long life and peaceful, timely death.

On to the subject at hand then, dudeism very openly according to their website borrows from every system of thought that most call a world religion. With Buddhism as one of the major general inspirations. And it maybe time from Buddhists to borrow from the Dude. I personally believe some credit is due. Now, nothing should prevent us from setting up the casual like and dislike, -as in we take this, but not that.

If not for our own spiritual well being (which it will not produce) but rather for delineating of the whole attribution of who is appropriating from who.

Also, as a side note. Yes, there can be very healthy discussion not directed at the people “in the know” but rather others who are looking to get an idea, some sort of scope of what Buddhism is. Yes Buddhism is much better when not termed as a religion, but rather a spirituality or a system of education.

However things are possibly termed as who stands for what. So, considering these ideas of “Take it easy man” and “the Dude abides” were worth my attention as an important statements that “stand for the dude”. The idea of constant judgment of self and others for the sake of unavoidable result: fatigue. Relaxing, all the while keeping the mind limber. While this does not come in an explained as the Buddhist way but if borrowed directly can be of relaxing benefit. If adopted as an attitude of  general approach to the commercial, neatly packaged way of life that does no longer even promise any degree of happiness, just the predictability. Well the result? -One can be happier, will less, much less. This consumer reality of achievement of the predictable next, one after the other, all for the sake of incremental predictable of step by step. Of more of the same, looking forward to having perfect experience of more of the same tomorrow after tomorrow works like addiction without identifiable substance. It is the addiction to the routine, the cleanly written resume of everything that is not thought provoking, where by obtainment of a single bigger box one can open it and get the perfect smaller replicas to come out, all consistently same, tasting alike and assuredly globally branded, thus available world-wide. Instead of seeming degree of possible calm that a monotonous idea like this if maintained should affect, however this very act of maintenance and unhappy disruptions generate all the familiar stress, all the same. So, on a sober note, a clear mind in an attempt to enjoy here and now, to take it easy on consumerism of more and more of same, or more of upgraded same. To abide in that understanding that we have, that happiness comes from within. It is really beautiful and no White Russians or smoking is required, just a degree of that contentment…

So, next time you see me walking down the street in my bathroom robe, do not be alarmed it is not yet dementia, I am just powerfully cutting through my deeply rooted spiritual materialism, by taking it easy.

-With heartfelt thanks for spending a moment, reading my musings,

Sherab Gyatso Alex