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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
38 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2 0 1 5 When I go to America, I feel that I can’t wear robes walking down the street. It seems, as Stephen Batchelor wrote, “like the visual equivalent of screaming.” Even at Zen centers, I don’t really feel comfortable wearing monastic clothing because no one else is doing it except during zazen. This sum- mer I went home to San Francisco for a month, and I usually wore jeans or yoga pants. Sometimes this felt liberating, but mostly it made me sad. I missed being able to dress like a monk and have that sup- port, that daily reminder of my intention. During the summer I had breakfast with my older brother, and we had a debate about whether or not people in Buddhism should show their attainments. He argued yes, and I told him, “I think my only attain- ments are my clothes.” I still feel that way sometimes. This is all I’ve got to show for myself, and for my practice—just these clothes. And part of me thinks, yes, this is what Dogen Zenji intended when he talked about keeping the raft, and the unity of practice and enlightenment. But another part of me feels that this is impossible; at least, for me, it’s unsustainable. It’s also not a good enough definition of practice if that practice is to include everybody, laypeople and monastics, across cultures. If Zen practice means wearing the right clothes, what does that mean for laypeople in America? What happens if I choose to wear different clothes? What happens when I take off my clothes? For me, the limitations of wearing monastic clothing are in many ways the same as its benefits. A bonsai tree is exquisitely beautiful because of the way it has been pruned and confined, but for the same reason, it doesn’t have so much reach, breadth, or height. Monastic clothing is designed to encourage and express humility, conformity, respect, and concentration. Robes in particular bind me to a certain place and practice, allowing me to concentrate wholeheartedly on carrying out the activities my tradition. But since my teachers have rarely if ever articulated Zen practice to me in terms of “enlightenment” but rather in terms of maturity and adulthood, I am starting to wonder if the adult I need to be can come into fruition in such a narrowly defined space. Being confined can be useful—but it’s still confinement. There are cer- tain experiences—intimate relationships, academic learning, attempting financial independence—that It is often said that meditation—or any prac- tice—is like a raft to carry us to the opposite shore; once we reach the other side, we should discard the raft. Carrying around the raft would be an unhealthy attachment. Dogen, however, rejected this idea. He wrote in the Extensive Record, “The principle of zazen in other schools is to wait for enlightenment. For example, to practice is like crossing over a great ocean on a raft, thinking that having crossed the ocean one should discard the raft. The zazen of Buddha-ancestors is not like this, but is simply Buddha’s practice. We could say that the situation of Buddha’s house is the one in which the essence, practice, and expounding are one and the same.” For Dogen, the raft—the tool—isn’t just a means to an end but an end in and of itself. This is the unity of practice and enlightenment. The importance of form in shaping and actual- izing meaning is something I can’t ignore. When I move between traditional Japanese monasteries and more Western Buddhist settings, the issue that always comes up for me is clothing—the age-old problem of what to wear. In the Soto Zen tradition we say, “Dignified behavior is none other than the buddhadharma”—being a buddha or studying bud- dhadharma is not something you believe or think or identify with but something you do, and do repeatedly, moment by moment. Buddhadharma is performed. Before I ordained, I asked my teacher to explain the main difference between a monk and a layperson. He told me, “A monk is someone who wears monk clothing.” So for me, wearing monastic clothing is pretty much synonymous with Zen practice. I say “wearing monastic clothing,” but of course I mean all of it, all of the form, all of the external trappings: shaving the head, bowing at the right time, chant- ing before meals. All of the things we’re supposed to eventually strip away, the culture and ritual—for me, these are the most important parts. Without these forms, I don’t really know what practice is. Respecting the tradition means acknowledging the privilege and entitlement I bring into this as a white American, with the freedom to choose which parts of Buddhism I “like” and discard the rest.