White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Every Breath You Take 18: Donning Monastic Robes

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, April 3rd, 2008


...could be the last one

...and rest assured that one day,
you don't know how,
you don't know where,
you don't know when,
you too will die.
That's reality. 

Recognizing the reality of birth and death,
recognizing that no one gets out alive,
can and does help anyone make better choices about what to do moment-to-moment.
Of course,
the first choice for students is to practise.
Everything in the monastery
including the bald, black robed monks,
is here to remind you to do just that. 

You're learning to practise mindfulness of body, breath, speech, and mind,
what Anzan Hoshin roshi has referred to as the Four Gates of Zen practice. 

Those who have recognized the reality of birth and death
and have dedicated body, breath, speech, and mind 
to practise
have committed themselves by receiving ordination as monks. 

At the beginning of formal sittings,
after incense has been lit on the Butsudan,
the han, the big wooden block hanging on the west wall of the Hatto,
is struck three times. 

The calligraphy on the block of wood says "Great Matter"
and each strike resonates through the bodymind as a reminder that,
as it says in the Great Matter gatha,

The Great Matter is birth and death,
Life slips past and time is gone.
Right now. Wake up. Wake up.
Do not waste time.

A reminder of reality. 

Now, like everyone else,
before the monks hear those three strikes,
they have woken up from sleep,
gotten out of bed,
and have gotten dressed.
They, as countless other monks,
over a couple of thousand years,
don or put on monk's robes. 

For all formal practice situations,
as was mentioned in a previous Dharma Talk,
monks wear robes.
The robes we wear,
the monks of the Northern Mountain Order,
are a version of monastic clothing that has evolved over a couple of thousand years
and has traveled,
and been informed by various cultures,
Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and the West. 

Many rupa or statues from India, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan,
including rupa in the monastery,
can be seen to be wearing a lower garment,
which is the same as the kunsu students, and monks are wearing right now.
When something works for practice why change it?
Monastic clothing isn't trendy. 

Here's the verse from "The Practice of Purity": 

Donning monastic robes

"May all beings

Have stainless intelligence

And fulfill the Way of the Great Sage" 

As the robes are put on the body
the verse reminds us of what we are doing:
fulfilling the Way of the Great Sage,
Gautama Siddhartha,
the Buddha,
the one who woke up,
the big really big original "wise one". 

This reminds us of the Lineage
and reminds us that we are doing something that has been done by countless others
over the last, roughly, 2600 years. 

No matter how early it is,
no matter how warm or cold we are,
when we are reminded to practise it has to be recognized that,
others have experienced the process of being a human being
just as we are experiencing in that moment.

The process of being a human being is the same for all humans.
If the very real people who practised and became the Lineage of Teachers could do it,
we can do it. 

Any reminder to practise is useful.
Putting on clothing, in this verse,
specifically monastic robes,
reminds us of our vows,
our commitment,
and what we are doing. 

Over time there's not even the thinking of oneself as,
or the reminding that one is,
a monk.
There is just the caring for the bodymind,
the eating and drinking,
the getting dressed for whatever is scheduled, t
he sitting,
in short the doing of what needs to be done.

All the choices and activities of the bodymind
are firmly rooted in the teachings of Reality, the Dharma.
That's what fulfilling the way,
the way of reality, means.
And we can do it just as did the Great Sage, the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. 

The Buddha practised, woke up,
and dedicated himself to teaching.
I suppose we could say he's the first monk in this lineage.
All his first students were monks, "home leavers". 

And they did leave home
and they did wander the countryside,
as mendicants, beggars existing on food that was given to them.
When that rag tag group started to become noticed
the king asked them to wear something that would identify them as being monks rather than just a band of bandits or thugs. 

These first robes were made of fabric patched together and dyed,
most likely with dyes from plants,
to give some sort of cohesive appearance to the various fabrics.
Some of the "found" materials were rags found around corpses in charnel grounds. 

The Buddha and his band of monks wandered in their patched together robes,
teaching those who asked how to end the suffering of conditioned experiencing.
There are a number of teisho and Dharma Talks on the Four Noble Truths and the Four Great Vows,
which, if read and listened to,
will prove invaluable to your practice.
I encourage you to listen to and read them.
I won't explore those essential teaching on practice right now. 

But right now you can
feel the breath,
you can sit up straight,
and you can open any visual focusing.

Go ahead.
Take a chance.
You're breathing in and out.
You're alive. 

The verse goes on to wish that all beings may have stainless intelligence;
that all beings may experience the open intelligence of the bodymind,
unstained or free from conditioned experiencing,
unobstructed by the knots and gnarls
caused by the unquestioned assumptions, habits, and patterns of how things are,
that cause beings to suffer.
Contractions condition experiencing
and at the very least
make us less intelligent than we really are
and at the worst have made we humans very destructive on a large scale
which we live with and hear about every day. 

Who couldn't benefit from stainless intelligence? 

When the Buddha and the Sangha of monks were wandering in warmer climates than this,
the cloth made from discarded rags was wrapped around the waist
and one end went over the shoulder.
As monasticism was affected by the prevailing cultural patterns of the time
the monks were, at first, all male
and the fact that one shoulder and part of the chest was bare wasn't a problem.
When the Sangha included women,
the necessary coverage would have been adapted from the way of dressing
that was contemporary to that time. 

If you look at the rupa in the monastery,
statues and some of the drawings,
you can see quite clearly that the lower garment, the kunsu,
folded and wrapped,
is much the same now as it was then. Scarcely a new idea, and, as I said, certainly not a "trend". 

Adaptations of robes continued as monks traveled into Tibet, China, Japan,
and eventually, the West, to right here, right now.
People knew who the monks were from how they looked.
As monasticism wasn't the type of thing that everyone did
the monks stood out as different from the rest of the contemporary culture.

This continues. 

Current cultures, or cultures that are current,
always think of themselves as contemporary,
up to date,
and that would have been no different long ago.

Monks have been regarded as anachronistic, out of date, out of style,
and perhaps just weird. 

It is weird and funny that all those "contemporary" cultures and their indicators,
their hair styles,
their clothing,
have risen and fallen
and will continue to do so and yet,
regardless of location on the globe,
monks still look like monks. 

Interestingly, just as the word "Zen" pops up frequently
in literature, design, and merchandising,
all of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Zen practice as we understand it,
so monastic robes have been inspiration for haute couture and fashion.

In the 1950's it was the cowls of Christian monks,
in the 80's and the 90's, the influence of the East crept in,
and at the turn of the 21st century Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese, influences were strong on the runway.

This of course has nothing to do with our understanding and realization of practice and monasticism.
But it's fun to know. 

The wearing out,
and the eventual absence of the contractions of pattern and habit,
by the process of practice,
allows the full and stainless intelligence of the bodymind to be open
and free of the fabrications of self-image,
which corrupt experiencing. 

Practice provides the method.

As you come to the monastery to practise zazen,
to start to learn to notice
thoughts, feelings, sensations,
use everything
the sight of the bald, black robed monks,
to remind you
to feel the whole bodymind in the moment. 

The verse again: 

Donning monastic robes

"May all beings

Have stainless intelligence

And fulfill the Way of the Great Sage." 

Why not?

Thank you for listening.