White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Every Breath You Take 112: Seeing People With Modesty

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko o-sensei

Dainen-ji, September 3rd, 2011

So the air you're breathing in and out covers the whole world,
even inside rooms,
moves through the trees—
we have a different name for it,
it's higher up in some places,
high up over mountains and then because of changes in its composition,
we call it something else.

But that air is moving,
it has been since the beginning of, what?
Forever, as far as I know.

So, the air, the air you breathe has wrapped itself around naked bodies,
bodies that are covered up,
animal bodies,
anything that's an air breather has been caressed and covered by the air we're breathing.

Today's verse, seemingly very simple but when we look into it,
we can start to question
as we must do with anything,
what's being talked about.
Now that air that was wrapped around the naked body,
a bodymind perfectly happy and accepted by other bodyminds
around it as being in a perfectly normal state.
It would walk around covered only by the air,
yet if someone saw it eating,
it would get all embarrassed.

That's interesting.

Someone at one point in history might have looked at a table and become, apparently,
all lustful because of the legs on the table.
So legs became limbs and we'd cover them up
because we didn't want anything to incite passion.
(some say an urban legend)

Someone came up with the idea that it would be helpful,
and again saving people from their coarser drives,
to develop little covers that you could slip over dogs' and cats' tails that would cover, well,
you know what's at the end of the tail closest to the body.
(check it out on-line)

So we've come up with some pretty strange ideas...

The verse:

Seeing people with modesty,
"May all beings
Act with discretion
And dress appropriately."

Now another version, another translation of this verse, which you may remember is around 1600 years old, another version is:

Seeing people with conscience,
"They should wish that all beings
Act with discretion
And cover their organs."

[Sensei and students laugh]

Well indeed, unless you're playing it and I mean like a musical instrument, really,
they should be covered,
whatever it is.

So of course modesty is something that is in fact contextually bound in interpretation.

Now the word "modest" first came up in the 16th century
when it had to do with how people should comport themselves,
and it comes from Latin modestus, the English being "moderate" and "kept within due measure".
So moderation.

So when we look at the history of how people decorate themselves
to carry themselves about in everyday culture,
we come across all kinds of interesting things.

Now, another definition of modesty is:
.the quality or state of being modest,
.absence of self-assertion, of arrogance and presumption,
.respecting one's own merit,
.natural delicacy or shame regarding personal charm,
.purity of thought,
.due regard for propriety in speech or action,
.the quality of being modest,
.lack of pretentiousness,

Now, again, it must be contextually bound.
You look here at "modest" and you see
"covered up, without the organs showing".

"Immodest": the opposite,
but is it that simple?

Well if we're interested in looking into how people choose to cover the bodymind,
we can find all sorts of elements of history
and if we're interested in that kind of thing,
it can be a lot of fun to look into it.

Now, up until the 16th century, as far as we know,
this "keeping within measure"
wasn't really much of a question because say,
in the beginning of early Christianity up until the 14th, 15th, 16th century,
the Christian era,
people involved in Christianity chose to basically dress men and women alike
in shapeless tunics of a moderate colour,
probably kind of muddy,
at least that's the way I picture it,
part of it being that there weren't the dyes available to the mass of the people
that for instance we have today.

There was a lack of ornamentation,
except of course for those would could accumulate the means to ornament and decorate
and that ornamentation and decoration was meant to be looked at and to be seen
and to be decoded as a sign of power.

During the Renaissance,
emphasis started to shift to the shape of the body.
Fashion became something that hugged the body:
short, fitted jackets for men, tight hose, prominent cod pieces.
Women: snug busts and daring decolletage.
So was that modest or immodest?
Well we weren't there but if it was the prevailing fashion of the style-minded,
the Renaissance fashionistas,
well of course it would just be regarded as how things are
and the more you put out,
the more you changed,
the more you emphasized,
the more it would show some sort of status.

We can see remnants of that,
it's not even remnants of that today,
we see the presencing of that type of approach to embellishment.
So there had been a major shift from preoccupation with the spiritual
to a very definite interest in, shall we say,
worldly matters.

Now, around the 16th, 17th century,
modesty started to be used to write about how women should be
and women were being portrayed as more lustful and unruly than men.
Early feminists came up with arguments for female modesty resting in nature.
For example, the female physique:
parts were covered naturally with hair
and didn't require that they be touched during bodily functions.
So that's kind of funny.

Charles Darwin wondered why birds,
why in the avian world the more luxuriant and brilliant the male bird was "dressed",
why was that?
What was its purpose?
He came to the conclusion that females of that species,
and perhaps it could go onto other species as a sexologist picked up on it,
female birds were less lustful and more discriminating than males
and had to be enticed by showy plumage.

Sartorial expressivity in the 18th century, 19th century was associated with aristocratic splendour
and was very popular
until men started to wear trousers
because colourlessness and practicality were associated with work and activity.
Colour and ornamentation was left to women.

Napoleon the 3rd said the only appropriate wear for men
was Englishmen's business suits, riding habits and military uniforms.
The task of representing the opulence of the age fell to women and was carried out through fashion.
Women wore muslin dresses that were so fine they could be seen through,
especially if they were wet.
And of course on certain occasions people would wet the dresses
so that they would become more transparent.
Modest or immodest?
Well it's not a question that we need to consider because of course—
oh wait! Wet t-shirt contests!
[Sensei and students laugh]
You can't cover everything.

So standards of modesty and immodesty very widely and wildly
according to the part of the world,
according to the tribal and cultural norms.
It's interesting but we don't come up with
and can't come up with one definition of what this means
that doesn't have us looking outward at what others are doing
which of course is interesting.

But, with practice,
we start to see those shifts of attention,
how self-image wants to look out and wants to make judgements:
"Stands up in front of everyone and laughs louder than everyone else."
"Immodest. Look at that. Can see their bum."

Now a person may be doing an activity that requires the best thing that they can do for the activity
is to wear tight trousers, such as say yoga,
such as say horseback riding and so on.
So there are many conditions,
but what we want to notice is how and when this occurs fand or whom,
for us, for each and every one of us,
because that allows us to see more and more clearly habits and patterns.

The narrowing of attention,
self-image looking around for a target,
looking around for something that it can comment upon to itself and to others:
That's interesting.

Now, it doesn't mean you can't comment about something, not at all.
In fact, informed comment can be useful and entertaining,
but what we want to see is that the creation of self and other,
that contraction into a sense of self that says: "that's immodest",
becomes a condemnation.
We want to see how that occurs.

The verse again:

Seeing people with modesty,
"May all beings
Act with discretion
And dress appropriately." 

So of course in the context of the monastery,
we have guidelines as to what is appropriate dress and
what is not appropriate dress and
interestingly, if you've noticed, it is non-gender related.

And we may notice in ourselves, which is where we really want to look,
we really want to see how patterns are there,
what beliefs are there,
what can be questioned into,
what's unquestioned,
we may notice certain tendencies,
we may notice wanting to hang onto certain types of dress,
certain styles of dress,
certain definitions.

When we see it, we can
at the moment of noticing any contraction into a sense of self with a little belief about how it is,
feel the breath,
pull up through the upper torso,
feel the hands and feet,
feel the rest of the bodymind
because we've recognized a portion,
a tiny portion of reality:
the capacity for contraction,
the capacity for thought,
the capacity for attention to fall into that thought, whatever it might be,
and to base its actions upon that.

That's great,
you're seeing more and more and more about the actual process of perception and cognition,
you're seeing more in this process of what Dogen described as "studying the self",
and you have more opportunity to practise that moment of clear seeing,
so you won't be fooled by your own assumptions about what's going on,
about how you are and
about how the world is.

Now, of course, as it says in the verse,
it would be nice if "all beings acted with discretion",
using the most skillful of means all the time to do and to express
what needs to be done and needs to be expressed...

But hey, we're learning, aren't we?

Each time we see in our own manner,
ways in which we express ourselves too forcefully, ways that can be interpreted as and
may be the product of patterns of arrogance,
(but who's judging?)
we can just notice what's going on,
we can notice what that cause is,
the response caused in others,
and then we may decide we're going to shift it,
try another little approach that is perhaps
less forceful, aggressive, or
mealy-mouthed or

So we have an infinite capacity for seeing how we actually are and
we have an infinite capacity for practising that moment
and we have an infinite capacity for making choice and changes
that can only help improve whatever it is that we're doing.

That would be nice.

Seeing people with modesty,
"May all beings
Act with discretion
And dress appropriately."

So when you get that on your invitation... "act with discretion and dress appropriately"
RSVP not required.

Have fun!

Thank you for listening.