By Daniel Scharpenburg
I have a set of robes that I don’t like to wear.
To me putting on robes feels kind of like playing dress up. Why would I dress up like a Chinese or Korean Zen teacher? I’m an American Zen teacher. Also they remind me a little too much of pajamas for some reason. I can’t really put my finger on that.
That being said, I’m not here to justify teachers not wearing robes—at least not right now.
I like to think about different Buddhist traditions and where they came from. The story of Buddhist robes goes back to the Buddha. The Buddha was unique as a spiritual teacher in that era; he welcomed everyone. Rich and poor, noble and homeless, virtuous and criminal…he was willing to teach anyone.
In that era there was what we call the caste system. I won’t go into incredible detail, except to say that the circumstances of your birth would essentially define your entire life and there was almost no room to change anything. If your dad was a street sweeper, you were probably going to be a street sweeper. If your dad was a wealthy merchant, you were probably going to be a wealthy merchant. And for women, well, you were probably going to marry someone like your dad.
The people at the top of society were very much above and more important than the people at the bottom. The Buddha envisioned another way.
It was with this in mind that the Buddha came up with an idea. The Buddha wanted everyone to be equal and that was what he declared (again, very controversial). But the problem was, of course, a rich guy from the top of society might show up in fur or expensive clothing and a poor guy at the bottom couldn’t even afford clothes.
It didn’t feel equal.
So, the Buddha came up with an idea.
Everyone in the community of monks would do the same thing. They’d cast off their clothes that represented their old lives. This was the way of leaving behind the system that was mainstream society. Then they would all stitch together robes from whatever trashy rags they could find and they would all get dyed the same color.
The Buddha envisioned a community where everyone wore shitty cheap robes that didn’t fit very well because they were put together by amateurs.
Today robes are something different. People spend a lot of money to get them. Some of them are custom made and some of them are really beautiful. But the tradition was started in one specific place for one specific reason.
In some communities today only monks wear robes and in other communities monks and lay teachers wear robes. In some everyone wears them, and in some you won’t find people in robes at all.
They weren’t a status symbol in the early days. Now the highest ranking teachers often wear the fanciest robes. That certainly was not the original intent.
What do you think of communities where everyone wears the same robes? What do you think of communities wear no one wears robes?
Editor: Dana Gornall