Rob(b)ing

05/10/2012

Robing is the belief in another status symbol, that of the Buddhist. There has been extensive writing about the importance and meaning of the robe, as a symbol of the dharma for example, especially in the tradition of Dogen Zenji. Zen Buddhists learn to sew their own robe, and they follow Dogen’s instructions in the Shobogenzo since hundreds of years. The main reason for a robe, as it was given in the Pali Canon already and transmitted by Dogen, is to be unattached to nice, precious and up-to-date dressing. Therefore the material of the robe should consist of discarded dresses, those of corpses and the sick. Nowadays robes are often just bought online or in shops. Even those who sew them do not go to cemeteries,  hospitals or the homeless to get the right textiles, meaning those that cause aversion in the common guy, an aversion the Buddhists  should overcome or should have left behind already when sewing their own robe.

The robes we see famous and high ranking zen abbots and masters in may not be of a simple unattractive earthen color. Even the monks in Thailand stand out with their orange garment, and Zen roshis may be seen in gold and purple, their robes bestowed on them even by an Emperor, being worth tens of thousands of dollars when sometimes sold by their crooked or poor disciples. Robing therefore is like wearing a tie when you want to become a manager of a huge company. It is the dresscode for Buddhists, and the differences in the robes stand for the hierarchy, at least in Zen. It has created another popular decoration, the rakusu, a pinafore that may signify lay ordination and the “taking of the precepts”. You may ask if someone who has taken the precepts must really remind himself of having done so, as if he had Alzheimer’s already. Or does he need to  prove s.th. to others who either don’t know anything about Buddhism and the meaning of the rakusu or are wearing it themselves during sesshin (meditation retreats)? Why all this showing off? Who the hell can be unattached (a sign of awakening) and still care for a dress code?

It seems to me that the ten oxherding pictures that describe the way of a path seeker from illusion to enlightenment and his final return “to the marketplace” want to teach us otherwise: to mix with common people, to blend in, to avoid external signs of standing out and being someone special. As I have analyzed the precepts and sila elsewhere, I dare to say that the rakusu simply speaks of a certain delusion, namely that it is necessary to take vows and precepts that are inscribed in the human heart or mind already. The rakusu, and that is its irony, confirms this illusion and thus tells us that its bearer is most likely unawakened. Morality on the other hand is an instinct, independent of a nation or culture, and has not to be learned, as the work of Marc Hauser (“Moral Sense Test”) has shown. Therefore any precepts are superfluous and speak only of the insecurity of those who attach to them, their disability to link to their natural instincts.

On Thai TV I just saw another couple of monks on the pallet of a police car on their way to the monkey house, as prison is called here, be it due to gambling, sexual misconduct or drunkenness.  Of course a set of rules like the 250 or more of the Vinaya increase the risk of a moral misbehavior, of their violation, but those monks were just unable to deal with common law. It is funny to see that even in the Bodhisattva precepts of the Mahayana tradition, derived from the Brahma Net Sutra as a set of 10 major and 48 minor rules, in one tradition it is prohibited to take money, and in another (of course the Tibetan) it is allowed. You also get an impression here how reliable oral and written transmission is.

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