Robes are like onion skins.
When you peel off one layer, another is revealed.
Even if you keep peeling off the layers,
you will never arrive at a central core or essence of onion-ness.
All you will have is a pile of old robes
. . . and a lot of space.
It’s not so rare for people, at some time or another in the course of their lives, to feel a stirring, a calling, a deep pull, to join a religious order – in Buddhist parlance, to take robes. It seems that most manage to ignore this disturbing wobble in normality, or if unable to do so, they end up rationalizing it away: a medieval nostalgia, an adolescent fantasy, totally impractical, a meaningful thing to do but . . . maybe later . . . when I’ve finished my current projects and obligations! Yet beyond desires to escape from rat races and lives of stressful trivia; or urges to be part of a respected community that is dedicated to study and contemplation; there flows a deeper yearning to free one’s self from society’s pervasive addiction to fragmentation and continual conflict and instead, to flower as an integral part of God’s garden, a community or sangha of life-unfolding wholeness.
In some traditions, a novice would sew their own robe. In the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, robes or clothing represent thoughts or concepts or attitudes. From this perspective, entering the religious life should probably involve taking off clothes rather than putting them on! In spite of this, the setting aside of secular clothing and the wearing of robes or some kind or religious garb or insignia can be part of the process of transforming one’s life – an outer visible sign of an inner invisible process. For young monastics, struggling with ego dreams, caught in the ancient and largely unconscious pattern of seeking approval and affirmation from parent or mentor or peers, the robe often becomes a focus of concern and it’s not uncommon for a considerable amount of thought and energy to coalesce around it. Robes are a way of creating and maintaining a more solid identity. This is far from maturing into a soft, easeful naturalness; a playful, no big deal, attitude to identity.
The true religious life is not possessed by any school or tradition. It grows from reality itself. It is older than time and wiser than any wisdom teaching. Here is a meditation on how to stitch a robe. I thank Linda R. who years ago asked for such a practice, thus sowing the seed for these words.
She was born into this extraordinary world;
a living planet,
a dancing of millions of interdependent species,
this mystery that grows us;
flowerings of wonderment, reverence and awe.
It’s what we are.
It’s what we’re in.
It’s who we’re with.
It’s where we are,
and . . .
why we are.
It’s what she was, is and will be,
– in spite of exponential population growth, leading to masses of people living knee to elbow, cheek by jowl, mingled together in cities with oceans of anxiety, jungles of fantasy, storms of desire and frustration, and all the while shopping to survive, lost in a global culture of technology and mechanization, that, driven by market forces, requires ever increasing human intervention, micro-management, and control.
In a heartfelt moment of nostalgia and deep aspiration,
her parents named her Sophie to remind them (and their daughter) of a world of living wisdom, a world that was moment by moment, bit by bit, one creature after another, gradually slipping away.
She grew in body and spirit and interrelatedness.
She might have gone to a regular school.
She might have been ‘successful’.
She might have striven to get somewhere, to prove herself, to be someone
somehow . . .
She fell into a life of deepening and discovery,
cultivating the ancient arts of kindness and communal being-ness and clear-seeing presence and unrestricted reverential enquiry.
She explored how bodies and minds of myriad species are weaving together this mystery of nowful presence. She cultivated awareness practices of buddhadharma and meshed them with science, personal healing and social responsibility to enter a way of living that, in an age of anxiety and uncertainty, was awesomely inclusive and joyously life affirming.
One day she decided to take robes; to commit herself to a life of health and naturalness and service. This is her story and . . .
it could be your story.
As you sew your robe,
do a mantra of loving-kindness with each stitch.
Consider this robe that clothes you:
the robe of your body, the robe of emotions,
the robe of thoughts, and feelings and memories,
the robe of relationships,
of friendships, companionships, and casual meetings through life,
the robe of blessings and teachings and teachers,
the robe of all your ancestors, leading back to the beginnings of earth,
and the robe of your current life activities,
rippling out in myriad ways and directions,
reverberating into unknowable futures through the lives of all you touch.
Consider how you are clothed in stardust,
galaxies and the gravity of celestial bodies.
Consider all the lives that nourish you, support you,
and lend their beingness to your being.
Blue-jay, maple and may-fly,
Tui, flax and cricket.
And every once in a while, consider
what is there, when there’s no robe,
when there is total nakedness!
Who is it that is stitching?
Who is hosting these threads of your life
– this visible robe for the nourishing of everyone?
Life is not a journey,
we are eternally here.
Life is not a learning,
there is no knowledge to accumulate.
Life is not a testing,
there is no authority to judge.
Dwelling in a space of love,
tendrils of curiosity reaching forth in all directions,
we feel our way,
softening and sensitizing into the richness of community,
a living world within us, around us and through us.
Apprentices of wonderment and awe,
probing and questioning,
sampling and savouring
with calm abiding and vivid discernment exquisitely intermeshed,
we touch our home,
this world of you and me and all of us together,
At the time of the Buddha, robes were simple clothes made from discarded fabric, sometimes bits of tattered cloth from funeral shrouds. Sewing these many pieces together symbolized the reconnecting of the many different aspects of our life; aspects that are also parts of other being’s lives. The making and on-going mending of a robe was an opportunity to contemplate wholeness and connectedness; this seamless garment, this cloak of many colours. Wearing such a robe would remind us of the wholeness and inter-beingness of life and provide the opportunity for others to glimpse a possibility of wholeness. To be clothed like this goes along with a willingness to be truly seen.
Originally the robes were utterly functional – just as wholeness is utterly functional! They were worn to keep warm or cool, to stave off biting insects, protect from the sun and to preserve a basic modesty. Today, religious traditions have, by and large, lost touch with the simple, straightforward and practical. They have replaced the grace of divine ordinariness with institutionalised ‘ordination’. For many seekers, the robe is bought ready-made off the rack, and we are prided or shamed by the richness or poverty of the colour and weave. We might ask what need have spiritual beings for needles and threads? With our air-conditioned buildings and pesticide protected nature, robes have lost most of their original functions and now, more often, serve to identify the wearer as being a religious someone who belongs to a particular tradition or cult. Robes have become uniforms, badges of office, tokens of authority and myriad other functions far from the original, simple, natural intent.
To glimpse the wholeness and unity of beingness,
To value the vast dance of diversity, the unique one-off-ness of each individual,
To marry these two – seamlessly – in the temple of our lives,
This is to enter the ancient and venerable order of divine ordinariness.
Each day brings opportunities for a fresh ordination.
Each moment of living we don our robes anew.
One morning, in such a moment, the following verse blossomed in my mind.
It felt like my voice whispering through the cells of my body,
Reminding me of how I might move through the day.
It could be your voice.
It could be our prayer.
May it touch us deeply.
Being the fullness of the human animal that I am,
Uniquely clothed in this continuously morphing collage of sentience,
Abiding in the monastery of a world that is utterly and profoundly alive,
I wander in unpretentious openness, wonderment and service.
© Tarchin Hearn, June, 2011