Taking Robes: Embracing a Life of Natural Awakening; Reflections on Ordination and Divine Ordinariness

I’d like to begin by briefly sketching out some personal events that led to the ideas in this essay/poem.

In my early 20s, while at Kalu Rinpoché’s monastery near Sonada, India, I participated in an ancient ceremony in which I and a few other young men, in the presence of a community of monks, yogis and dedicated practitioners, shaved our heads, took vows and exchanged our lay clothes for the buddhist robes of a novice monk (getsul). A few years later, in Canada, in a longer and more elaborate ceremony, I received the full gelong/bhikkhu ordination from H.H. the 16th Karmapa. In 1977, I was invited to Ottawa, and began what was to be a life of teaching and dharma exploration which took me to many countries and led to my meeting and interacting with a great many people. I look back on that time as a monk and am ever grateful for the many ways it shaped my attitudes and way of being in the world.

The twelve years I lived as a monk was personally very beneficial but by time I was 36, I found myself increasingly questioning various dissonances I experienced, particularly in terms of the hierarchic structure of the ordained community and the sometimes not so subtle patriarchal attitudes towards woman, children, relationships and non-monastic life. In order to harmonize the universal approach to dharma that I encouraged wherever I taught – what later I came to think of as a path or way of natural awakening – and to stay true to an inner sense of integrity, after much soul searching, I publicly ‘disrobed’. Far from being a moment of ending something, it felt like a stepping forward, a further deepening into the mystery of life and living. On the day of Vesak, the first full moon in the month of May that marks the awakening of the Buddha, surrounded by friends and students, and feeling the palpable presence of all my mentors and teachers, I announced my intentions and restated my aspirations and vows in words that felt deep and fresh and meaningful. It was a very special day that strengthened us all in a communal endeavor of life unfolding.

Over the years many people have, on different times and occasions, asked me for a lay ordination. When the situation felt right, in the midst of their community, in a ceremonial manner, I would have them repeat verses of refuge, the five training percepts both in universal and tradition forms and the bodhisattva vow. To remind themselves and others of this deepening commitment to a life of dharma they could then, in appropriate situations, wear the maroon upper robe of a lay practitioner.

Some years ago, I received an e-mail from a dharma student in England asking how to make herself a robe. I wrote the core of the following essay and called it “How to Stitch a Robe; reflections on ordination and divine ordinariness.” It was posted on Green Dharma Treasury. Recently, I received a similar request and I shared with that person this earlier essay; expanded with a number of edits and additions. I‘m posting it here, hoping it will speak to others who might be at a comparable stage in their journey.

Click here to read the fully formatted essay in PDF format.


Taking Robes
Embracing a Life of Natural Awakening;
Reflections on Ordination and Divine Ordinariness

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 wrappings
. . . and a lot of space.

It’s not so rare for people, at some point in the course of their lives, to feel a stirring, a calling or perhaps 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 thoughtful study, contemplation and active compassion; 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 this evolving world/universe – part of a community or sangha of life-unfolding wholeness.

In some traditions, a novice would actually sew their own robe. More than cloth though, in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, robes or clothing represent thoughts, concepts, attitudes and mental habit patterns, as if we dressed ourselves in our own, (and society’s) concepts and beliefs. From this perspective, we might think that entering the religious life should 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 parents or mentors or peers, the physical robe itself can become a focus of concern and it’s not uncommon for a considerable amount of thought and energy to coalesce around it. Robes can be a way of creating and maintaining a more solid identity, a kind of badge of belonging. 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. In this spirit, here is a meditation on how to stitch a robe. Perhaps more than that, it is a meditation on natural awakening, ordination and divine ordinariness!

She was born into this extraordinary world;
a living planet,
a dancing of millions of interdependent species,
this mystery that grows us;
of wonderment, reverence and awe.

It’s what we are.
what we’re in.
who we’re with.
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 mechanisation, that, driven by market forces, requires ever increasing human intervention, micro-management, and coercive control.

In a heartfelt moment of nostalgia and deep aspiration,
her parents named her Sophie
to remind themselves (and their daughter) of a world of living wisdom,
a world that was,
moment by moment,
bit by bit,
one creature after another,

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
but instead,
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.
t 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 totally relaxed, unassuming, nakedness!

Who is it that is stitching?
Who is hosting these threads of your life
– this visible robe of love and clear seeing 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 together exquisitely intermeshed,
we touch our home,
this world,
of you and me and all of us together,

beyond words.

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 symbolised a joining of the many interdependent 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, and to see.

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. Today they more often serve to identify the wearer as being a religious ‘someone’ who belongs to a particular cult or tradition. Robes have become uniforms, badges of office, tokens of authority and myriad other segregating and separating functions – far from the original, natural intent.

Imagine being blessed with the recognition of a deepening sense of universal community and communion; an easeful yet powerful confidence/trust/faith in this unfolding life of natural awakening. Imagine making yourself a ‘robe’ and then sitting in the felt sense presence of all living beings, including your mentors and spiritual guides, friends and acquaintances, students, clients and co-journeyers in this awakening world. Imagine expressing to all these beings your deepest, heartfelt aspiration to flower in wisdom, compassion and non-clinging awareness, using words that spontaneously arise from your heart or traditional prayers that inspire and fill you with a sense of vibrant immediacy.

Natural awakening is all around.
It is closer than hands and feet.
It is the luminous presence that graces all appearance.

Natural awakening is freely available.
It cannot be packaged, bought or sold.
It was not invented by individuals or cultures.
It self-reveals in the deep passion – the ever fresh stillness – of immeasurable love.

Natural awakening is Mystery transcending.
Radically imminent yet ever ungraspable,
Natural awakening is the vast expanse of what you are
the dynamic energy of suchness in action.

Natural awakening is all of me present with and for all of you.
I/thou – truth embodied

To glimpse the wholeness and unity of beingness,
To value the vast dancing of diversity,
and the unique one-off-ness of each precious 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.
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 servic

sarva mangalam

all is blessing