The Urban Dharma Newsletter - November 27, 2006


In This Issue: A Mixed Bag

1. Consumerism and the Precepts by Taigen Leighton,

2. Twelfth Annual Buddhist Monastic Conference by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron

3. The Tradition of Buddha’s Robe / A Dharma talk given - by Sr. Candana Karuna




Ive updated the Monks in the Westweb site @ www.monksinthewet.org and put together three articles that you might find of interest and useful... We just went through Black Fridayand I thought something on consumerism might be good... The 12th Western Monastic Conference and a paper on Buddhist robes fills out this newsletter... Enjoy.

Peace... Kusala

1. Consumerism and the Precepts by Taigen Leighton, Green Gulch Farm Sunday Dharma Talk, Sept. 9, 2001


Those of us who are dharma teachers in the Zen Center lineage, and all the people who live at Green Gulch and practice here, and all of you who come for Sunday morning dharma talks as well, are all involved in the project of bringing Buddhist practice and teaching into our lives in 21st century America. Throughout the history of Buddhism in Asia, Buddhism has adapted and developed and grown as it has moved into different countries and different cultures, and interacted with native religions and traditions. In China with Taoism and ancestor veneration, in Japan with native Shinto spiritual ways, in various different countries–Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia–Buddhism has been a living tradition and developed and interacted with the culture, and has itself been transformed. This has been happening in America over the last fifty years as well.

I have been very involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, through various Buddhist-Christian conferences and dialogue workshops, and teaching Buddhist studies at Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, where many of my students are Christian seminarians. From the point of view of Buddhism, studying different religious traditions is very informative in terms of what Buddhist practice is about. There are many American Buddhists now who are very involved also in interactions with Judaism, with Native American religions, with science, for example with modern physics and neurobiology, and of course very much with western psychology. There are many former Zen Center students who are now therapists or counselors, and I sometimes think of Northern California Zen as Jungian Buddhism.

Interfaith dialogue has great value. As we find our own seat as American Buddhists, we bring our experience and our awareness of American traditions and culture to Buddhism, and Buddhism is naturally transformed. I have taught college courses in world religion and enjoy studying comparative religion, as I find something of value in every religious tradition. This is all background to what I want to talk about today, which is the one major American religion whose fundamental values are in conflict with Buddhism; that is, the "religion" of consumerism.

I want to talk about this from the point of view of Buddhist precepts, which are guidelines for how to express our Buddhist awareness in our everyday activity. A lot of Buddhist practice is about balancing wisdom and compassion. Simply put, in our meditation practice, in zazen, we get a sense of the wisdom side as we get in touch with the possibility of wholeness, the possibility of seeing deeply our interconnectedness with all being; and with the fundamental emptiness of all distinctions. On the side of compassion we use the precepts not as commandments but as guidelines to help us express Buddha’s awareness in the various kinds of difficulties in which we find ourselves in our ordinary everyday activity.

Trying to lead compassionate lives informed by the precepts there is a fundamental conflict with some basic social values in our society. It appears that in our mainstream media, especially in terms of the religion of consumerism, the fundamental values are greed, material acquisition, and even vengeance. All of the television commercials and all the other ads we see are designed very skillfully to create more needs and more desires. The three thousands ads that the average American is exposed to each day create desires that can never be fully satisfied.

This state of affairs in which beings are never satisfied is expressed in the Buddhist realm of Hungry Ghosts, who are depicted with tiny throats, and huge stomachs that can never be filled. No matter how hard they try they can never satisfy their desires, a very sad situation. The Hungry Ghost realm is one of the six levels of existence into which a being can be born. The other reams include the human, the heavenly realms and the hell realms. These realms can also be considered as psychological descriptions of different potential aspects of our inner life. One of the most ornate and important ceremonies we do here is called Segaki, which means feeding the Hungry Ghosts. We usually do it here at Halloween. We have a big altar, opposite the main altar, with many offerings. This is done in Japan around August, during the Obon time when the spirits are invited back. We make offerings and try to appease the Hungry Ghosts and help them to find some peace and some satisfaction. Eventually maybe they will find their way back to the human realm.

That is one of the important Buddhist ceremonies, but on the other hand, it seems like in our society we are trained by advertising to become hungry ghosts. The major holiday in the religion of consumerism has been appropriated from Christianity. It is called Christmas, and its purpose is to create hungry ghosts who are obliged to buy many gifts, more and bigger, and more expensive.

The idea of looking at consumerism as a religion has been discussed by a couple of very fine Buddhist scholar/philosophers. One of them is David Loy, who lives in Japan, and another is Stephanie Kaza, a former Green Gulch resident, who teaches in Vermont. David Loy discusses religions from the point of view of how they function. He says that a religion grounds us by teaching us what the world is, and our place in it. In this way consumerism functions as a religion, just as Buddhism and Christianity do, by providing basic assumptions about who we are and about the world around us. It teaches us how to live, what to do, and how to find fulfillment. David Loy says there are two tenets or items of faith to consumerism. One unquestioned item of faith in consumerism is that growth and subsidized world trade will benefit everyone. The second is that growth does not need to be constrained or limited by the limited resources of this finite planet. The economy can just keep growing indefinitely. Basically self-fulfillment and self-realization in consumerism is based on how much we consume. This basic philosophy or goal, expressed by the bumper sticker, "Whoever dies with the most toys wins," is an unquestioned, often unconscious value of our society.

In Buddhism the basic value is to be content with what we have and to enjoy this world as it is. We are grateful for Green Gulch, for the ocean, for the birds in the trees, for our friends and family, for the situation we are in. This does not mean that we should be passive and accept everything as it is. One aspect of the precepts is that we do respond to suffering, we do try to not harm but benefit all beings, to see what we do in the context of many beings, benefiting not solely my own profit margin, but all beings. We work to foster awakening and awareness. There is a kind of satisfaction that also can be dynamic and active and responsive, and that is not about creating craving for more material wealth.

In the Buddhist tradition, in the Zen tradition, there are many examples of characters who are non-consumer extremists. It is actually possible to be extremist about not having desires, and not having property, and not having needs. There is a wonderful Soto Zen monk and poet who lived in Japan around 1800 named Ryokan, who is still very popular in Japan. After he finished his training, instead of becoming the abbot of a temple or a formal Zen teacher, he just went back to his hometown and lived in a tiny little hut outside the town. He made his living by doing begging rounds, which is traditional in Asian Buddhism. He took as his name Daigu, "Great Fool," and there are many stories about his foolishness and forgetfulness and his playing with children all the time. I do not want to tell you all the stories, because he was such a non-consumer extremist that a few of you might just walk out if you heard some of these stories. One well-known story describes Ryokan sitting at home in his hut looking through the window, or maybe the holes in the roof, at the full moon, which is an image of wholeness, perfection, and peacefulness in Zen. A thief came into the hut, but could not find anything to steal. Ryokan, thinking that the fellow must be really needy, gave the thief his only thin blanket. The thief took it–a little embarrassed–and left. Then Ryokan wrote a poem about how he wished that he could give this person the moon.

Ryokan wrote many wonderful poems, one of which speaks to this issue of consumerism in terms of the values of Buddhism.

Without desire everything is sufficient.

With seeking myriad things are impoverished.

Plain vegetables can soothe hunger.

A patched robe is enough to cover this bent old body.

Alone I hike with a deer.

Cheerfully I sing with village children.

The stream beneath the cliff cleanses my ears;

The pine on the mountain top fits my heart.

There are many examples in Zen history of people like this who went to extremes to not need any toys: to just live simply, appreciate the world of nature, appreciate their meditation, appreciate playing with children, and just to live open-heartedly.

In Buddhism, however, we practice the Middle Way. I would say for us the alternative to consumerism is not necessarily that we should give up all of our property, or come to Green Gulch and support the dharma by living like monks and offering our labor for the benefit of the community. Here we practice the middle way. In fact in the Green Gulch office we have some Buddhist toys for sale. You can get Buddhist beads, and Buddhist books, and wonderful Buddhist statues. Get ‘em while they’re hot.

Consumerism goes back a while in world history. Ryokan was, along with everything else, a great calligrapher, whose work was considered very valuable, even during his own lifetime. Among the many stories of how people tried to trick him into writing calligraphy is an account of some children asking Ryokan to write something on their kites to help them fly. He wrote, "Heaven–Up–Great–Wind." The kids were very happy. But actually it turns out the parents had put them up to it because they wanted to get the hot commodity of Ryokan calligraphy.

The real danger of consumerism to Buddhism is that we might think of spiritual practice as another commodity to consume. We have been trained by advertising and by our media to want the best, quickest, and fanciest of everything. Some people who travel around visiting different Buddhist centers and teachers want the quickest path or the best teacher, the fast track to enlightenment. This is the consumerist approach to Buddhism, and it is not so helpful. This practice is basically about finding the way to express our deepest self, our deepest truth. To do that it takes some time; it takes some settling in, some willingness to just be here in this body and mind. This is what we do in our meditation. Our practice is not about gaining anything that we do not already have. It takes some time, some patience and a willingness to just be here, upright, inhabiting our body and mind. It is not about acquiring some fancy new state of consciousness.

Having wealth and material resources is actually a great opportunity, and a responsibility. There is a "Middle Way" between extremes of consumerism and asceticism. In Buddhism there are many examples of wealthy "non-consumers" who have used their wealth and power to help the poor and needy, to help develop culture and the arts and even to foster awakening in others. One famous example of this in Buddhist literature is Vimalakirti, the legendary laymen who supposedly lived during Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime, 2,500 years ago. He had great business skill, and vast resources. But he used his wealth to benefit beings and help lead them toward the path, toward finding their true self. There is a middle way between not needing, like Ryokan, and using our resources beneficially, while not being consumed by them. Buddhism is not necessarily about getting rid of material wealth, but about using the phenomenal world to help support awakening.

Returning to the context of precepts and values, the root of the problem of consumerism has to do with how we see our basic values. In this regard I think of Thomas Jefferson, not about his notable flaws, his being a slave owner, but how he specifically rejected the idea of acquiring material wealth and property as an "inalienable" right to be protected by the government. There is a story that one of the founding fathers, John Adams or Franklin perhaps, had originally written in the Declaration of Independence that we are, "endowed with inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of property." Jefferson insisted on replacing "property" with "happiness." Happiness does not necessarily mean wealth and property. We have a right to be happy just as Ryokan was happy, walking on his begging rounds, playing with children, meditating, and looking at the moon.

Returning to precepts, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts that we use in the Soto Zen tradition are not seen as commandments, but as expressions of how awakened awareness acts in the world. Each of the precepts is a kind of problem or a question; each has many aspects and many sides. The first of the ten grave precepts is, "A disciple of the Buddha does not kill." In terms of consumerism, I would say that we kill the life of the world when we make things into dead commodities. Do we see the world and each other as alive, or do we see the world, each other, and ourselves, as just commodities to be consumed? Is the world an array of dead objects or is it alive, dynamic and interactive as Buddhism teaches?

How we respond to these questions has effects both in terms of our society and personally in terms of our own hearts and minds. For example, people in positions of power, believing that the world is just a commodity to be consumed, feel entitled to cut down old-growth forests, or drill for oil in the Alaskan wildlife reserve or up and down the shores of the Caribbean or the California coast. They are just liquidating their assets. Based on the values of consumerism, organizations like the FTAA, the Free Trade Association of the Americas, and the World Trade Organization, run by multinational corporations, are arranging treaties and laws for globalization that make the corporate right to profits legally supersede human rights, labor rights, or reasonable environmental protections. These organizations treat our world, our ecosystems, as a bunch of dead commodities to exploit.

This relates to the precept of not killing. How do we see our world as alive? How do we see each other as alive? Do we see ourselves as separate from the world–separate from the ocean, from nature preserves, birds and trees–separate from each other? If so, then nature and people and everything we see are all just dead objects that can be manipulated by us to get the most out of them for our own profit. We consume everything, even people. This is the logic of consumerism.

There is a line from my favorite American dharma poet, Bob Dylan, which says that people sometimes "Do what they do just to be nothing more than something they invest in." When we follow the tenets of consumerism, we are investing in ourselves. We are all familiar with this process of creating ourselves and even marketing ourselves in our resumes as commodities. We become commodities ourselves. We lose this other joy, that is not the happiness based on the pursuit of property, but the happiness to just enjoy our lives, to respond positively and constructively to the situations in our world, in our life, in our everyday activities, and to enjoy what we already have.

The fifth grave precept is that a disciple of the Buddha does not intoxicate mind or body of self or others. In some Asian countries it is given as, "A disciple of the Buddha does not sell wine or alcohol," but I think that it is about more than just alcohol or drugs. This precept refers to our basic practice of awareness, paying attention to the situation right now, which is the opposite of intoxication. Whether or not you have had a glass of wine or sake, the important practice for us is just to be present in midst of our life.

Contrary to this, based on the values of consumerism, the advertising and entertainment industries very skillfully distract us from being present in our body and mind. They aim to increase our desires and cravings, in effect making us hungry ghosts. This is a kind of intoxication. Of course it is nice to have shiny new toys. I admit that I am a consumer of Buddhist beads and statues. But we can get carried away. To paraphrase Descartes, who said, "I think therefore I am," in consumerism it is, "I shop therefore I am." In Buddhism we are trying to find a middle way. How do we take care of the things we have and the tools that we use without ourselves being consumed by the drive to have more and bigger and better? Are we avoiding our lives by our addiction to acquiring material objects?

The founder of Soto Zen in Japan, the Japanese monk Eihei Dogen, in one of his most famous writings, Genjokoan, "Actualizing the Fundamental Point," says, "When dharma does not fill our body and mind we think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills our body and mind we realize that something is missing." This something missing is exactly our life problem; this is our sadness, our frustration. In Zen practice we sit right in the middle of that. We face the reality that something is missing, as Dharma fills our body and mind. I think the problem with consumerism is that it tries to fill up this "something is missing" with new toys. It tries to distract us from our own fears, and sadness and frustrations, and to take us away from our life. It is an escape.

Most of us are not soaked in the Dharma like Ryokan. When we feel a little frustration, a little suffering, instead of facing who we are and settling into that, we may attempt to feel better by buying new toys. This is very tempting. It is often very painful to sit upright in the middle of who we are, our world and our situation. And sometimes it is all right to take a break, to go enjoy a movie or buy a new toy. But how do we find the middle way, where we do not attempt to intoxicate ourselves to the point that we are not aware of that "something missing," that sense of lack. Dylan has another line, "Each of us at times we might work too hard, too heavy, too fast, or too much. And anyone can fill his life up with things he can see but he just cannot touch." I feel that in consumerism we try to fill our life up with things that actually do not touch the reality of our lives. In Buddhism we are willing to not possess everything. We can stay in touch with Ryokan’s happiness, and enjoy the moon. We do not have to conquer the moon.

I recently heard somebody on the radio talking about how he had a wonderful new plan that he had devised while working on laser projection. He was actually trying to raise funds to develop and market his plan to have corporate logos projected on the moon through laser projection. He was very serious. This entrepreneur, an interesting fellow, was making the case that actually the technology is already here. Do you think that Ryokan would have wanted to give the moon to this thief if it had said, "Drink Coca-Cola," on it? Can you imagine all those paintings of the moon in Asian culture with corporate logos on the moon. [Holding out his robe sleeve,] I hope as Buddhism develops in America we do not have patches on our monk’s robes available for corporate logos, "Drink Coca-Cola." I wonder how much I could get if I had "Drink Coca-Cola" tattooed on my bald head? [Leaning forward to show his headtop.]

Buddhist meditation practice is about learning not to be addicted, not to consume our world. It is about appreciating the forest, the wildlife, and our lives as they are without needing to accumulate more and more toys. If we do have a lot of toys, then how can we use them beneficially? We can enjoy the toys we have, following the middle way, and not be consumed by needing more and more, bigger and better.

I do not have any answers or a "Buddhist policy" about how to deal with the damage being caused by consumerism all around the world, but I do want to emphasize the basic value Buddhism places on awareness and attention in our lives. I want to encourage us all to pay attention to these issues, to ask ourselves, "Do we really need this? How can I most beneficially use that?" If we all keep paying attention, and are aware of these values as they impact our society, and our own lives, then eventually I believe these patterns of addiction will change, and consumerism may stop harming the world.

I will end with a couple of poems by Ryokan, who really was a fool in terms of consumerist values.

All my life, too lackadaisical to stand up for myself;

Buoyantly, I leave everything to the harmony of reality.

In my sack, three scoops of rice;

Beside the fire, a bundle of firewood;

Who would ask about traces of delusion and enlightenment?

How could you know the dusts of name and gain?

Evening rain; in my thatched hut

I casually stretch out my legs.

This last one is about his attitude toward his begging rounds:

Spring wind feels rather soft.

Ringing a monk’s staff, I enter the eastern town.

So green, willows in the garden;

So restless, floating grass over the pond;

My bowl is fragrant with rice from a thousand homes.

My heart has abandoned splendor of ten thousand vehicles.

Yearning for traces of ancient Buddhas,

Step by step I walk, begging.


©2002 Mountain Source Sangha

2. Twelfth Annual Buddhist Monastic Conference by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron


Our twelfth annual Buddhist Monastic Conference was held at Bhavana Society, in the lush hills of West Virginia. This was the first time the gathering was held at a Theravada monastery, and Bhante Gunaratana, the abbot, welcomed us warmly in the tranquil meditation hall. About 45 monastics were present, most of us Westerners, many who have been ordained more than twenty years. Many of us knew each other from previous conferences; newcomers were welcomed, and we checked in about the goings-on with other monastics who were unable to attend this year.

We meditated together and also listened to presentations from speakers of the various traditions. These talks sparked the discussions that followed, some of which were in small groups and some with the entire large group. Our discussions flowed over into the break times—our interest in learning from each other and the ensuing friendships that developed were strong.

In traditional Theravada fashion, we ate from large alms bowls. But with a new twist, we received the kindly offered food by order of seniority regardless of gender, not in the usual manner with the monks first followed by the nuns. One morning we went on alms round, with some monastics going into the nearby town where supporters offered food. Others of us walked to the homes of Bhavana’s neighbors who invited us. I was in the group led by Bhante Gunaratana, who at nearly 80 years of age had us younger ones panting behind him as we walked the three miles to a neighbor’s home. We were greeted with waves from people in passing cars and waved to them in turn.

The first presentation was given by Rev. Daishan, a Zen monk from the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives who lives at Shasta Abbey. He spoke about celibacy being the core of monastic life, a commitment that is ongoing and that an individual monastic makes on a daily basis in his or her practice. We discussed the entry procedures for many of the monasteries represented at the gathering. Prospective candidates are screened carefully to ensure they have suitable external and internal conditions to train in monastic life. Open, yet discreet, communication in communities is important to help people when challenges arise.

Bhikshuni Heng Liang, a nun from the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, who had trained at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, gave the next presentation and spoke about the development of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association and the changes that had occurred after its founder, Master Hua, passed away ten years ago. The passing on of a founder and strong leader was of concern to all of us. For some organizations in the West, this has occurred already; in others it will happen due to the nature of impermanence.

We talked about different ways monastic communities are formed. In some cases, one or more lay patrons establish a place and invite the sangha there. In other cases, a teacher decides to establish a monastery and seeks lay support to do so. In both cases, the relationship with the laity is important. The Buddha set up this relationship in a particular way involving mutual generosity: the monastics shared the Dharma and the laity shared the four requisites (food, clothing, shelter, and medicine). While monastics are training in letting go of worldly desires and concerns, the Middle Way isn’t to cut off all contact with the world. We are a part of society and as such we serve others by teaching the path to enlightenment, counseling people, and doing other works that benefit them.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American monk who has translated most of the Pali Canon into English, gave a stunning talk in which he explored: Does the way mindfulness is popularly taught in Western Dharma centers correspond with the way it is traditionally explained in monasteries? The Buddha taught mindfulness in the context of the Four Noble Truths, which is rooted in the belief in rebirth in which we ordinary beings revolve in cyclic existence under the control of ignorance and craving. The Buddha’s principal reason for teaching the Buddhadharma was to lead us on the path to liberation from cyclic existence, and in the context of the Four Noble Truths, mindfulness is an essential factor in the path to liberation. It seems that many lay teachers extract mindfulness from that context and teach it as a technique to heighten direct experience and remedy the alienation and existential suffering people today suffer from. While beneficial in alleviating current ills, this use of mindfulness does not lead to liberation from cyclic existence.

This led us into a fascinating and heartfelt discussion in which we expressed our concerns about the fragility of the existence of the Buddha’s teachings in the West, the importance of the monastic sangha being firmly rooted in Western countries, and the beauty of the monastic life. The next day, Bhikkhu Bodhi challenged us with the question: As monastics, do we talk about the benefits of “going forth”—as the Buddha called becoming a monastic—to our students? Do we encourage people who are interested to live a life of simplicity and ethical conduct or do we, too, downplay the value of monastic life in accordance with the West’s faith in consumerism, materialism, and sexual pleasure as the path to happiness?

Khenmo Nyima Drolma, a student of Chetsang Rinpoche and the abbess of Vajradakini Nunnery, spoke of four criteria she uses in establishing a monastery in the U.S.:

2. What advice do respected teachers give?

4. What do texts say?

6. What changes were made when monasticism and Buddhism went to Tibet?

8. What do Western students need to facilitate their understanding and practice due to their culture?

I was asked to speak on recent developments in the Tibetan tradition regarding the possibility of introducing the bhikshuni ordination, the full ordination for women. In the ensuing discussion, Bhante Gunaratana and Bhikkhu Bodhi both expressed their support for having fully ordained women in the Theravada tradition.

Our monastic conferences always bring home to me the unity of the various Buddhist traditions. On a personal level, being with other monastics—people who understand how I’ve chosen to live my life—is edifying. But most importantly, I feel honored to be with people who are training in ethical conduct, and whose goals are liberation and service to living beings.

2. The Tradition of Buddha’s Robe / A Dharma talk given - by Sr. Candana Karuna - At IBMC 9-24-06

During the past year, I’ve noticed a lot of people wondering about Buddhist robes: why are there so many different colors and styles, why are they worn, what do they mean, what’s the big deal? It can be confusing. Doubly so here at IBMC, where there are not only many Buddhist traditions represented, but there are also differences in robes among those ordained within the American Vietnamese Zen tradition of our founder, Dr. Thich Tien-An.


Answering questions about Buddhist robes is easy on the surface, but each answer seems to lead to more questions. For some Buddhists, these answers are important; for others, even the question of robes is extraneous. Sometimes one explanation contradicts another or even seems to go against the spirit of Buddhism.


I like questions. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, and I still have questions, because in researching this subject I’ve discovered that for almost every statement I’m about to make, you can find a completely different answer. Sometimes, it’s simply that the different schools of Buddhism have different explanations or ways of doing things; at other times, language issues arise and translations are not reliable.


At any rate, this morning let me present you with what I have learned, my best guess, in trying to demystify the Tradition of Buddha’s Robe.


Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become Buddha, was born a son of the Shakya clan and grew to manhood in an entitled and sheltered life during the 6th century BCE in India. Encounters with sickness, old age and death shattered his complacency and made him question the privileged experiences and assumptions of his life. He renounced home and family in order to devote himself to answering the questions of suffering and, as was the custom, traded his fine clothing away for that of a mendicant seeker.


So, what did beggar’s clothing look like? In most representations of the Buddha, such as the figure on our altar, his clothing looks pretty good: classic simplicity – clean lines and not a hole or stain in sight. Presumably, that’s because he’s usually shown after his enlightenment, when his robes were cared for by attendants and replenished by donations.


But even if you find a statue of the ascetic Siddhartha – hollowed cheeks, sunken eye sockets and ribs like desiccated bones – although he looks terrible, the loincloth looks neat and tidy. Take it with a grain of salt, because there are no contemporary portraits extant. In fact, it was hundreds of years after he passed into parinirvana before anyone thought to make an image of the Buddha. And art, by its nature, idealizes. So, don’t look to statues or artwork as a primary source – they simply tell you about the culture in which they were created.


But here’s what we are told in the sutras about mendicant robes during that time. They were made from discarded scraps of cloth, or what is called in Sanskrit pāmsūda or pāmsūla. There are various lists identifying what constitutes pāmsūda. For example, cloth that has been 1) burned by fire, 2) munched by oxen, 3) gnawed by mice, or 4) worn by the dead. The Japanese equivalent of pāmsūda is funzoe, a polite translation of which is “excrement sweeping cloth” and indicates another potential source.


These scraps were scavenged from the trash, out in the fields, by roadsides or even from the cremation grounds. Any truly unsalvageable parts were trimmed off and the resulting bits were washed and sewn, piecemeal and without pattern, into a rectangle large enough to wrap around and cover the mendicant. Then the rectangle was dyed, using gleaned roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers or fruits, especially heartwood and leaves of the jackfruit tree, which resulted in a variable and generic color known in Sanskrit as kashaya, denoting mixed/variegated, neutral or earth tones. It’s also defined as "color that is not pure" or "bad color." I have also been told that it refers to colors considered ugly, colors chosen to renounce that culture’s values. This also ties in with another connotation of the word kashaya, which is impurity or uncleanliness, reflecting back to the source of the cloth used.


We’ll return to color and style later, but this is the clothing Siddhartha Gautama wore as he studied with and surpassed several prominent teachers of that time, and undertook to master the most severe ascetic practices. Even then, he found them as ultimately empty of answers as was his early life. Finally, he turned away from those paths, sat down under the Bodhi tree with his questions and found the solution to suffering.


After his enlightenment, he began to teach and many of those who heard his teachings – mendicants, former teachers, householders, even his own family and royalty – left their pursuits and followed him forming the Sangha of monks and, later, nuns. Their clothing was not codified, and various sutras refer to a variety in dress, some of it fairly fantastic. Tradition has it that those who ordained with the Buddha, as well as the Buddha himself, primarily wore the mendicant clothing of that time, essentially the same worn in India today; they all wore some version of a simple, serviceable, Kashaya robe.


This caused a problem for a Buddhist king named Bimbasara, who wanted to pay homage to Buddhist monks but was having trouble picking them out of the crowd. One day, he complained and asked the Buddha to make a distinctive robe for his monks. They were walking by a rice field in Magadha at the time, and Buddha asked Ananda, his personal attendant, to design a robe based on the orderly, staggered pattern of rows of the rice padi fields.


This original Buddhist robe comprised three parts, layered depending on activity and weather, and was therefore known as the “triple robe” (tricivara in Sanskrit):

1.         Uttarasanga is the normal clerical robe. It is a large rectangle, about 6 feet by 9 feet, worn wrapped around the torso and covering one or both shoulders. Although all three parts were made of kashaya fabric, this piece was the robe that came to represent Buddhism as it traveled to other countries, and it came to be called the Kashaya Robe. With its five-fold or five-column rice field pattern surrounded by a border, it is regarded as symbolic of a Buddhist’s relationship with the Buddha and his teachings

2.         Antarasavaka is a lower robe, wrapped around the waist to knee like a sarong and tied at the waist with a flat cotton belt. According to the monastic rules or Vinaya, a monk could wear it by itself if he was on his own, sick, crossing a river or looking for a new Uttarasanga.

3.         Sanghati is an extra robe, often made of two layers, which is used for extra warmth or may be used, spread out as a seat or bedding. It is sometimes folded and placed on one shoulder.


This “triple robe” traveled from India throughout the world as Buddhism spread and was adapted, as Buddhism has adapted, by each country and culture it encountered.


I’d like to go on a brief tangent and mention robe relics, those purported to be of an actual, worn-by-the-Buddha variety. A tradition of hand-me-down robes was extant during the Buddha’s lifetime; the sutras tell us when Ananda agreed to become the Buddha’s attendant, he stipulated that he would not take any of the Buddha’s robes because he didn’t want to create the appearance of favoritism. Since the Buddha taught for 45 years after his enlightenment, he undoubtedly went through quite a few robes, and there are quite a few stories of such robes or pieces thereof.


One of these relics was entrusted to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka by the Emperor Asoka in the 4th Century BCE but, unfortunately, the Buddha’s Robe relic disappeared or was destroyed during one of the many Chola invasions between the 9th and 13th Centuries CE.


Another story of such a robe comes from Zen Buddhism, which holds that the Buddha gave his robe to Mahakasyapa in testament to his deep understanding, evidenced when the Buddha held up a flower in silence and Mahakasyapa smiled, the only one to see the Buddha’s teaching. Some believe the 28th Indian Patriarch/1st Chinese Patriarch, Bodhidharma, brought this very robe to China and go so far as to say that it was passed to succeeding patriarchs until the Fifth Chinese Patriarch passed it to Hui-neng, with the instruction that there would be no more passing of the robe. Not every Zen Buddhist believes this in a literal sense; I personally suspect the Buddha’s Robe, at least in this case, was more symbolic of Mind-seal transmission than involving any actual original garment.


Back to the “triple robe,” which arrived in China with Buddhism well ahead of Bodhidharma, although it wasn’t Chan (which became Zen), and once it left India, the form of the “triple robe” as well as the terminology began to change. The Sanskrit word kashaya was transliterated into Chinese as jiasha in Mandarin, kasa in Cantonese, and came to be applied specifically to the Uttarasanga, or normal clerical robe.


While India’s climate is temperate, and the three rectangular robes provided sufficient warmth and protection from the elements, even a double-layered Sanghati didn’t cut it in China. So the Chinese layered additional, Taoist-style robes and jackets, or what we would recognize as kimono (although that’s a Japanese term), under the kasa. These garments had sleeves of various types, from relatively close-fitting to what we Americans think of as the archetypical Asian sleeve, the pendulous dogleg that may or may not be closed at the wrist.


China did not have a mendicant tradition, wherein monastics would be supported by the populace (nor was it likely official support would be forthcoming from a government steeped in Confucianism and Taoism). In order to be as self-sufficient as possible, Chinese monastics farmed and performed manual labor in addition to religious practice. Because the wrapped “triple robe” is not designed or conducive to this type of heavy work (especially when it’s freezing), the monks developed wrapped leggings, split skirts (like culottes) or pants as alternate forms of the lower robe or Antarasavaka.


The kasa, itself, also went through some changes. The original Uttarasanga had five columns in the rice field pattern and was large enough to simply wrap around the body and shoulders. Once Buddhism had left India, four small squares inside the outside corners and two larger reinforcing squares near the top border on either side of the center column were added to the kasa, modifying the original design. Ties and straps, or fasteners were attached, often in the form of a ring and spoke.


At some point, perhaps in China, Korea or Japan, a smaller version was developed, like the one I’m wearing which we call the rakusu. It has the five columns and is worn around the neck like a bib. The origin of the rakusu is one of the confusing questions for me. Some say that it developed during the transition to manual labor in China, because a full kasa was cumbersome. Some say it was originated during a time of persecution, so that Buddhists could wear the kasa, hidden and safe, under their outer clothing. It’s also been suggested that started as simply the “cloth bag that wandering monks wore to carry alms bowl and other small items,” which was later “formalized as a monastic ‘accoutrement’.” There are even Japanese scholars who believe that it was developed in Japan during the Edo or Tokugawa Era, as the result of sumptuary regulations which limited the size and fabric type of clerical wear (I suspect a bit of nationalism, here).


The other big change to the full-sized kasa was the addition of columns as the monastic advanced in ordination and power, whether spiritual or temporal. The basic five-fold robe expanded to accommodate a system of rank modeled after the traditional nine-grade hierarchical Chinese law, so that five grew to seven, to nine, to 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23 and 25 strips of cloth, often of rich or rare fabrics, providing a physical proof of one’s status.


Buddhism spread from China to Korea, and the Koreans adopted the term Kasa. They also maintain the rakusu or small kasa tradition, but did add a shortened kimono-type robe to be worn under the kasa.


Korean Buddhists introduced Buddhism to Japan, although eventually it was Chinese influence that overwhelmed and was wholeheartedly embraced by Japanese Buddhists: Taoist-style robes with wide arms, purple kasa, multiple columns, work clothes and all. The Japanese transliterated the Korean/Chinese kasa to kesa, or okesa, which is simply a polite Japanese format. The Japanese adopted the distinctive and practical work clothes, which they called samue, as the everyday working uniform of the monastic. They also created a new form of kesa, by developing a black wide-sleeved kimono-style monk’s robe which conforms to the spirit, if not the form, of the Kashaya Robe in that it is made from the pieces of cheapest fabric, which are sewn and dyed by the monk.


Japanese Buddhist monastics created many different robes, sacred as well as ordinary clothing, and it seems like they have 20 words for each one. As an example, I will simply mention the rakusu. In addition to the one we’re familiar with at at this temple, there is the Okau, a larger rakusu worn on the left shoulder (I believe that’s the style that looks a little like you’re wearing a barrel by one suspender), the Hangesa or “half kesa” given to lay people and the Wagesa or “small kesa” also worn by lay people who have taken precepts.


Japanese rakusu have sewn designs on the straps, or on the collar covering, where they fall across the back of the neck to indicate denominational sects: Soto is a pine, Rinzai is a mountain-shaped triangle, and Obaku is a six-pointed star. In addition, Rinzai and Soto traditions sew a large flat ring on the left strap. This ring is not functional, but recalls the shoulder fasteners of the full-length kesa. As a result of a reform movement known as the fukudenkai in the mid-20th century, some Soto Zen groups have eliminated the rakusu ring.


Buddhism entered Vietnam from India and later from China, although the Chinese forms became dominant. The Vietnamese prefer a close-fitting sleeve on the kimono, again illustrating that robe style often begins with an adaptation of a culture’s normal clothing and becomes institutionalized. A similar situation applies to the Vietnamese pajama-like work clothes: a monastic uniform, but not sacred clothing.


Within the Tibetan or Vajrayana tradition, the culture once again adapted the “triple robe.” Ordained male and female clerics wear a sleeveless tunic and lower robe or skirt. The Tibetan Kashaya Robe is variously called shamtab (five strips), chogu, or namba (25 strip, for high ordination).


American robes, such as they are to date, are largely determined by a teacher’s tradition. Variations occur due to personal preference, convictions, understanding, or simply opportunity. And sometimes, speaking for myself, it’s all about comfort.


Although the essential Buddhist robe was the Kashaya Robe, there have been variations in quality of material ever since the Buddha’s time. In the Pali tradition, six kinds of cloth are allowed for making the upper and outer robes of the “triple robe”: plant fibers, cotton, silk, animal hair (not human), hemp, and a mixture of some or all of them. There are other lists of materials, but it’s clear that a variety of fabrics were used throughout. Some were sumptuous. Some were simple or easy-care. Certainly, most of Asia seems to be using man-made fabrics right now. In the ultimate sense, of course, any material could be used, provided there is no attachment.


With reference to attachment, one interesting thing that is prohibited in the Vinaya is “sewing cowries shells or owls' wings” onto robes. Evidently, some of the Buddha’s monks were adorning their robes and had to be restricted in their artistic or preening tendencies. When the Chinese embroidered scenes in gold thread in their ceremonial kesa, or the Japanese took a single elaborate weaving and simulated the pieced, rice field pattern by appliqueing brocade dividing strips, perhaps sewn to one edge only so that the loosely attached strips swayed like tatters -- do you suppose that they were truly not attached? Not that I’m not appreciative of the craft and beauty of these kesa. I’m just wondering.


This finally brings me to color, back to the concept of kashaya – broken or variegated color – which probably was in a spectrum from yellow to a reddish brown from being washed and dyed with plant materials, sometimes saffron or tumeric. Because the materials and dyestuffs vary, colors are not consistent. They also fade and become soiled. According to Seung Sahn Sunim, the Korean Zen master, during the Buddha’s time, the monks wore yellow robes, because that was the color of the dirt and didn’t show soil when the wind was blowing.


In modern times, monastics of the Theravadan tradition in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand or Laos usually continue this tradition of saffron or ochre robes. One source I encountered claimed that forest monks wear ochre while city monks wear saffron, but concluded that this is not always the case.


Monastics in the Mahayana tradition wear many different colors, according to region, country, sect and ordination level. When Buddhism came to China, color changed and changed again; different temples in various regions wore different colors: yellow, light golden brown, brown, grey or blue, shades of black: pitch black, grey black. During the Tang Dynasty, the emperor awarded purple robes and honorary titles to high-level monks.


Japanese monastics usually wear grey or black. They adopted the purple kesa tradition, which was revoked in the 17th Century under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The emperor abdicated in protest and monks who resisted, no matter how high, were exiled.


Koreans wear grey, brown or blue robes.


In the Vietnamese Zen tradition the kimono robes are brown or yellow, or somewhere in between, and the kesa are yellow to orange. At IBMC, after 10 years at high ordination, the cleric may wear a red kesa.


The colorful robes of the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet range from the simple to some of the most elaborate in the world, from bright yellow to orange to maroon to a purplish-red according to School and Dharma level. Their versions of the Kashaya Robe are usually yellow. If their sleeveless tunic is trimmed with yellow brocade or they are wearing yellow silk and satin as normal attire, they are probably eminent monks or considered living Buddhas.


Americans tend to follow the color coding associated with their teacher’s tradition, although we do have a tendency toward individualism and downright contrariness when it comes to formalization. Our Rev. Kusula once suggested that American Buddhist robes might be blue denim.


As an example of how schools assign colors according to Dharma level, here’s what I think I know about IBMC’s Americanized Vietnamese Zen. Monks and priests wear some shade of brown robes with yellow/orange kesas. Fully ordained priests may additionally wear yellow collars or yellow piping around the collar. Laypeople, whether taking Refuge or atangasilas (eight-precept ordainees such as myself, Nam, Doug and Gary) wear the rakusu and, while not entitled to wear the larger kesa, we do get to wear these spiffy grey non-sacred robes.


One Soto Zen website mentions that Bodhisattvas wear black or dark brown kesas, so I guess IBMC and a large part of Japan are pretty far advanced.


With respect to bib-like rakusu, colors may reflect those of the kesa. At IBMC, ours are gold. In Korea, the half-kasa is brown. Or they may be a different, contrasting color to the kasa. In China, Chan-style rakusu are white. The Japanese wear blue, brown or black, with their rakusu first given during Refuge. No matter what color faces out, the Japanese back them with white cloth, on one side of which teacher writes the “Verse of the Kesa” while on the other, he writes his name, the student’s dharma name and the date of the Refuge ceremony. In Soto Zen, blue is for laypeople, black is for priests, and brown is the highest, for people who have received Dharma transmission from a lineage teacher. However, not all Soto temples, even in Japan, follow the Dharma level color coding. One might receive a brown rakusu at lay ordination at one temple, but be chided at another temple for wearing a color reserved for someone at a much higher level. This actually happened to someone at two American Zendos.


Confusing? Yes, and that’s simply mundane style and color. Here’s a quick rundown of the symbolism of the Buddha’s Robe.


Kesa or Kashaya Robes, whether small and large, today are almost entirely “Symbol.” They are the Buddhist’s connection with the Tathagata. In Buddhist numerology, five is the number of the Buddha, which is echoed by the five-folds and five points of the rectangle: east, west, north, south, and middle. The Kashaya Robe is the robe of the renunciant, wherein the discards of the world are made pure and precious, yet the rice field pattern also represents and encompasses the world, in all the fecundity of agriculture. It can also be regarded as a mandala, geometric patterns of squares and lines which represent the universe and serve as a meditation object on many levels. The little squares on each corner represent the four directions or, perhaps, each of the Buddhist Dharma protectors. The center column is sometimes said to represent the Buddha, and the two flanking squares his attendants.


"The kesa is the heart of Zen, the marrow of its bones," said Eihei Dogen, (1200-53 CE) who established the Soto branch of the Zen in Japan. It is the physical doctrinal symbol, the essence of Transmission, and essential to a sense of legitimacy. Dogen studied in China and received the kesa of a Chinese Zen patriarch who had lived a century earlier.


Dogen was somewhat fanatical on the subject of kesa, proselytizing its profound virtues, lamenting the decadent period wherein it provided the only lifeline and yet was so neglected. I recommend his Kesa Kudoku (The Merit of the Buddha Robe), Chapter 3 of his great work the Shobogenzo, which waxes poetic on the subject, while providing practical information concerning the making, care and use of the garment. I can provide copies by email if you are interested.


He wrote, “… one verse of the ‘Robe Gatha,’ [also known as the Verse of the Kesa]… will become the seed of eternal light, which will finally lead us to the supreme Bodhi-wisdom.” The Robe Gatha is a Zen chant which is said before one puts on the Kesa or Rakusu. Here is one translation:


How great the robe of liberation  

A formless field of merit.

Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching,

We save all beings.


Pretty marvelous, isn’t it? However, a cautionary story about the robes, appearances and reality comes to us from the founder of Rinzai Zen, Master Lin-chi I-hsuan, who lived in the 9th century CE, who said,


“… I put on various different robes…The student concentrates on the robe I'm wearing, noting whether it is blue, yellow, red, or white. Don't get so taken up with the robe! The robe can't move of itself; the person is the one who can put on the robe. There is a clean pure robe, there is a no birth robe, a bodhi robe, a nirvana robe, a patriarch robe, a Buddha robe. Fellow believers, these sounds, names, words, phrases are all nothing but changes of robe … Because of mental processes thoughts are formed, but all of these are just robes. If you take the robe that a person is wearing to be the person's true identity, then though endless kalpas may pass, you will become proficient in robes only and will remain forever circling round in the threefold world, transmigrating in the realm of birth and death."


            Perhaps it is not a good thing to become too impressed or too attached, even to the kesa, although Master Dogen might disagree. Some American Buddhists chafe against robes as representative of the hierarchy of Asian Buddhism; they wonder if robes have any value. Some wonder if different robes encourage comparisons such as, “who is most enlightened?” or “who is the senior here?” Some believe robes intimidate newcomers or encourage pride as one advances. And some just don’t like the inherent formalism or the implied elitism. Many Americans, simply wear their robes or just a rakusu over ordinary clothes. Rev. S’unya often replaces his pajamas with Heartland Zen brown overalls. Perhaps we *are* developing American Buddhist robes. But then again, perhaps not: the Sangha at Spirit Rock in Northern California has decided not to wear robes or differentiating insignia at all.


As a final point and to thank you all for listening to me, I would like to address one additional aspect of the Tradition of Buddha’s Robe. Although I’ve run through the quick guide as to who wears what, when and why, I’d also like to leave you with a proactively positive way of approaching life with the help of the Buddha’s Robe.


In the Lotus Sutra, the great, some say the greatest, Mahayana Sutra, we encounter a specific concept of “putting on the Buddha’s Robe.” This appears in Chapter 10, “Teacher of the Law,” which addresses how to communicate with others, specifically when discussing Dharma. But I believe it is applicable to our everyday lives, whether chatting about the weather or politics or sitting, alone, with ourselves.


In this chapter, Shakyamuni Buddha explains “the three rules of teaching,” one of which is that a teacher must, “put on the Thus Come One's robe,” before trying to teach the Lotus Sutra.


In the Sutra, Buddha is speaking metaphorically; he explains that his Robe is “a mind that is gentle and forebearing.” What does this mean? Gentle seems easy enough. Forebearing, or perseverance, seems to me to be the echo of Zen’s Great Effort, this time applied to communication. If we, as a people, were able to combine kindness with willingness to stay engaged in dialogue, even when disagreement, criticism or misunderstanding arise, a great many problems might simply be talked away. Unkindness breeds; if someone does not understand or rejects our position, we are tempted to return the favor. Rejection leads to anger or disengagement, our cliché of fingers-in-ears “La,la,la, I can’t hear you,” often resulting in frustration and sorrow. We lose the opportunity to communicate.


I believe that “gentle forebearance” comes from a resolve to develop one’s center – it nurtures seeds of equanimity. This requires inner strength, but also an open mind. Such a tremendous amount of effort is involved in simply acting, rather than reacting, in not becoming too attached to what you believe, to being right – because if you personalize dogma, it becomes a fixed barrier to dialogue, any attempt at discussion swirls around it and crashes.


This is not to say that one should be passively meek and it’s not a quid pro quo kind of situation. “I’ll be nice if you’ll be nice,” is not the goal here, although it is a nice side effect of being respectful. In fact, I think we should approach communication without expectation of reaching agreement or even understanding.


I may believe that, but I rarely achieve it. However, I offer this Dharma talk to you all in that spirit! May you all be warmly wrapped in Buddha’s Robe, open to dialogue but firm in your resolve and effort, and not perturbed by the questions of Buddhist couture.



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