Sunday, September 19, 2010

Zazenkai Notes: Jedi Robes and Spinning Wheels

Cyclone Closing
Cyclone Closing, Helsinki, today.

The trouble with a really good zazenkai is that it makes zazenkais that aren't as good feel like they kinda suck. Today's wasn't as good as my Zen Weekend a couple of weeks ago.

Which isn't to say that it was a waste of time or anything. I just had a lot of stuff churning around, and spent most of the time spinning donuts, and didn't manage to get as far or as deep as I've been before. Then again, some of that stuff was pretty interesting (might be at least a blog post or two in them), so that didn't altogether go to waste.

But I did end up practicing returning my attention to the practice a lot more than I practiced holding it there, and I didn't ever get past that point.

I wore my Jedi robe today. It's light cotton fabric dyed dark brown, and looks sort of like a bathrobe, only with flappy sleeves. There's also a black sash thing called an obi. In our tradition, it doesn't really mean anything in particular; one of our instructors, Ari, calls it a Zen track suit.

I bought mine nearly a year ago, because I thought it looked cool, and also because I appreciate the esthetics of Zen ceremony, to which those robes contribute. I quickly found out that while it is officially nothing more special than a Zen track suit, we people tend to pin all kinds of stuff on it, and after the retreat last March, I stopped wearing it.

Also last spring, there was some discussion in the sangha about what kind of policy there should be regarding those robes. That the discussion even happened shows that it is something that's not quite a track suit. Eventually there was an official proclamation that it is now permissible to use a rakusu without a robe, that instructors and zendo leaders and such are no longer required to wear them, but that they are now required for everybody on sesshins, for which loan robes will be provided.

The upshot was that lots of people stopped wearing them.

For some reason, I had been thinking a lot about that robe lately, fretting about whether I should start wearing it again or not. So I figured I might as well try again what it felt like.

The obi is nice. It sort of naturally focuses the attention on the hara, and makes breathing easier.

The robe is rather noisy. It imposes a little bit of additional discipline on sitting, since even small movements make a sound.

I figure that's good.

The other side of the equation is all the stuff we pin on it. When wearing it, I feel like people are looking at me wearing it, and I'm not sure how well I wear it. I think people are thinking "Who does that n00b think he is, wearing that robe?" Or, worse, I think they may be thinking that I know something I don't, because I wear a Jedi robe. (If someone comes at me with a lightsaber, I'm really screwed.) I think that more since there are fewer people wearing them now.

The fabric is light, but the robe does weigh something.

I think I'll keep wearing it for a bit though. If it keeps feeling weird, I'll stop and donate it to Zengården for use on sesshins.

I think it'd be nice if more people started wearing them again; I think seeing them at zazen does lend it a dignity and beauty, and I would like to contribute to that.


  1. I do like the aesthetics of robes. Very much. That may make me some kind of Zen fashion victim! One other thing that occurred to me about them is their anonymity. They remove the projection of individual tastes via fashion. And they also cover the body so as to avoid distraction. I think Brad Warner or one of his commenters made some point about women in tight hip level yoga pants as being a distraction for him in a Zendo. Same for any "minimalist" kinds of clothing I think.
    With the removal of the option for individual fashion choices (some of which are sometimes questionable) there is one less thing to envy or feel aversion to. It is an egalitarian de-individuation. So from that perspective it's probably a good idea.
    Then again there can be a sort of robe envy. Someone might starch and crease theirs just so and have practiced wearing it just so, or have a finer material. I am against the brocades and such-find it rather pompous. Those brocade robes can go for tens of thousands of dollars too. There's better ways for a sangha to spend their money since so many are having problems with donations.
    When you look at most Theravada or Tibetan leaders they are wearing the same robes as the monks. So Zen seems to get a little off track with the brocades.
    If I had a robe, and somewhere to wear it I probably would. Not really necessary in my present situation but who knows what might happen?

  2. Back when I did my military service (nearly 20 years ago soon… time does fly!), there was an enormous amount of competition for really, really trivial things—a jacket that fit particularly well, boots that were model A rather than model B, camo that was a darker and sharper-outlined patter rather than a lighter and mushier-looking one, and so on. We even fought over shoe polish—there was one kind that did mostly nothing other than stink of gasoline, and another kind that was pretty good.

    In retrospect, that was very, very, funny. Regular fashion queens we were.

    On the other hand, uniforms did very effectively erase class distinctions. The single best thing I got back from that year was meeting and getting to know a whole bunch of people that I would otherwise never have met, and having everyone wear the same thing (well, more or less) made you approach everyone without too many prejudices in mind. There was a very representative cross-section of Finnish male youth there. Some of it was more exotic than Kathmandu to me.

    I wish there was some way to take home that part without the idiocy around guns and orders and chest-banging and marching around in formation.

    Come to think of it, perhaps some of that army experience still echoes around my noggin when trying on that Zen robe…

  3. Few thoughts:

    (1) I had to look up "Rakusu". You might want to explain it next time for us Zen-naive readers. Hell, I saw them in the ZenDoos I sat in but I never liked the little bibs so didn't want to learn their name and I saw the bib as an elite membership club thing so I was even less interested.

    (2) In Aikido, there is a funny controversy over the "hakama (skirt) worn over the dogi (white uniform). Some prefer brown, some black -- and each has a reason theirs is better! But more controversial than that, some feel only blackbelts should use it. Some doojos (clubs) allow them after 3 kyu (rank) and others earlier. The mental games around those symbols is funny to me.

    (3) Should you do karate in uniforms or in street clothes? This is another debate I have heard for years. You can really amplify how specialness-feeling by fighting in uniform if you are surrounded by others who believe the same. But it is a joke. It is self-delusion. Sure, it makes the club fun but it re-inforces a silly part of mind. We all do it.

    (4) It is like prayer, you can bow your head, fold your hands and pray -- but it is amplified by being with others doing the same but the silliness stands out when you do it in public where the same signals aren't accepted to mean the same thing. It is a cultural club activity.

    (5) In my medical circles -- to wair a white coat is similar. Length of coat is a big deal. Then, when I don't wear my white coat, do I wear a tie. Same silly stuff. But here, it matters what the patients think. But this has changed over time too.

    Best wishes with your wrestling over enlightenment uniforms and making a special Finnish subculture!

  4. Nella's point is seen in Aikido too -- talk about quality of hakama, etc.

    So, if Zen is consistent, they should just have hand-out robes that are identical, simple and unifying to stop the distractions. But since Zen practitioners are people, they will bring all the other stuff in with them inevitably. And worse yet, they will give it a sacred flavor.

    Fashion stupidity is funny enough but coloring it with holiness is nauseating.

  5. I added a link to Wikipedia for rakusu; good point, I'll have to try to explain tricky words more. I often forget.

    External symbols can be dangerous. It's certainly very easy to turn them into elite-club-membership type things. More things than most, it's all in the mind—it can be that, or it can be other things as well. I think it's highly individual; different people will have different meanings topmost.

    Perhaps rather strangely, it's never occurred to me to see them in that light.

    In the club where I used to do aikido, the line was at 3 kyu. The rationale was that before that point, it's better if you, and the sensei and other instructors, are able to see your legs. It's funny how quickly you buy into that stuff, especially when you're young. At least the dogi is a pretty practical garment for the purpose, unlike the hakama…

  6. Oh, and, in our group, the robes are identical, batch variation of fabric permitting. They're made by volunteers in the sangha to the same design. The two teachers are the only exceptions; they have a bunch of robes of different colors for different occasions. All the ones I've seen them wear look like rather workaday garments; no embroidery or such.