Recently, someone asked me why Buddhist clergy in the United States wear robes. The thrust of the question was that since we live in the US, where robes are not traditionally worn in public, we shouldn’t wear them as part of Buddhist ceremonies.
It’s a fair question, and it led me to ponder the purpose of other Buddhist sacraments and the rituals that we perform. The following essay is my understanding of why we wear robes and perform rituals in American Buddhism.
As a lay Buddhist minister, I lead something of a double life. I am trained and authorized to teach the Dharma. I give talks, I write essays, and I offer meditation instruction. On the other hand, I am a layperson with all the duties that entails: I have a job, I pay bills, and I spend time with my family.
Buddhism teaches that these two parts of my life are not separate. We see this in the Two Truths Doctrine of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, which states that our world exists via two levels of reality.
First, there is the absolute realm (emptiness), which is beyond name and form. Then there is the conventional realm (form), which is made up of the phenomenal world. These realms coexist like two sides of the same coin. They are different, but they are part of the same whole.
This lesson is repeated in the Heart Sutra. Rev. Shunryu Suzuki explains the teaching of the Heart Sutra via the following formula:
If FORM = EMPTINESS
And EMPTINESS = FORM
Then FORM = FORM
And EMPTINESS = EMPTINESS*
In other words, our spiritual lives are different from our mundane lives. However, the two are inseparable and intrinsically tied together.
Thus, my work as a lay minister shapes and informs my daily activities. It positively changes the way I wash dishes, fold laundry, and speak to others so that each of these activities are aligned to the Buddhadharma.
Similarly, my life as a layperson is a vessel for my ministry. I will never write an essay that expresses the Buddha’s compassion better than a friendly conversation with my neighbor. And while I love theological discussion, I find the best example of embodying the Buddha’s wisdom is ensuring that my animals are in good health.
I, and all human beings, can bridge the gap between the spiritual and mundane aspects of life thanks to the teaching of universal buddhahood. This is the central ontological principle of Mahayana Buddhism—summed up in this passage from the Nirvana Sutra:
In affirming both self and nonself, I call it “the middle path,” One way of explaining this is that the Buddha expounds a middle path in which all living beings possess Buddha-nature, but because it is obscured by the defilements they do not understand it and do not see it. Therefore, you must diligently cultivate whatever expedient means you can in order to destroy those defilements.**
In this passage, the Buddha does something remarkable. He takes the Two Truths Doctrine and applies it to human beings. In short, we are buddhas, enlightened beings, capable of wisdom and compassion. At the same time, we are people; possessing physical bodies, defiled by the poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance.
This offers us a terrific amount of grace. In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha is saying that regardless of how boring or ordinary our lives become, we are still buddhas, just like him. And if we can clear away our defilements, our every action can bring joy into this world.
However, cleansing ourselves of defilements is easier said than done.
I know intellectually that washing the dishes after dinner is a simple way to end suffering for myself and others. It ensures that there are clean dishes the next time I want to eat something, creates a pleasant home for my family to enjoy, and reduces the number of flies in the kitchen. But there are days when it feels like a pain in the butt.
I know intellectually that mowing the grass makes life better for both myself and my neighbors. It beautifies the neighborhood and reduces the number of weeds that find their way into my garden. But there are days when it feels like a waste of time.
I have these feelings because of my human nature, which comes with human desires. I want to be cool. I want my life to be exciting. These desires aren’t bad, but they are unhelpful. They distract from my missional duty to be an embodiment of the Dharma.
Thankfully, the Buddha planned for the fragility of the human ego. He and the many Buddhist masters that came after him provided various sacraments to help people escape unwholesome mental states.
These sacraments are the expedient means that are mentioned in the Nirvana Sutra. And there are hundreds of them that take the form of rituals, decorations, food choices, and modes of dress that help us bypass our deluded ways of thinking. One might think of them as washcloths, which clean the windows of our mind so that light can come in.
These sacraments work based on the concept of universal buddhahood, which is described in the Nirvana Sutra. Simply put, if all beings are buddhas, then all beings are holy. And if we can see the Buddha in something small—like a Buddha statue, for example—we’ll be able to recognize the holiness and buddhahood of other things.
When we bow on entering the meditation hall, we recognize the sacred nature of the space. If we do so enough times, we’ll recognize the sacred nature of other spaces as well. Repeatedly cleaning the altar in a Buddhist temple makes it easier to clean our front porch at home.
Thus, the institutional sacraments we find in Buddhist temples—the bowing, chanting, meditation, oryoki bowl meals, and so on—help us create our own personal sacraments in daily life. In the same way that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, the Buddhist temple is our ordinary life, and our ordinary life is the Buddhist temple. They are different, but they are part of the same whole.
I’m reminded of this each time I put on my Buddhist robes. On one hand they are mundane, simple pieces of cloth that protect me from the elements. On the other hand, they are the physical embodiment of the Dharma. They act as a conduit, connecting me with 2,600 years of tradition and reminding me that the smaller, deluded parts of my psyche must take a back seat.
In this way, they act as a string, tying the sacred and mundane parts of my life together until there’s nothing left but the Buddha.
Namu Amida Butsu.
* Downing, Michael. 2002. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Sevotion, and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
** Blum, Mark. 2013. The Nirvana Sutra: Volume 1. Moraga, CA: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai America.
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