Monday, March 16, 2009
Wearing the Robes
Our group has been doing some more traveling, me sporting my new robes, before most of us (not me) return to the USA on March 20.
The monks' robes carry a deep symbolic significance in Burma. People pay respect through bowing, often three times all the way floor, and these are often complete strangers acting quite spontaneously. Burmese people are well-informed about the lifestyle and rules of etiquette around monks, for instance, what monks are allowed to eat when, and how things, especially food, are properly offered. For me it is for me a lesson in what it must be like to be famous: I can't just go out for a stroll without anticipating interactions that I otherwise would not have. Readers who know me will not have missed that I am by nature reclusive, so this is a challenge for me, and at the same time a profound responsibility.
Then, being a Wester monk seems to carry an additional charge. Any Westerner is exotic here, but a Western monk elicits particular interest, usually starting with a double-take. People seem to appreciate that a Westerner would embrace something so dear to the Burmese culture as I have. I think many Asians are somewhat in awe of Westerners in general (probably for all the wrong reasons) and this is probably all the more so in a country that is so far from achieving First-World status as Burma is. I imaging Western monastics must be seen as a striking and very full endorsement of the predominant Burmese faith.
The proper mindset for the monastic is always to remember that he or she is only plaster that happens to have assumed the shape of the Buddha. I'm sure the Burmese are quite aware of this, given their tradition of temporary ordination and the close personal connection everyone has with monastics, often as family members. It's particularly easy for me to feel like a lump of plaster as I struggle with learning to wear the robes, learning the etiquette, and learning the Pali chants that I've heard six-year-old children recite by heart. Much of what I've learned through Zen practice simply does not carry over. It's very awkward, but the awkwardness is not unexpected or new, reminding me of the beginning of my tenure at Tassajara.
Mostly I am pleased as I could be with the step I've taken. One of the Burmese monks with good English, U Suntara, aked what felt different to me after ordination. I replied, "I know what I am!" He seemed to understand and be pleased with my answer, but after thinking about it, I realized it does not quite get to the heart of it:
A monastic is someone who makes a choice, a choice that few others see clearly they have the freedom to make. That choice is what the shape of his or her life will be. Specifically for the Buddhist monastic it is the choice to live, as a matter of vow, as if the Buddha's teachings were true. This is the mold that gives the plaster a recognizable shape. The value of exercising the freedom to live a life of vow was something I learned through years of Zen practice and through my reading of Dogen, that I was reenacting here in Burma.
What is different after ordination is that now for the first time more than a few others, in fact an entire culture, recognizes the shape of my life. So, it's not so much that I know what I am --- I've chosen to be it, after all --- but that others know who I am. Not only that, but through their expressions of respect for the robes they show that they fully endorse my faith in this way of life. My gratitude for receiving this kind of support is boundless.