Saturday, March 24, 2012

Playing Dress Up

When I first wandered into Zen Center a little more than a year ago, the robes really took me by surprise. It's not clear what I was expecting, maybe jeans and black shirts? It really was a bit of a shock, and while it's the most obvious example of emulating Japanese dress and culture around here it's only the tip of the iceberg.

Beside the surprise there was some mild aversion: surely the transmission of the subtle secret of Zen doesn't require us to play dress up! I mean really, aren't we passed that? What's wrong with some jeans and a nice button up shirt? Why are all these people wearing those funny looking bibs? And that was at City Center.

Dogen's Temple of Eternal Peace Miniature Play Set

If walking into City Center was a surprise, going up to Green Gulch for the first time was a bit of a shock. If City Center is the shallow end of the pool and Tassajara the deep end, Green Gulch is the middle end. There are a number of long term residents, mostly with families, and a fresh batch of farm and garden interns shows up every few months. Reb keeps his residence there and there are priests in training, making it a monastery as well as an organic farm and retreat center. Many more people wear robes more of the time, the buildings are fashioned in Japanese style, the landscaping is heavy on standing rocks and asian trees. It's basically a full time re-inactment of a Kamakura Period Zen monastery.

There's just one small difference: nearly everyone is caucasian. And while the robes annoyed me a little the paucity of Japanese teachers was genuinely difficult to accept. Surely the transmission of the subtle secret of Zen requires Japanese masters! I really had a hard time getting past it at first and not having done my research ahead of time it was a bit of a surprise.

Suzuki Roshi died in 1971, more than 30 years ago, Katagiri Roshi left to establish the Minnesota Zen Center 1972 and Kobun Chino had moved on to establish Haiku Zen Center in Los Altos in 1970, leaving San Francisco under the abbacy of Richard Baker. The inmates have been running the asylum for a while now.

Theatro Zendo

It was clear to me after my first one-day that what goes on in the zendo is a bit of a play. Ceremonies are scripted actions, the priests and students act out a piece called 'morning meditation' nearly every day of the year. With proscribed roles, scripts handed out for chanting, and some nice soliloquies from the teachers during the day it's hard not to see the place as a theater. The zendo is the stage, the liturgy is the script, ceremonies involve lots of blocking and practice beforehand, we are all just players in the great drama of dharma.

In this light, costuming is just part of setting the stage, no different than building the zendo on the pattern of a Japanese or Chinese meditation hall. It's perfectly natural to want to look the part, it helps to reinforce what is is you're up to, it's a constant reminder to stay in character as a bodhisattva. It shapes identity, one of the reasons we get so attached to the clothes we wear is that they are selected to reinforce and project our ideas of who we are.

Of course, the whole point of Zen is to come to the realization that there is no 'self' or 'other'. So how do we reconcile this? Why build the zendos and wear the robes if zen is about realizing the emptiness of forms? Dogen answers the question in the opening of the Fukanzazengi:
What need is there for concentrated effort? Indeed, the whole body is far beyond the world's dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from one, right where one is. What is the use of going off here and there to practice?

And yet, if there is the slightest discrepancy, the way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion.
For Dogen, concentrated effort was just sitting zazen, the rest of monastery operations were simply the norms of the time. Modern practitioners are committed to the task of recreating the environment of the founder as well as they can in the modern world. Both to help themselves better understand the mind of Dogen and to provide good conditions for the creation of Buddhas. It's not a reenactment, but part of a continuous daily performance of the exact same play, transmitted down through the Soto lineage and brought over by Suzuzki, Katagiri and Chino Roshis.

But the forms are emptiness, paying them out produces no merit on it's own. It's the wholehearted engagement that makes for a good play, you have to suspend belief for a moment to really get to the heart of the moment, forgetting yourself for a moment and engaging in the practice. Theater allows us to see ourselves in a completely different light, and Zen exploits that human trait to help guide people. Follow the schedule completely, and you'll find that over time, as you practice the role, it becomes easier and easier to play it out in everyday life.

A Cosplay Experiment

Remember back when I got Yoga Pants? There was some resistance, and as the year has stretched out since then the resistance became a sort of dismissive amusement; "Aren't they cute in their fancy robes." Clearly I had to do something… So I bought myself some tabi, which was a good start. Tabi aren't worn much around here except by the priests and in the tea house. Wearing them with those yoga pants and my usual button up shirt was a bit of a contrast, but you know what? My feet were much warmer when sitting, and I found them to very comfortable to wear around the house.

The same shopping trip was actually intended to get Kimono for my daughter and her friend, we organized a children's tea ceremony for a few of the kids and wanted to dress them up appropriately, but it was also my first step into the world of Zen dress up. The girls looked cute and the ceremony (we served cocoa instead of tea) was a lot of fun for them:

IMG 0273

A Tale of Three Contexts

Uniforms are a powerful thing, we associate them with authority and control. Judges wear black robes to project an air of authority, police, fire fighters, military personnel all have recognizable, distinct, uniform styles which quickly communicate their role both to outsiders as well as within the group via more subtle signals such as insignia. Sales of these items are often restricted and it's a crime in most jurisdictions to impersonate an officer.

Thankfully no such restrictions are applied to the traditional Japanese garments worn around casually by some residents. Turns out, you can just go over to Japan Town and pick them up, even in gaijin sizes. One day I finally buckled, Lilly and I were shopping for a new parasol and fan to replace the last two, which had been over-loved a little. There it was, hanging in a rack of various cotton Kimono and other Japanese style garments: the blue jacket and pants combo, in XL. It fit perfectly.

The next day was the first Sunday of the month, Children's Program. Naturally I wanted to show off my new outfit, join in on the re-enactment a little bit, Lilly in her kimono and me in my new Sunday best. I got about what I expected from the residents, more than a few knowing smiles, you can almost hear them thinking, "we got him." What I wasn't expecting was the reaction of outsiders, especially with the addition of the name badge we wear as Children's Program volunteers. Several times during the day people asked me for directions or had questions about Green Gulch, parents asked what we were doing with the kids today: I clearly looked like I knew what I was doing.

The following Saturday I got dressed up again and went to City Center early for Zazen, service, and breakfast. I haven't been around City Center for a few months and there were a number of new faces. I'd also forgotten that there are many fewer people wearing the traditional clothing, the priests are still in robes but I actually felt a bit out of place. Getting in and out of the Buddha hall for service has a very specific form that I've never completely understood, people expect that you know what your doing when you wear the uniform, so I got a couple of corrective glances getting in and out that I probably would have been spared if I was in my usual outfit.

Worse, I started to think I was an authority. During breakfast I started whispering a detail about the serving form to a neighbor, who quickly cut me off. You might think I would have known better but there it was, the impulse to correct someone, or help them, caused me to break the silence and disturb their breakfast.

The next day was a special event in Japan Town, kimono day. There were a number of events and a few people, mostly women, dressed in traditional Japanese dress, mostly kimono. Only a few of us gaijin were brave enough to go wandering around in consume. I got a few funny looks from the maiko in formal dress, chatted with my favorite antiques dealer, had some ramen and went home feeling a little silly but having enjoyed myself.

Once I got home I didn't immediately change into my usual clothes. I stayed in costume, started cleaning up and getting ready for a week with Lilly. I was still playing dress up, not for an audience or to express authority, but to remind myself how I want to behave. To wrap myself in the teachings of Suzuki Roshi and of Dogen Sama and Bodhidharma and the Original Buddha.
Great robe of liberation
Field far beyond form and emptiness
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching
Saving all beings.