Everyday I proclaim my faith by wearing my robe. I have no special vestments or ceremonial dress. It is the same robe each day that protects me and steers me from worldly pursuits. It links me to the ancient roots of the path I walk and to all disciples of truth. Comprising five main pieces, the largest robe is a head higher than me and almost double the width of my two arms outstretched. Swathed in its folds, I surrender race, nationality, gender, family, culture, and education to the holy life.
My robe defies age-old practices of beautifying the body and contravenes the norms of fashion. Held in place by a sequence of twists and folds, its cumbersome dimensions are also the least practical choice for modern lifestyles and conditions. Yet for these very reasons, it serves as an exquisite if subtle training for the one who wears it.
When I traded dresses and jeans for the robe, I gave up running, climbing, cycling, driving – and relearnt how to sit, walk, kneel, bend, bow, and work gracefully while swaddled in metres of cloth. This took some years of practice and long struggles with feeling painfully awkward and self-conscious. I persevered with being mindful not to catch the robe on doorknobs or sharp objects, trail it on the ground, lose the folds from my shoulder, let my sarong droop unevenly or, worse, fall down.
Even after years of working on these skills to tie and hold the robe in place, there were still 'moments'. Every nun would know how I felt after sailing into the temple to lead the evening meditation meticulously decked out, and bowing mindfully in front of everyone only to hear the shoulder folds of the robe gently plop onto the mat. Such tests were kinder than those to come outside the sanctuary of the monastic cocoon where merely mastering the physical technique of wearing the robe did not go far.
Buddhist monks and nuns are a rare sight. Over the years, my walking down a Western city street bald and wrapped in bolts of brown cloth often generated anything from disdain, amusement, hostility, fear, and even outright shock. Schoolchildren would giggle or sneer at what was so alien to them. Once, a woman ran up to me and asked, "Are you the Dalai Lama?"
When I travelled on trains and buses, more intimate opportunities to practise patient endurance arose. Sometimes passengers would stiffen or expand into the next seat if I moved towards it. Others might stare unblinkingly, scowl or lean towards a neighbour to make a mean remark. Recently, a policeman snickered when he saw me and barked with disgust, "What’s this?!" When I was on my own, this cowardly abuse took on more menacing tones.
To be ridiculed and vilified for wearing the uniform of what I love was humiliating, stressful, and punishing. It eroded my self-esteem. Gradually, I created an oasis within myself not to take these episodes of pillorying too much to heart. If people only knew more about my way of life, I assured myself, they would receive me as a friend.
The insults that I suffered taught me the pain of those who are routinely shunned. I confronted the very source of that fear within myself and knew I had to summon even greater courage and compassion. Such vigorous reflection and resolve would still not make the victory over vanity an easy one.
My Rule prescribes replacing a robe only when it is shabby, threadbare, damaged, or has been repaired with ten or more patches. Once, when my upper robe, already patched nine times, tore, I painstainkingly sewed a new one from cotton fabric I'd received as a gift. But it was poor quality cloth and faded badly after a few washes.
A senior nun advised me to dye it. Unfortunately, as often happens with dying used cloth, the result was too mottled to be worn. I could only request more fabric but of a better quality and begin again. Finally, when the new robe was sewn and I was able to wear it, I smugly presented myself at evening tea with the other nuns. As we sat on the floor with our steaming cups, one of them snorted, "You're always getting new robes".
I felt both bruised and rattled. At that moment, I would have happily returned to my old patched robe or its discarded successor than be so misjudged. But the anger in my mind was uglier than the comment itself and the lack of empathy behind it. There in the mirror of my heart was my own impurity staring back at me.
One who wears the robe may still be proud, vain, jealous, resentful, or angry. I could not know beauty of heart through perfecting the art of wearing the robe just as I could never achieve modesty simply by covering the skin. To live with gentleness, humility, and wisdom – and die without regret - that would be beautiful.
When I grow pure in conduct as much as in appearance, worthy of honour and trust but wholly from my innermost state, when I want nothing else beyond the ninth patch, then will I know,
"Whoever is purged of selfishness,
well-established in virtue,
filled with purity and self-control,
she indeed is worthy of the ochre robe."
- adapted from the Dhammapada 1.10
© Ayyā Medhānandī