June 30, 2007

Eastern Robes for Westerners?

When Buddha started ordaining his followers, they wore simple robes and shaved their heads in order to symbolize letting go of their previous social ties and castes. A Brahmin and a lowly untouchable joining his community would, in theory, have the same robes and outward appearance. This was a revolutionary step when caste differences were more powerful than anything that has ever existed in Europe or America.

So the robe originally meant, "I'm nothing special, no better or worse than the others." The construction of the robe was simple and practical, for the time and place, and has been adapted and used by Buddhist monastics ever since. In Tibet, the robes are wool instead of cotton. Most monks wear the upper robe over their left shoulder, leaving the right arm free for writing, picking things up, etc.

Here in the West, today, the robe can mean different things. One of my teachers, Catherine Jetsun Yeshe, always wears an upper robe when she teaches. I also have a dear friend who was given a robe by his teacher (also a Westerner) and told to wear it whenever he meditates. It was important to him to honour that instruction, so he does. I think in these cases the robe is a way of signalling a change in how the wearer relates to the world.

Nevertheless the adoption of Eastern monastic dress by Westerners raises many interesting questions about cross-cultural identity, institutions, and the function of monastic garb in the process of waking up. Seeing a Western person wearing robes gives me a completely different impression from that given by a Tibetan. I often have the impression that they are trying to become somebody else, whereas Tibetans seem to me to be completely at ease in robes. At least part of this is simple prejudice, coming from my own patterns.

For the most part I find that recreating setting and dress for Tibetan practices by wearing monastic robes, constructing elaborate shrines, chanting in Tibetan, etc., is not particularly helpful for most Western people. For me, and for the people I work with, plain English and ripped jeans in a community centre seem to create less confusion.

June 6, 2007

The Google Map Problem

I spend a lot of time browsing over Google Earth, the free program that lets you interface directly with satellite views of the planet. It occurs to me, though, that they have a problem: where to put the dot that represents the location of a city? The more you zoom in, the more indefinite the location of a city becomes. Where is the "real" Istanbul? The satellite view reveals that the other "city" names, like Kadikoy, are really just part of the same sprawl. (My husband Tim suggests that they use the location of city hall, but I note with interest that the "real" Toronto, as identified by Google, is the south side of Cumberland between Bay and Yonge, about 3km from our City Hall. So there, Mayor Miller.)

We have the same problem when it comes to defining who or what a person is. If you ask someone who they are, they usually give a name. But we have lots of names throughout our life. Who are you? A name? — A body? What part of the body? — A behaviour? Which? Surely you don't only have one. — A character or personality? But what's that?

Where is your "me" right now? Are you pointing to the centre of your chest? If so, I hope you can see how that breaks down under analysis. In the novel Perfume, the main character, an olfactory genius, goes mad from the frustration of not being able to smell himself. It's the same problem. You can look at your hand, but can you look at what is looking at your hand? Keep looking!

We live in an enchantment, the enchantment of mistaking our thoughts and words for the real world or experience. To be free, we must continuously break the spell by looking, questioning, analysing, even when you know there is no hope of an "answer" — not the kind of answer that gets a red checkmark on a test and an A on a report card. The true answer, of course, is right there in every moment. It is nearer to you than your own face. It is there for you to experience, right now.