Towards an English zen

At a recent meeting of my sangha, a venerable master visiting our group suggested it was time I got some robes. I didn’t get robes when I took the precepts – it didn’t feel right. And it still doesn’t. I’m not sure it ever will.

This is not to criticise people who do wear robes. I know it’s common among serious zen practitioners in the west – or at least among teachers. But is it necessary? Not for me, I don’t think.

You hear a lot about the need for zen to adapt to new cultures as it enters them. There’s a need to keep the essential core, of course, or it’s not zen any more. But I wonder if, sometimes, we’re too wedded to the trappings and accoutrements that exist, less because they’re fundamental to zen itself, but because of the time and the places that zen tradition developed.

I make an effort to observe the intent of wearing dark, plain, comfortable clothing when I practice. I don’t want to distract others, or myself. I understand the importance of the rakusu as a fundamental item in dedicated practice.

But beyond that – not so much. I love that our jikijitsu uses a phone app rather than a singing bowl to mark time, and that our teacher doesn’t mind one bit. I may yet get one – they’re beautiful objects. But to wear robes feels now, to me, just a little bit false. As much as I love and respect and am interested in Japanese and Eastern cultures, it’s zen practice I’m adopting, not Japenese-ness.

To put it another way, to wear robes in the east is to be like everyone else – to make no statement. Here, it sets one apart – it makes a bold statement. And for me, that doesn’t feel quite right. We’ll see if that changes.