The other night I received a text message from my daughter who was riding a train en route to Washington, DC: "There are Tibetan monks on this train!" She knew that because they were dressed like Tibetan monks.
A couple of years ago I was renewing my drivers license, and in line in front of me was an Eastern Orthodox priest. I knew that because he was dressed like an Orthodox priest.
A couple of weeks ago when we bought the trees for the yard, we knew when we had spotted the Catholic nun selling baked goods when we were looking around for her stand. We knew that because she was dressed like a Catholic nun.
At a clothing store recently I saw an Orthodox Jewish mom and her son shopping for the boy. I knew that because he was wearing, and carrying to the register, a white shirt and black pants, and out of the pants and shirt he was wearing I saw his tzitzis.
I find these snapshots compelling. I find them compelling because these men and women and children have no qualms about not fitting in with the prevailing culture. I find them compelling because these men and women and children, by not fitting in with the prevailing culture, create within that cultural landscape something noticeably different, something that points – I'll say it – in a better direction. I find them compelling because these men and women and children are willing to live with the realization that they cannot go just anywhere so dressed, that they will not be welcomed everywhere, and that others may well (and often do) look at them and shake their heads in contempt. I also find them compelling, though, because others may well (and often do) look at them, see that another way is possible and begin to set themselves on that path.
I get that Zen came to America at the same time as the 60s hit. I get that it showed up just when folks were seeing a benchmark of liberation in the shedding of such distinctive religious clothing (as if nuns trading in their habits for polyester pantsuits in the 70s was, in the end, a fashion coup!). I get that one of the very important things about Zen in America is that it emphasizes lay practice.
Still, we fret about how to spread the Dharma. We ponder ways of getting more folks interested in Zen practice. We scratch our heads wondering why more people don't avail themselves of what Zen has to offer.
Maybe part of the problem is that we think first and almost exclusively in terms of media, without realizing that what moves people most is the example of another human being. Siddhartha didn't set out on the path because someone told him about suffering or because he had read about it. He set out on the path after seeing, in the flesh, a sick person, an old person, a dead person and a living, breathing, distinctively clad monk.
What's the worst that would happen were (at least some) ordained Zen folk to walk about the world, ride trains, deal with license lines, procure basic goods and the rest dressed in our robes? Why is it good for the Tibetans, good for the Catholic nuns, good for the Orthodox priests, good for the Orthodox Jews, but not for us? What are we most afraid of here – bothering somebody or being bothered and inconvenienced ourselves?
I don't understand the resistance to the idea of dressing according to station. I just don't understand.