Wearing Monastic Colors

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What do I mean by this title? I am discussing the merits and potential downfalls of lay practitioners wearing monastic (ordained) clothing.

Who has attended a Buddhist retreat or large teaching of one sort or another and seen people running around in the maroon skirt (the half chuba).  Sometimes they will have on a white top, possibly with a Ngakpa shawl over that.  Other times, people will be seen wearing all maroon, and yet they are not ordained…

What is this phenomenon?  Who wears monastic colors?  What is their motivation in doing so?  Do they understand what they are doing? Is there some element of ego subtly edging in and saying, “Hey, wear the same colors as the monastics and you can be more like them.  You may even become special…”

Perhaps people gain some type of legitimate benefit from wearing monastic colors.  And honestly I cannot call the kettle black – I have worn monastic colors in the past.  But now I am questioning that decision.  And why am I doing so?

Because monks and nuns have gone through rigorous vigorous training.  And most of them who are considered authentic teachers have then gone through a 3 plus year practice retreat.  Some yogis in these retreats, do not leave a box-sized enclosure most of that time.  Who here in the West could possibly begin to understand what it means to study extensively for 9, 12 or 20 years, and then, on top of that, do a 3, 6 or 9 year meditation retreat?  I wonder if our American desire to achieve results as swiftly as possible blinds us to the fact that these monastics have taken gradual, diligent steps to get where they are.  They have slowly rooted out non-virtuous behavior and they have built in discipline and solid ethics over a long period of time.

I wonder if people want to be considered Ngakpas by their fellow practitioners.  By the way, a Ngakpa is a Vajrayana Buddhist practitioner who has received a highest yoga tantra empowerment (blessing or initiation).  Khenpo Tsultrim has confided in me that we become Ngakpas when we sincerely take Tantric empowerments, meaning that if we consider ourselves Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and if we have received empowerments, then we are Ngakpas.  So there are thousands of Ngakpas.  Sometimes Ngakpas are teachers, as seen in the past by practitioners wearing white robes.

Do people who wear “Ngakpa” clothing realize that by taking an empowerment they are already Ngakpas?  We in the West are almost all lay practitioners, with the rare Western monk seen here and there.  So why do some “practitioners” go out of their way to distinguish themselves from the rest?

Maybe there is something occurring of which I am not aware.  But one thing I do know, and sorry for those who sell Ngakpa clothing…  I value Tibetan’s opinions when it comes to authentic Tibetan Buddha-Dharma and the conduct around such topics.  And for the most part, nearly every Tibetan I have spoken to thinks it is strange that Westerners purposely choose to wear Dharma colors – the primary Buddhist-monk-robe-color of maroon especially.  This, to me, speaks volumes.  Here we are in the West, without any kind of organized monastic system, and no support for Western monks (at least not in the Drikung Kagyu lineage), and yet some of us try to emulate them by wearing similar colors.

This is almost an affront to all the said training which the monastics have endured.  They have gone through a crucible whose sole purpose is to extinguish the afflicted ego.  They know Buddhist philosophy in and out, such that their minds are extraordinarily sharp and the world is seen in an organized, well-structured light.  And yet, with just a few hundred dollars, we can buy clothing which makes us feel similar to them?

On the other hand, I am deeply appreciative of some worthy, solid practitioners I have met recently.  On the outside, they are not special in the least and humbly deny having any special qualities.  Over the past year or two, I have gotten glimpses of modest practitioners whose knowledge and skillful means are very profound.  Personally, I would choose to emulate them if at all possible.  And do they wear any special kind of clothing?  Not so much.  Do they wear monastic colors?  Nope.  In fact, they will rarely tell anyone they are even Buddhists or practitioners of any sort.  They just go about their business, relating with kindness and humility to whoever they come across.

So yes, I am both asking questions here and sharing my opinion, which is that Western practitioners, unless they are monastics themselves and have taken on the voluminous vows which come part and parcel to doing so, should abstain from wearing monastic colors. As I mention, Tibetans view this practice as strange and unusual.  And I happen to respect most Tibetans as grounded, practical, down-to-earth individuals who live and breath spirituality and kindness and compassion.

With that said, please do not get me wrong.  There are authentic teachers who choose not to be monks or nuns for one reason or another, and if they know the sutras and tantras well, or if they know Buddhist philosophy in and out, and if they have gone through one or more 3 year retreats, then who am I to question their skillful decisions.  [I have written a post about what qualifies someone as an authentic teacher in the past – look through the Dharma category to find it.]  But for the rest of us, do we really think that we are changing ourselves by donning monastic colors? Maybe during a private retreat, wearing monastic colors will benefit one’s mind.  But when the public sees us, is there another motivation below the surface with regard to why we wear “Ngakpa” clothing?

Do we want to (unconsciously) trivialize all that monastics have gone through and carry by trying to appear like them?  Or are we trying to pay them a compliment?  I don’t know.  But I invite inquiry into this curious phenomenon.

Published by Kirby Moore

Kirby Moore is a healing facilitator based in the beautiful rolling hills of Charlottesville, Virginia. He does sessions in-person and long distance via Skype and Zoom, working with Spiritual Astrology, Somatic Experiencing, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy and Birth Process Work. His healing work is informed by fifteen years of meditation and Qigong practice. He works with client's intentions and deepest longings to attain clear, tangible results. Contact him for more info at (email): kirby [at] mkirbymoore [dot] com

20 thoughts on “Wearing Monastic Colors

  1. If one is seeking to become an empowered ngakpa in the western world, how would one go about doing it? Its been something I’ve been seeking for some time now though not quite sure how to go about it.

    1. Hi Joshua, Like I touch on in my post, becoming a ngakpa here in the West is a complex topic. The most important thing is what you do in your heart. If you are serious about becoming a solid Dharma practitioner, start with yourself. We can be ngakpas without anyone else (aside from our spiritual teachers) knowing. When we take Vajrayana empowerments, we actually become a ngakpa – we don’t need to wear special clothing. When we put on white and maroon clothing, something our egos can easily get tripped up. People will assume we are doing something special when that might not be true. In my opinion, become a solid practitioner for 5 years. Do your own little retreats in your shrine room or home or Dharma center. At the end of 5 years, you will know if you tend toward procrastination or whether you might actually be able to handle wearing ngakpa robes in public. You will also get a sense of how much your ego could get snagged on people’s perception of you. Here in the West, most people easily disempower themselves. When they meet someone White (non-Tibetan) who speaks fluent Tibetan, they assume they know all the Dharma answers. When they meet someone a non-Asian person who wears special robes, they assume they have been studying the Dharma for many years. Don’t get sucked into other people’s disempowerment drama – do your practice modestly, humbly, secretly. Do this for years. Then decide about whether or not to be a ngakpa in public.
      Hope this helps, Kirby

    2. Dear Joshua,
      In the Nyingma school, and possibly some others, it is important to have a teacher who is recognized as such and is a lineage holder.
      Some groups do have formal Ngakpa/Ngakma vows, which can be taken only after someone has done certain practices for a period of time. Find yourself a teacher and find out what is required. It varies.
      Although Kirby says you can do it on your own, my own teachers have said this is not the best idea simply because it is easy to misunderstand Buddhist concepts, especially if one’s previous experience has been in Western religious traditions.

      1. Hi Jody and Joshua,
        Sorry I may have been misunderstood. I assumed you had a qualified teacher already and that was why you were asking about it. Thank you for clarifying Jody! Yes, it is vital to have an authentic, qualified spiritual teacher – ideally someone who has completed many years of studying Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice or at least someone who has completed a 3+ year retreat. If they write / read / speak one of the holy languages of the Dharma, that is even better (Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, etc). My advice is basically the same though – you don’t have to broadcast the fact that you are becoming a Ngakpa / Ngakma until you have many years of practice under your belt. Thank you Jody for adding your wisdom!

      2. I am one of those people who is deeply commited to overcoming the stigma associated with wearing anything other then normal clothing. Currently I am too weak to overcome that disempowerment drama, though its not limited to clothing, and its something I deeply dislike. However can you recommend a lineage to me to pursue? For various reasons, the long hair is something of a requirement, mainly because to me short hair is a mistake. A mistake in particular with development of nadis, and all things energetic. Who do you recommend in the nyingma field for this? It doesnt have to be limited to nyingma, perhaps something in the for indian hindu field of tantricism? For my various reason’s I am looking for that sort of student teach relationship.

      3. Hello Joshua,
        I belong to Padmasambhava Buddhist Center, the main center of which is in New York state. It is a recognized Nyingma lineage with a respected teacher. It has many centers in the U.S. (including Puerto Rico) as well as one in Russia.
        Long hair is traditional for Ngakpas and Nyakmas, though not required.
        I appreciate your desire to be free of “normal clothing”; however, the status of Ngakpa is about much more than clothing. Most do not wear the robes except on group occasions such as teaching retreats.

  2. Thank you sincerely for your perspective. You raise concerns about some pitfalls into which Western practitioners seem to frequently become entrapped. However, with pure motivation and sincere compassion, I’d like to raise a few other perspectives.

    Firstly, we are fortunate to have a great deal of diversity of lineages and practices within Vajrayana. For this reason, I feel it is important to remember that we should only follow *our* teachers, and that the advice given to you by your teacher might not be appropriate to others. As Ojin pointed out, there are Khenpos in some lineages who will offer advice that seems to contradict, or at least differs from, the advice of your “strict Khenpos.” This is not to say that either is wrong; instead, it is an indication that, as my teacher says, “A good doctor knows to prescribe the right medicine(s) for different corcumstances. A cure that works for one individual might kill the next.” In this way, we cannot extrapolate the answers of one or some Khenpo(s) to be projected upon an entire population (in this case “Westerners”). Additionally, I do not mean this as an attack at all, but it also seems quite dangerous to decide yourself that its acceptable to divulge information given to you by Khenpo(s) under condition of secrecy.

    As my teacher says, we can never know the motivations of an individual or the level of their realization. We do not know their motivation and we cannot project our assumptions onto them. And furthermore, I know far more Western practitioners that have completed three year retreat than you seem to imply in your posts. And anyways, having or not having completed retreat is not *inherently* indicative of anything (I have seen multiple tragic cases of retreatants engaging in years of retreat and later turning against and driving schisms between their teachers and lineages, but I do not wish to speak more or elaborate on this).

    I think it might be useful to include and excerpt from “37 Practices of the Bodhisattva” that my teacher frequently quotes:

    “32: Youn undermine yourself when you react emotionally and
    Grumble about the imperfections of others bodhisattvas,
    Of the imperfections of those who have entered the Great Way, don’t say anything — this is the practice of the bodhisattva.”

    What I am trying to say is that, while it is true that Westerners tend to have difficulty with grasping at image and aesthetic, it does not serve us to make any universal determinations about what “should” or “should not” be done. For all we know, that person wearing crimson as a lay person may be doing so under strict guidance from their teacher. Or they may be a truly realized yogi who has achieved realization under years of retreat. Or they could be emanations and higher beings walking right in front of us in order to arouse our negative qualities so that we have an opportunity to work on them. Or they could be confused beings caught in a costuming ego trip. We just don’t know, and it definitely does not help our practice to assume or judge or prescribe advice (UNLESS, of course, we are authorized teachers to whom that individual has come for guidance or advice).

    (And in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Nyingmapa/Ngakpa that wears White and Maroon robes, in some circumstances, under the direction from my teacher).

    This being said, I think we do agree on more things than not.

    If I have made any errors, implied any ad-hominem, or committed any falsehoods in the course of writing this reaponse, it is only due to the dullness of my intelligence, and should not be attributed to faulty teaching by my Realized Teachers or corruption in their Unbroken Lineage. Please forgive me if I have perpetrated any of the aforementioned.

    Your brother in Dharma,

    -W

    1. Tashi Delek W,

      Thank you for your response and thoughts! I see you have put much thought into these topics. I think I am writing for a more general audience in this case: in general, it is not good for a lay practitioner (especially someone without much time practicing and spending much time around realized teachers) to refrain from dressing like a monastic. Sometimes you see people (especially in the Kagyu lineages) dive in too deep and too fast for their system to handle. They will dress like a monk and then 6 months later they vanish, leaving the Dharma for good… That is not good. Sometimes I wonder if people (read Westerners) are a little crazy when it comes to Vajrayana. I have heard arguments that it is appropriate to give mass teachings of secret topics because this age is becoming so degenerate, and I personally feel that the advanced teachings should be kept in reserve merely for students who have put time into their practice and completed some accumulations (and allowing their teachers to determine their mental capacity). Therefore I think you are right – we must consider these things on an individual level. If your trusted, realized teacher says to wear Ngakpa Ngakma robes, then by all means! Although in India in the past, the Ngakpas (if we could call them that) wore all white. I am just trying to curb a tendency I notice of a small percentage of people to dive in too fast. 🙂 And who knows, depending on the teacher, some lineages may not attract the “crazy Westerner” type… I hope yours is one of those! May all be auspicious and I hope I have not offended anyone in writing this.

      1. Tashi Delek Kirby,

        I rejoice in the fact that we even HAVE the opportunity to have respectful discussion on dharma in such degenerate times!

        The clarification in your reaponse certainly galvanizes my earlier presumption: that we agree on more than my reply may have implied.

        Indeed, there is a great deal of difficulty for many Westerners coming into the Secret Mantra. My teacher tells the story of when his father (himself, a renowned Tulku) first came to the West, he and his peers thought Westerners would actually be *more* advanced than Tibetans suimply by virtue of the fact that we (Westerners) have lived a hyper-materialistic life and have seen its pitfalls. For this reason, my teacher’s father and many of his peers (the “first wave” of great masters to come to the West) went straight to the secret and innermost teachings, assuming Westerners would simply “get it.”

        Sadly, that turned out NOT to be the case, and my teacher’s father and many of his peers immediately recognized their mistake and realized that us Westerners needed ngondro just as much, if not MORE, than Tibetans. However, it seems some teachers never altered from the strategy of the first wave of masters, and thus, one can easily find centers that will happily teach dzogchen and other such practices to anyone waiting with cash in hand. But before I risk breeching my teacher’s advice about speaking ill of others who have entered the path, I’ll end that topic here!

        Sadly, I too have seen people come into the dharma with the zeal of a newborn craving its mother’s teet, only to disappear months later. I try to remind myself of my teacher’s advice regarding karmic connection and so forth, but my dull mind still grasps at the sadness of a “lost chance.” “If only I could have been more welcoming to that person,” or “What could I have done to help that person stick around?,” I think to myself.

        I admit, sometimes I am saddend by how seemingly unfair it is that, even after showing up to teachings from a TRULY realized master like my own, their lack of karmic connection is still such that they disappear soon after. It seems like such a waste– it’s deeply troubling. But I digress; it is only because of my lack of realization that I am unable to see the “bigger picture” and recognize that in the wheel of samsara, perhaps that person attending one teaching then disappearing created the causes and/or conditions for them to find and pursue the dharma in their next life.

        Indeed you are correct about the wearing of white. My anecdotes are really not that important–because who am I to group myself into a category of “ngakpas” that is shared by such masters like my own teacher–but for the sake of casual conversation, I usually wear a simple undyed sleeveless shirt, a simple undyed raw zen, and a maroom half-chuba. Or during certain ceremonies I’ll wear an undyed half-chuba, a maroon or undyef shirt, and the tri-colored maroon-white-maroon zen colloquially known as a “ngakpa zen.” Although I do also own a maroon zen, I only wear it under certain circumstances when instructed to, and it’s ALWAYS with at least one piece of white clothing (either undyed half-chuba, undyef shirt, or both). Never do I wear all maroon or maroon-and-yellow for all the reasons you listed in your original post–namely, because I want to honor the ordained sangha by not dressing like them.

        My reason for cateloging my wardrobe herein (admittedly ad-nauseum haha) is to illustrate that even within a sangha in which wearing of chuba-and-zen is encouraged, I still find it respectful to differentiate between the robes of a bhikkshu/bhikkshuni and those of a lay yogi ir ngakpa. Furthermore, when I do wear such attire, I find it even more important to embody my teacher’s example in all actions and to be EXTRA mindful about my behavior: including going to the end of the line to receive blessings or offer katak, holding doors open for people, offering to carry bags/heavy items for monks/nuns/elderly, and overall taking the “lowest” position in all affairs (Rinpoche says “the lowest seat is the seat of Masters”). I don’t mean to sound like a braggart–I simply want to illustrate that when wearing “dharma clothing,” we take on a certain responsibility to perform and identity that is congruent with the principles represented by the clothing. Ideally, I try to do all these things all the time regardless of clothing, but when wearing robes I feel it is important to be CERTAIN that we are embodying the teachings in our actions.

        Otherwise you get the classic example of the maroon-clad newcomer tripping over old ladies to get to be first in line to receive blessings… or even lunch for that matter.

        Admittedly, the more I meditate on the topic and search “ngakpa” on google, it does appear that thereis a sort of “trendiness” to it all. Perhaps this is what catalyzed you to write your original post.

        I am not realized enough to decide whether this “trendiness” isa good or bad thing. Part of me says “any interest in dharma is a good thing, for it has the potential to either lead one into the path, or lay the foundations for them to find the path and practice setiously in future lives. The other part of me dtarts to question the sincerity of it all. The latter is the impression I from your original post, and I rejoice to see someone like you asking these questions publicly because it means you’re sincerely contemplating the consequences.

        Again, I apologize if my original post felt confrontational or aggressive. It seems we are in agreement on most–if not all–points.

        Your brother in Dharma,

        -w

        May all beings benefit.

      2. Hi again W, First of all, thank you for responding again! And I don’t mind typos but I must say that I am presently in nursing school. Not only nursing school, but I am also working full time. Therefore I do not have time to be reading 1000 word comments. I read it this time, 🙂 But I don’t think I will have that leisure for another few weeks… So you have obviously thought long and hard about these Dharma musings and I rejoice in that. Obviously you have done some practice yourself 🙂 And again I rejoice. And I wish you and all sentient beings wellness! ~K

      3. So many typos it hurts. I apologize for my sloppiness in my reply to your comment. Hopefully you can decipher my intended message from that mess!

        May all beings benefit,

        -w

      4. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read the musings of an admitted fool.

        May all beings benefit. 🙂

      5. I think one of the most key characteristics of enlightenment is humility. So… I would say you are quite astute. And it is I who am the fool – to think I can complete nursing school while working like this ?? 🙂 😀 May all beings know happiness and its causes!

    2. Hello,

      Here is an interesting article in Tricycle–it’s an interview with an ordained householder who is associated with Tashi Choling Center in Oregon. She has something to say about people wearing Ngakpa/Ngakma robes.

      http://www.tricycle.com/blog/no-adaptation-required

      W, I assume if you wear the robes, you have taken the vows. In the sangha to which I belong, there are practice requirements that must be met before one can wear the robes. (Full disclosure: I am a student of Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche and his late brother, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, of Padmasambhava Buddhist Center.)

      1. Thank you for commenting Ojin la. The Khenpo brothers are very well known and well respected as great teachers, so you are very fortunate! I think as we adapt Tibetan Buddhism to our Western culture, there will be subjects (like the robes and who can wear what and when) that will be controversial for a while. But I suspect that we as Americans who are supporting Buddhist teachers make it so they do not want to give their bluntly honest opinions on the topic. They don’t want to upset their students – of course the Nyingmapa lineage would have variations over Kagyu and Gelugs, etc. I really don’t have a strong opinion about it – rather it is what is in the practitioner’s heart that matters most. Only they know if they are wearing the robes for the right reasons. 🙂

  3. Hello. I realize it’s a long time since you posted this. My Tibetan Buddhist teacher also said that we are all practitioners. However, some of us have taken the ngakpa vows and can wear the ngakpa robes. Most of the time, the ngakpas and ngakmas wear their robes only during retreats or teaching sessions, at least in the sangha to which I belong.

    To qualify for ngakpa vows, one must at least partially complete a long practice known as Ngondro. This is not a minor undertaking.

    I don’t see the harm in wearing maroon clothing. I certainly wouldn’t make a rule about it. Those who are doing so only to emulate monastics or ordained householders will eventually grow out of that. It does no harm.

    1. Hi Ojin, Thank you for commenting on this topic! Yes, I agree that everyone is a practitioner of loving kindness or compassion on some level…
      On the topic of Ngakpa or Ngakma vows – you show me the Buddhist sutra or legitimate Tantra that details the Ngakpa / ma process and I might believe some of this. You may not want to read any further… however I have heard some strict Khenpos discuss this and they state that the Ngakpa concept is just fluff – superficial icing on the cake of true practice. If you are a true, sincere, dedicated practitioner, only you will know. And wearing some “special” clothing is just an ego dance, and possibly even a distraction to your sincere practice… But! If it helps somehow, then more power to you!
      Also, the monk who told me this wants this info to remain secret… but I figure in an obscure comment section of a barely-noticed blog, it might be okay. He said that there are Dharma protectors (formless beings) whose only job is to protect Monks and Nuns. And they only protect the virtuous monastics – so if they see Ngakpas who are wearing similar (monastic) colors, doing similar monastic activities at some times, but not other times, they might get confused, especially when the Ngakpas engage in sexual conduct or other non-virtuous, non-monastic activities. And if this is true, then maybe harm could come from wearing maroon clothing (especially around true monastics). Actually in Buddhist India, the Ngakpa/ma colors used to be all white. I’m not sure who this got changed to wearing the maroon skirt and the colored shawl. But this is just what I have heard… What do I know? 🙂 Trust your authentic Dharma teacher.

      1. Thank you for your reply. I belong to the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, and there is a distinction made between Upasakas/Upasikas (lay practitioners) and Ngakpas/Ngakmas (ordained householders). I offer you the following paragraph for your consideration:

        “In the Nyingma school, laypeople may choose to take special ordinations or sets of precepts. Men who take these vows are called ngakpas and women are called ngakmas. They are not celibate, do not shave their heads, and wear white and maroon instead of the saffron and maroon worn by monastics. They are often married and have children as well as other family responsibilities. Most work for a living. By taking these lay Vajrayana vows they commit to devoting significant time to practice, to making retreats, and to ritual practice. In traditional Tibetan Buddhist countries, there have long been family lineages of ngakpas. In the West, any student who is thoroughly committed to practicing Vajrayana teachings, relying on the guidance of an authentic lineage-holder, can request the appropriate vows. Usually, one must complete the ngondro practices, or make significant progress in them beforehand. There are various categories of vows, and each has its own empowerments, transmissions, and samayas.”
        —From *Practice Guide for the Contemplation of Vows and Conduct in the Nyingma Tradition* by Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche.

        As for what the anonymous monk said, I do not believe that Dharma protectors are so easily confused that seeing white and maroon robes would throw them off. I rather suspect this is part of a long tradition of monastics feeling superior to householders and attempting to disempower them.

        Whether you believe these vows are real or not makes no difference. You should not believe anything unless it makes sense to you. I think it’s wrong for someone who has not taken Ngakpa/Ngakma vows to be wearing the prescribed white and maroon clothing and the shawl–but it sounds to me as though you are dismissing ordained householders as a group. I would say that’s an error.

      2. Hi Ojin, I appreciate your response. I love what Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal writes, especially about only giving Ngakpa vows to people who have made significant progress in the Ngondro practices. So often I see people wearing Ngakpa / Ngakma clothing (in the Kagyu tradition) and I’m not sure what their intention is or how long they have been practicing. I have a deep respect for authentic practitioners in the Nyingma lineage, having numerous friends who are profound lay practitioners in California.
        I would add though, that we do not have to wear different clothing to be apart of a long, rich history of dedicated and powerful lay practitioners. I think we are saying similar things, except with regard to the color of the clothing and our relationship to the Ngakpa process.
        There might be a chance that non-realized monastics attempt to disempower householders, but the realized ones do not. Perhaps I might add that by the time we are advanced enough in our practice to not be attached to the color (or value, or status symbol, or religious significance) of our clothing, then it probably would not matter what we wear.
        I appreciate some things about the Ngakpa concept, but if our clothes tell where we stand in our practice, then we must be extra careful to not get caught in that ego trap.
        Thank you for this dialogue!

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