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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.