I HAVE OFTEN STOOD on interminable lines—at the bank, the post office, the airport, the supermarket—and succumbed to sharing with other corporate-held hostages those rolled-up eyes, grimaces and audible sighs that communicate extreme annoyance. But more than once I have entertained myself by wondering if being in monastic garb would mitigate my own behavior, contain those expressions that only add to dissatisfaction—my own and others. In short, I’ve wondered if the robe itself has a role to play.

In this issue’s special section on monasticism former monk Stephen Batchelor sees the monastic as “a visible challenge to the shallow, distracted lives in which people find themselves trapped [and is] a reminder of that part of our lives that may be dimly recalled but is usually neglected.” The word visible is what evoked my memory of interminable lines; and of the possibility that, in the presence of the robe, what was “dimly recalled” might emerge to transform habitual patterns.

Both Stephen Batchelor and Stuart Smithers remind us that in addition to old age, sickness, and death, one of the four signs which catalyzed Siddhartha’s decision to leave his palace and enter the stream of homeless seeking was his encounter with a wandering renunciate. According to Batchelor, it was “the mere presence” of the renunciate that summoned the young prince to go forth.

Historically Buddhist monastics have been privileged over the laity, and monks over nuns. John Daido Loori, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, and Sangharakshita, head of The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, headquartered in London, challenge the traditional priorities. Their own communities offer gender equality, and separate but equal paths for the laity and the ordained. Along with Stephen Batchelor, they argue persuasively for the interdependence of both paths.

These modifications seem like logical responses to modern life. Yet curiously, the most radical view to emerge in this section lies embedded in the most fundamental aspect of the monastic calling: the monastic as “outsider. “ In “Clouds and Water”, Daido Sensei quotes from Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal:

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