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:

Are monastics and hippies and poets relevant? No, we’re deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal person accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the American founder of Metta Forest Monastery in California, insists that “Real dharma practice in any culture, to be successful, must be countercultural.” To this view Sangharakshita adds, “A necessary component of monasticism must be its critical edge, perhaps even a conscious anti-establishment stance.”

Nowadays there is a surfeit of concern with the ways in which Buddhism could or should integrate itself into Western culture. And with Buddhism being a newly arrived guest religion in the West it becomes all too easy to confuse “integrate” with “ingratiate,” thereby increasing the need to examine the role of the religious.

For the laity or the ordained what might it mean to be “countercultural” when the networks begin “world news” with O.J. Simpson—followed by Bosnia; or when the right to bear arms is interpreted not as a means of protecting the citizenry against federal forces, but to justify people protecting themselves from neighbors. What is required to remain “marginal” when a fellow police officer talks about “niggers,” or your male bosses refer to their more timid colleagues as “pussies,” or when the train leaves you standing on the platform, when your purse is snatched, or when you have to wait on line? That’s quite a challenge, whether or not the robe is there to dispel the thrall of Maya.

Helen Tworkov. 

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