“Where there is perception, there is deception.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s strange to feel naked while clothed, but it’s a feeling I have all the time these days. The last time it happened was on the beach. I had just moved to Toronto and on the first warm day in May, I met up with my sister, Holly, and her daughters Ella, seven, and Keira, five. We had only seen each other twice in the past year, masked and distanced, one of those times in the snow. This was an exciting day for everyone.
I spotted the trio from the boardwalk and waved with excitement. Holly was wearing a black t-shirt and yoga pants, her dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail and the girls wore matching unicorn shirts. They sat on a large blanket and I spread out my scarf, six feet away. It still took all my willpower to not hug them.
The girls got to work on their sand castles while Holly and I caught up. I noticed Ella glance at me a few times, her grey eyes quizzical, then look away. Finally she asked, “Why are you wearing blue?”
I looked down at my blue plaid flannel shirt over blue jeans and smiled. “Because I like it.” Yet I knew what she was thinking. Neither she nor her sister had ever seen me in anything but my long robe, or the long-sleeved short robe and baggy pants worn underneath, all in chocolate brown. Back then Ella would ask, “Why are you wearing brown?” I never found a good answer for my non-Buddhist niece so I kept it simple. “Because I like it.” And it was true.
When I, a European-Canadian-settler, joined a Vietnamese Buddhist lineage in France, I didn’t do it for the robes that covered my body from neck to wrists to ankle bones. They made me sweat in the summer and got tangled in the winter. The sleeves caught on door handles and the collar pinched my neck.
The robes did, however, make me feel held—by tradition, community, and my own mindfulness. They reminded me, sometimes forced me, to slow down and pay careful attention to each movement. The simplicity of the uniform cleared up a surprising amount of mental space. With time, I grew to like it.
Outside the Buddhist community, however, my robes were more of a burden. There were the side-eyes in grocery stores, the people who asked, “What… are you?,” and once a man shouted at me on the street demanding to know, “What happened in Vietnam in 1954?!” I sighed and told him to try Wikipedia.
My first years as a monastic were challenging yet inspiring. Then the inspiration wore off and I fell into a deep depression. I tried living outside of the monastery and after nine years in robes, with much discernment and heartache, my monastic journey was done. I held a ceremony to release my vows, on Zoom of course, and stopped shaving my head.
By the time I sat on the beach “eating” the sand cookies from Keira and Ella, my hair was an inch long. The sun was strong and a bead of sweat trickled down my back. Without thinking, I pulled off the flannel shirt, folded it, and slid it into my backpack, leaving me in a turquoise tee. When I noticed my bare arms, my body contracted in horror.
Oh my god, I’m naked. What if people see me?
I reflexively reached for my backpack to retrieve the shirt but I stopped myself. It took a few moments, then I remembered I wasn’t a monastic anymore. There was no need to cover up. The sun and breeze on my arms felt delicious.
It’s okay I repeated to myself and took some deep breaths, feeling the tension, the fear, the surprise. With a long exhale, my muscles softened. My bare arms were just unfamiliar, not wrong.
I hadn’t always worried about showing skin. In high school I spent a year in Sweden on exchange where, on a class trip to a lake, people changed into their bathing suits in front of each other, behind the bus. I had never seen people both naked and comfortable before. I loved it and joined in.
In my late twenties I worked at a retreat center that included a “clothing-optional beach,” my favorite place to go on days off. Letting the sun and water kiss my whole body was a luxury I reveled in. Plus, it was easier than carrying around a swimsuit.
Needless to say, I did not ordain because I loved modesty. I was willing to wear the robes to train in the dharma 24/7 and to learn from a living master. It was one of the countless adaptations I took on knowingly.
Then there were the adaptations I took on unknowingly.
A few months after my novice ordination I sat under two soaring oak trees and a bright blue sky, drinking tea with another nun. Midway through our conversation she told me about seeing a woman changing into her pajamas through an open window in the guest residence the night before. Eyes wide and jaw tense with contempt she said, “What was she thinking?”
I thought she was being ridiculous. As monastics we had chosen a life of modesty, not only with the robes but also getting changed in the toilet and shower stalls, never in our shared bedrooms. Yet the guests hadn’t chosen our lifestyle. The reaction seemed unnecessarily judgmental. I’ll never be like that, I thought.
Then, three years later, I found myself near the same oak trees to lead forty people in walking meditation. A young woman showed up in a halter top and short shorts. My eyes bulged and my jaw clenched shut. What was she thinking?
The monastery had a vague rule about covering shoulders and knees but it was rarely stated clearly. This guest probably had no idea she was doing something “wrong.” Yet I had absorbed the reaction I had scorned.
On the silent walk through the woods and meadows, I searched my mind for understanding. I was learning about monastic life through classes, books, and dharma talks. I hadn’t realized I was also learning about it through silent tugs on sleeves, fingers pointing when an undone button revealed collar bones, and lips that pursed when laughter grew loud. I didn’t appreciate what sometimes felt like petty conformity, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. I thought I could choose what I absorbed and leave the rest behind.
I was wrong.
In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha told Subhuti, “Where there is a sign, there is illusion.” My teacher translated this into, “When there is perception, there is deception.” It was easy to think that other people were filled with misperceptions and I was different. Not until I felt the bodily reaction of this absorbed message did I know that I too was filled with deception. Misperceptions uncovered.
I entered the monastery understanding almost nothing about social conditioning. I didn’t know about the dopamine my brain released when I got a smile for doing something “right.” I didn’t know how my amygdala equated corrections from my elders with social rejection, triggering intense fear.
During walking meditation with the woman in the short shorts, I only understood that my bodily response was different from my conscious “beliefs.” My ego wanted to believe it was in charge of what I absorbed, but clearly it wasn’t. There was no one in charge of what I absorbed, just like there was no one in charge of what I thought.
There was no me there at all, just a nervous system processing sense impressions, patterns, and reactions the same way weather systems process temperature, humidity, and geography.
Anatman, no-separate-self. A dance of countless conditions. Interbeing.
While some insights into anatman brought me peace and even bliss, this one punched me right in the guts. I needed it to reveal other types of conditioning I carried. With time I started to sense on a somatic level the ableism, fatphobia, and classism I carried despite all the anti-oppression workshops and book groups I had attended, and all my good intentions.
Connecting my reaction to the outfit with my white racial conditioning, in particular, changed me. If I could absorb one person’s reaction to nudity without my conscious intention, how much more white supremacy had I absorbed from society, also without intent? How much was I still absorbing, day in and day out? I finally understood that white supremacy was not the exclusive domain of the KKK. It was in my body every time I looked down at a Vietnamese sister for staying quiet at a meeting, for preferring chanting over sitting—small actions that expressed cultural conditioning on both our parts. But when I acted assuming my conditioning was best, it was white supremacy. I hated seeing this in myself but it was also a gift.
For once it was known, I could change how I responded to my conditioning. And I did.
Fortunately, understanding conditioning helped me to appreciate the goodness of the monastery. Living in community allowed me to absorb the settledness, contentment, and genuine kindness of others. The teachings and practices were absorbed instead of intellectualized. The concept of transmission from teacher to student had always felt a little too esoteric for me until I connected it to conditioning. Then transmission became a natural process too.
All of this passed through my mind as I sat on the beach with my family and the breeze off Lake Ontario tousled my brown hair speckled with its first strands of grey. By the end of the afternoon Ella’s questioning gaze ceased. Both of us were used to my new clothes.
Like the Buddha seeing Mara, much conditioning scuffles off, powerless, once it is seen and fully understood. The work is to know the conditioning, not to hide from or fight it.
When it was time to pack up and say goodbye, I biked home. That evening, I spoke to a friend in Boston who was on her way to her first family gathering in over a year. I could hear the strain in her voice when she said, “I’m excited, but nervous too.” They were all fully vaccinated so there would be no masks. Naked, after a year of COVID-19 conditioning.
A week later news broke out across Canada of a radar-detected mass grave with the bones of 215 children found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School* that ran from 1890-1969. A layer of denial and deception on the part of the Canadian government and the Catholic Church, who together funded and ran these “schools,” was stripped away. First Nations people across Turtle Island were reeling, re-traumatized, while many Canadians, especially white Canadians, were finally questioning their illusions of exceptionalism. Colonial conditioning laid bare, painfully exposed. And I hoped that those still in denial would one day face the truth and realize their discomfort did not make the truth wrong.
The next time I went to the beach, a woman crossed my path wearing a bikini. I didn’t clench my jaw or bulge my eyes until I noticed her thong, thinking, She must be so uncomfortable. Then I remembered myself walking along this same boardwalk in my monastic robes just a few years earlier. I probably looked uncomfortable to passersby. Different conditioning, different perceptions. This time the nudity made me chuckle out loud.
I haven’t worn a tank top or a swimsuit in public yet, but I will. At some point I’ll try dating too, but not yet. I’m taking this transition slowly. No longer held by monasticism I move from grief to gratitude, usually a few times a day, breathing through it all with my mantra, it’s okay. Naked. Disrobed. Whole.
* Read more about the Kamloops Indian Residential School:
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