Three Robes and One Bra

This week I went shopping. For clothes. Not robes, but clothes. Normal girl clothes. Recently, my parents got rid of about 90% of the clothes I’d left in my room at their house— my skirts, shorts, blouses and shoes. I guess they were worried I would never come back from Japan, and they were tired of my stuff. When I moved to Kyoto, I only brought samue, kimono, robes, and one bra, because Dogen said Buddhist monks should only own three robes and one bra (I’m pretty sure that’s in Shobogenzo Zuimonki somewhere).

I thought having no normal clothes wouldn’t be so much of a big deal because I live in Japan and I’m a monk. But this week, something snapped. I don't know why, but I got fed up with wearing traditional Japanese clothes, and so I went shopping. I bought a red, knee length skirt, tights, and a blue sweater. 

Shopping in Japan for me is a hilarious nightmare. All of the women here are five feet tall, have no hips or breasts, and weigh fifty pounds less than me. The clothes are all “one size fits all,” which is a cruel, cruel lie. The only way I manage to fit into the skirt I bought is because it has an elastic waist. The popular style that’s being sold in stores right now, at least in the elegant city of Kyoto, can only be described as “Girly-Girl Prep.” All the stores sell the same thing: knee-length skirts, dresses, thin, silky blouses, sweaters, and pearls. It’s like if a yacht club got together with Hello Kitty, had a child, and made it five sizes too small for me. 

But I actually really like my skirt and sweater. The sweater is warm, and soft, and when I wear it, it hugs my arms and makes me happy. Most compellingly, I like wearing it and looking like a normal person. I like being somewhat anonymous. 

I remember the first time the kids on this program saw me wearing normal clothes. I was wearing yoga pants and a black sweater. They were shocked and asked if I was breaking some kind of rule.
“I never made a vow to wear Japanese clothes my whole life” I told them kind of testily. 

But a skirt seems like crossing a line. Pants and skirts are different. Pants are not so far away from samue. They’re functional. People need pants. People work in pants. Men and women both wear pants. But nobody needs a skirt. A skirt has no function. It just exists just to be pretty, and importantly, to look feminine. Wearing a skirt lets me perform being a girl— the kind of girl who wears skirts. The main point of wearing a skirt is so when people look at you they think, “That skirt/girl is pretty. I’d like to talk to that skirt/girl.” Some days that's something I want, and some days it's not.

I don’t know how I feel about this. I don’t know if shopping was a good or bad decision. I’ve written a lot about the importance of wearing monastic clothes; I wrote a blog post just last month called “What is Practice?” in which I claimed that my only practice and spiritual attainments are my monastic clothes. I get entirely different reactions from people when I'm wearing robes. Clothes change how I feel about myself. They effect the kinds of conversations I feel comfortable having, the kind of shops I’ll go into, and the way I move in public. If I’m wearing monastic clothing, I’m not going to go into a Pachinko parlor. It’s just not going to happen. I’m not going to go to a bar. I’m less likely to break precepts. I probably won’t lose my shit and curse someone out for cutting me in line. I’ll probably be a little bit more patient, and considerate. I’ll be enacting a role. 

Whenever I see a monk or nun in robes, I feel encouraged. It reminds me that there’s another way of living. It makes me believe for a brief second that there is a possibility of freedom from my own obsessiveness and clinging. This encouragement comes just by looking at the clothes— it doesn’t have to do with the merit of the person wearing them. The public role of a monk is an important role, and I want to perform that role when I can. But I also think being a twenty-something wearing a skirt is a pretty important role, too. Where would literature and art be without beautiful young women wearing dresses?

Yesterday, I went out to dinner with some friends, and I wore jeans and my new sweater. I’ve got really, really short hair, but I like to think I look sort of normal. The dinner was nice. I speak some Japanese, and I chatted with the waiters, and there was a lot of bowing, and saying the food was good. At one point they asked me to translate for a foreigner who’d wandered in with only American dollars and no yen. There was more apologizing for the food being late, and they gave us free matcha ice cream. My first Japanese language teachers were monks, and they always taught me to speak very politely and respectfully. I think the style of Japanese I use is pretty formal and polite, so it feels nice to have pleasant, polite interactions with people. 

When I was paying, one of the waiters approached me. “Excuse me,” he said. “But are you a Buddhist monk?” He pointed to my head.

“I am!” I exclaimed. “I’m surprised you knew that.”

When I got back to my table I said to my friend, “How did he know I’m a monk?”

“Probably because you’re a monk,” she said.

“But I could be a lesbian,” I protested. “This could just be my cutting-edge style.”

“No, I think it’s pretty obvious you’re a monk.”

I’d like to think there’s something about being a monk that doesn't have to do with clothes, something about me that pervades "home-leaving mendicant in search of the truth" regardless of what I'm wearing. I'd like to think that I can have my cake and eat it too: certainty that I am walking the Buddha Way and practicing the true Buddha-dharma, as well as the freedom to be young and do what I want and wear pretty things. I want freedom, and pleasure, and certainty, and security, all at once. 

I want buying a skirt to not be some irreversible turning point. I want to believe that there is some inner development happening that other people can pick up on--  that what the Buddha taught is making me a good person, and that this helps other people, and they can see the practice working in me, and that even when I’m wearing normal clothes, people will still know I’m a monk, just like that waiter knew. 

Though maybe it was just the bald thing. 


  1. I'm trying to imagine this Gaijin-Ninja-Monk who can blend into a crowd, be completely anonymous and yet people can still see she's a Gaijin and a Monk!

    I'm struggling on this one! :)

  2. What, no photographic evidence? Let's see that skirt.


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