I’ve been asked to share with our community some experiences from my time in Sri Lanka as a monastic. What arises now are two very human stories from the first few days. The first story, shared here, begins with the color of the robe. Yes, you read that right: the color.
I had been preparing myself for the ordination for well over a year. I was memorizing Pali chants that I would need for the ordination itself as well as for the many circumstances I’d be in where chants would be offered. I was preparing my mind to yield to all events and circumstances, from my own brokenness and resistance, to cancelled or flubbed or disorganized meetings or events. I was wondering why I was doing this and inclining the mind towards noting and pondering each morsel of meaning—from the slightest natural or social sign to the mind’s deep insights.
So the head was shaved, I wore the white clothing they gave me, including a white scarf to cover my eyebrowless head (yes, the eyebrows, too), entered the hall, and presented myself before a long line of senior monks, even more less senior monks, and more than a hundred laypeople. You see, it was also a dedication ceremony for a new building at this meditation center where, a month later I would be teaching Sri Lanka’s first Insight Dialogue retreat. It was also the day before Uposotha, the Buddhist full moon ceremony.
I repeated the lines that were chanted to me, bowed a lot, and then was given my maroon robes. I left the hall and draped the robes over the body of the person now known as Revata (ray-vah-tuh). I did as I was guided to do, but was surprised to see this little emotion — born of perception and resonating in the sankhara, the mind’s constructions — yield a thought: “Oh, I was expecting to be in saffron robes, like my teachers.” I let it go. I wondered, though, “Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Mahanayaka Thera and Ven. Punnaji Maha Thera wore saffron. They are nearly all wearing saffron. Shouldn’t I be?” And behind this lay the history of all the images of my teachers and the projected images of myself in similar robes.
Finally I asked, a day or two later, sheepishly: “Um, I don’t mean to bother you, and I’m aware that there is some greed, some preference in this, but I was expecting saffron robes.” Before I could say much more, my host—and Ven. Anuruddha’s teacher—Ven. Kalyanatissa, said, “No problem. We have a robe that color. It’s all the same, though. Robes can be any color. Even blue!” I wondered, “Even blue?” “Yes”, he replied. “There are some monks who get a bit showy about this.”
Two days later I headed off with Ven. Anuruddha to Mitirigala, a forest monastery with an esteemed history, and on the way we stopped to purchase (!) my underrobe in this color. Ugh. I was making work for people.
But when we got to the monastery, all the monks were in maroon, or in a variation of maroon based on how faded the robes had become. It seems the dye for these robes was prescribed in the Pali canon and the roots and bark yielded this darker, red-brown color. Such dyes faded with each washing. “Good,” I said to myself. “This maroon robe is okay. I’m covered on that one (as it were). At least I’m not wearing saffron.” Still, looking for something for someone a bit taller, I took up the offer to find a more suitable robe from the storehouse at the monastery.
This led to witnessing a conversation among some of the monks there (only a few of whom spoke English), where I learned that saffron was considered inferior: too showy. It was the wardrobe of the temple monks, and WE’RE forest monks. And the color of a robe I tried on, and ended up using for quite awhile, was associated with Thai monks. Another monastic mind construct. While too short, at least this Thai robe did not brand me as one of those temple monks, not known for their meditation and strict vinaya (rules).
And there it was: the mind of judgment, preferences. My mind was relatively clean here; I didn’t know enough. But even in this austere and quite sincere environment of the forest monastery, the comparing and identifying mind could be observed. About fashion! Well, okay, about color, but you understand what I’m saying. To finish the story, I never ended up wearing that once-craved saffron robe. I ended up with a robe from Nouwena, another forest monastery, that was dyed with roots and such and, thankfully, that fit well and was far more bearable in the humidity and heat. None of these experiences overtook the mind, but it was all revealing and amusing.
Please check back for Part Two in this series, as I share a more somber story about the fragility of this life, and our need for each other’s support.
Yours in the Dhamma,
Gregory, formerly Venerable Revata
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Gregory Kramer is the Founder and Guiding Teacher of Metta Programs and has been teaching Insight Meditation since 1980. He developed the practice of Insight Dialogue and has been teaching it since 1995, offering retreats in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia. He has studied with esteemed teachers, including Anagarika Dhammadina, Ven. Ananda Maitreya, … Continue reading→