A briefer version of this was published in the January 2016 issue of ‘For You Information’, a Singapore-based Buddhist magazine.
What we prefer to keep doing without others seeing us do probably should never be done.
Is it alright for Buddhist monastics, for instance, of the Chinese tradition, to occasionally change from their robes to clothes of laypeople? This is probably asked as monastics are always seen dressed in robes, which makes them being in other clothing questionable. Why is it important for monastics to be in their robes? Monastic robes are not just a kind of religious uniform for monks and nuns within Buddhist temples and centres. They are also to constantly remind themselves of their lifelong 24/7 commitment, to many moral precepts for spiritual purification, that they have vowed to uphold, which are applicable everywhere they go. Their robes also remind others, especially laypeople, to assist them in upholding their precepts well – by not encouraging or ‘helping’ them to do anything that breaks or breaches the precepts, in letter or spirit.
Once we identify a monastic in his or her robes, we expect more noble behaviour in action and speech. With such differentiation between them versus laypeople, they should thus ideally serve as excellent examples for laity to look up to. These natural expectations are rather universal. As such, if so-called ‘monastics’ really think it is ‘blameless’ for them to do whatever they wish to without their robes, they would not hide their shaven heads and faces with caps (and wigs), to remove their robes (and put on other clothes), to disguise (and pretend) to be laypeople. They have surely ‘realised’ the ‘need’ to cover and conceal, due to knowledge that their controversial deeds could be seen as against the letter or spirit of the precepts. In this sense, to ‘self-disrobe’ can symbolically or truly equate, to some extent, to the suspension or forgoing of monastic precepts.
With the Buddha setting the perfect example, since his time, there has been no record of any universally endorsed monastic, whom at will, openly or secretly, removed his or her robes, to venture into controversial grounds where precepts might be broken. Even monastics exercising and training in tough martial arts clearly remain dressed in simpler yet still identifiable robes. Even monastics toiling during farming in the lonely mountains do the same today, as personally witnessed recently. If even the robes are not committed to, which do symbolise the entire body of monastic precepts for adhering to, commitment to them could indeed be shaky, if not already broken. The simple robes represent modesty and frugality too, the opposite of extravagance and indulgence in sense pleasures, which might be privately entertained when out of the robes.
In ‘[The] Fortieth [Secondary Bodhisattva] Precept [Against] Selective Administration [Of] Precepts’ (第四十拣择受戒戒) in the Brahmā Net Sūtra (梵网经), Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) taught the following – ‘If [as] Buddhas’ [Bodhisattva] disciples… all… bhikṣus [monks], bhikṣunis [nuns]… should [be] taught [that the] kāṣāya [monastic robes] worn [on their] bodies, [be] all made [of a] spoilt colour, [that] with [the spiritual] path corresponds [e.g. in simplicity, modesty and frugality]… [Their] worn clothes [on their] bodies, [are] all [of a uniformly] dyed colour. If [with] all in a country, [with the] countrymen’s worn clothes, bhikṣus’ [robes], should all with their common [lay] clothes be with differences…‘ (‘若佛子… 一切… 比丘、比丘尼… 应教身所著袈裟，皆使坏色，与道相应。… 身所著衣，一切染色。若一切国土中，国人所著衣服，比丘皆应与其俗服有异…’) Just as laity should not put on monastic robes without proper ordination, monastics should not improperly put on lay clothes – unless as an absolute last resort skilful means to help others.
The fact that so-called ‘monastics’ interchangeably switch between monastic robes and lay clothes means they are perhaps not committed, qualified or willing to live the full monastic life, rendering them as not true monastics. If adamant that such behaviour is ‘blameless’, they are truly spiritually confused, while having no qualms about continuing to confuse laypeople on what to expect of them. Such ‘monastics’ should publicly apologise and seriously consider disrobing formally. Otherwise, the lack of clear remorse will only worsen matters. Intense negative karma will be created with the destruction caused, that affects the image of Buddhism, temples, teachers and devotees associated with. If even the lay robes (Haiqing with Manyi: 海青与缦衣) donned during Dharma ceremonies and retreats are cherished by lay Buddhists, monastics should all the more treasure their own robes responsibly.
It is however not that all who always keep their robes on are surely good monastics. Some might be bogus monastics, who are out to deceive with their false status, to gather donations by pretending to be respectable publicly. All Buddhists should be discerning, to protect the whole Buddhist community by skilfully reminding one another of how each should behave morally. With compassion, there should be whistleblowing only as a last resort, should there be repeat offenders who truly do not heed kind advice to make amends. This has to be done before greater damage is inflicted. There should also never be excessive tempting offerings to monastics, such as wealth and property for living away from a larger self-checking monastic community. This can lead to distraction and loss of discipline for spiritual progress. For those not yet spiritually mature, such offerings to them might not be meritorious if they condition growth of misgivings instead. [Note: The above are all general reminders; not specifically referring to anyone.]
– By Various Dharma Protectors
To never be spiritually let down by anyone, practise to reach a Buddha’s [e.g. Amituofo’s] Pure Land, where many [enlightened] beings of superior goodness already gather in one place, ever ready to inspire us.
What Should We (Not) Offer Monastics?
Do You Protect Or Endanger The Great Lion?
Safeguarding The Buddhist Community’s Integrity
How You Can Protect The Triple Gem