Home » Features » Can Buddhist Monastics Change To Lay Clothes?

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.

– Anonone

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.

– Anonone

Related Articles:

What Should We (Not) Offer Monastics?
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2014/09/what-should-we-not-offer-monastics
Do You Protect Or Endanger The Great Lion?
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2013/10/do-you-protect-or-endanger-the-lion
Safeguarding The Buddhist Community’s Integrity
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2012/03/safeguarding-the-buddhist-communitys-integrity
How You Can Protect The Triple Gem
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2013/10/how-you-can-protect-the-triple-gem-2

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One Response to “Can Buddhist Monastics Change To Lay Clothes?”

  1. Some noteworthy comments:

    [1] If a potentially contentious matter is already in the mass media, that affects the Buddhist community, the community should address it swiftly to lessen damage, especially if the person(s) involved are reluctant to address it personally fast enough. However, if there is no conclusion on the matter yet, there should be addressing on what is openly reported to protect the Dharma and Buddhists, with no speculative slander at all. There is no need to debate on whether any ‘monastic’ did right or wrong when there is uncertainty, but it is alright to discuss on what is right or wrong for monastics to do, for educational purposes, without malice or false accusations. Without objective views shared, there will be even more confusion.

    [2] For contentious matters already in mass media, it would be unskilful to pretend nothing happened at all. It would instead be skilful to use the highlighted issues to educate on them objectively and non-judgementally (if matters are inconclusive), so as to prevent similar incidents and confusion. For example, in the Buddha’s time, he made precepts for the monastics when he saw them making mistakes. These are cases recorded publicly as cautionary tales. If lay people understand monastic precepts better, they can help ensure they observe them better. Now that such matters are aired, not that lay people should understand every single monastic precept, at least in terms of the precepts in public question, they should be understood.

    [3] The wrong pointed out is still wrong whether pointed out or not. Public airing can protect the Dharma as a last resort – via public shaming for who might be otherwise shamelessly unrepentant repeat offenders. If so, not only can such intention be not to hurt Buddhism on the whole, it is to safeguard it. Imagine what worse could happen if worse unbecoming behaviour is caught red-handed later. More might lose faith in Buddhism. Ironically, not understanding this possibility, and to suggest or accuse that all whistleblowers who disclose such matters did wrong could be the actual creation of negative karma.

    [4] The idea of pretending the potentially faulty has no faults, or ignoring them when they are glaring is not right in the Bodhisattva spirit of protecting the community and correcting the adamant individual. This passively allows wrong to go on. Even if one is uncertain, one can use the opportunity to educate objectively, and to exert healthy pressure for all to pull up their socks. If the Buddha did nothing every time a monastic made a mistake, there would be no Buddhism left today. ‘The Dharma is practised and protected not by doing nothing all the time, but by doing the right thing at the right time.’

    [5] As the 48th and aptly last secondary Bodhisattva precept in the Brahma Net Sutra (梵网经), the Buddha reminded his disciples that ‘… similar to worms inside a lion’s body, themselves eating the lion’s flesh, not by other worms outside, thus are the Buddha’s “disciples” who self-destroy the Buddhadharma [Buddha’s teachings], which external paths and celestial demons [that deviate from the Buddhadharma] is unable to destroy. If having received the Buddha’s [Bodhisattva] precepts, they should protect the Buddha’s precepts [by upholding them well], similar to being mindful of one’s only child, similar to serving one’s father and mother, they must not intentionally break them…’(‘… 如师子身中虫,自食师子肉,非余外虫。如是佛子自破佛法,非外道天魔能破。若受佛戒者,应护佛戒,如念一子,如事父母,不可毁破…’)

    [6] If the great lion of Buddhism is eaten inside out by parasites on it while assigned ‘pest busters’ are not doing enough of what they should, while bystanders simply let ‘karma takes its course’, this is how the lion dies slowly and surely. We are all interconnected. The Buddha left the Dharma to monastics and laypeople as a collective community too. Let us do what we can to protect and uphold the Dharma, other than giving useless sighs in a corner. This is not to say all must do or say something, but that those who know better have the responsibility to educate, and not sweep the matter under a rug, where more dirt might accumulate before manifesting greater impurity and damage openly later.

    [7] The Buddha devised the monastic precepts to be managed by the monastic community, but what happens if one becomes high-ranking, with no appointed higher moral monastic authority clearly tasked to oversee one’s conduct? There might be no central administration for ‘monastics’ who have set up their own independent temples with many devotees. Some ‘monastics’ are not easily ordered to change their ways or to disrobe. However, there are Western-styled committees for some of these organisations, with the power of vote. If a wayward ‘monastic’ has no respectable monastic supporters for his or her ways, he or she should reflect on why he or she is seen as wrong by all.

    [8] 不真知错, 不能真改。Those who do not really see their mistakes cannot really change. It is also a battle between oneself and the ego. Sadly, many with such problems are so blindsided by their egos that they do not see their own mistakes.

    [9] Buddhist take refuge in the Triple Gem of the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha. Note that the truest form of the Sangha is the Arya Sangha (the noble community of enlightened monastics and laity). At no point is there refuge in any wayward ‘monastics’, who should be disclosed by the larger Buddhist community to warn more of them, if clearly wrong yet unrepentant.

    [10] On the idea that changing into lay clothes is ‘needed’ to avoid causing inconvenience to others or alarming others, is it not so much more alarming if monastics are ‘allowed’ to change into lay clothes at will, to do what they probably should not – beginning with ‘disguising’ themselves for their ‘convenience’?

    [11] One who is willing to conceal status as a ‘monastic’ is naturally suspected as willing to forgo monastic precepts, as if there is deception even over status, what other deception can there not be? The Buddha warned that there is no evil a liar might not do. Why? Because liars can easily lie to conceal other evils done.

    [12] ‘A reply to expressed concerns of publication of decadent, morally objectionable Sangha – Our Viewpoint: Although we do concede that awareness of misconduct of the Sangha could be detrimental to the general reputation of Buddhism, we feel that it is also probably futile to attempt to censor news as such in the digital age. Besides, the deliberate avoidance or denial of such matters is likely to trigger backlash from the general public, projecting the impression of Buddhist indifference, or worse, collusion. The Catholic church’s failure to honestly admit and arrest widespread sexual abuse of young boys is an apt illustration. On the other hand, an open, balanced and positive acknowledgement followed by appropriate redress could not only serve as a cautionary measure, but also accountability to the generations of faithful Buddhists who toiled and sacrificed for the dharma, their temples and masters. The numerous stories of monks and nuns, both exemplary and misguided in the Dhammapada, the Thera and Therigathas, not forgetting the vinaya, no doubt, had been preserved for purposes and intentions largely akin to the stated. Amituofo.’ – A Buddhist organisation’s Facebook post

    [13] The below is from https://www.facebook.com/BuddhistConfessions

    CONFESSION #220: This is not so much a confession as it is a lamentation to share… Where I live, when there are some riding upon the name of Buddhism doing clearly non-Buddhist acts, some Buddhists tend to jump to their defence. They claim that especially for those who don monastic robes, contentious issues will be sorted out by the larger monastic community. However, this is only an ideal, as it is not always the case.

    Cult masters donning robes often go unadmonished, if they are not seen as Buddhists under jurisdiction or governance in the first place. Yet others with misdeeds donning robes often go unadmonished too, if they have formed their own autonomous communities and get to choose their own ‘juries’ to decide what is right and wrong. This is how they keep getting away, when they might not even be true ‘monastics’ or ‘Buddhists’ any more.

    RESOLUTION: This is not so much a resolution as it is a reflection to share… Was it not said that Mara will send his minions to don robes to destroy the institution of the Dharma in our world inside out in the Dharma Ending Age? When Buddhist ‘organisations’ and ‘leaders’ do not name the ‘demons’ like the Buddha clearly did, is it a sign that we are getting into the thick of the Dharma Ending Age?

    Why should ‘demons’ go unnamed while demon-namers get blamed for naming them and warning others of them instead? Let us remember that the Buddha left the institution of the Dharma for the fourfold community of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen to uphold. If anyone aspect lacks efforts in upholding the Dharma, may the others do what they can, and best they can.

    When there are no fair higher authorities addressing already publicised contentious issues, that are effectively listened to, it is the objective letter and spirit of the precepts taught by the Buddha that must be shared with the masses for public education – be it by monastics or laity, by organisations or individuals. This is not for further damaging the image of Buddhism but for repairing and protecting it. If not, more wrongs might go mistaken as alright.

    The destruction of Buddhism is not just by the actions of ‘demons’, but by the inactions of the reasonably expected but absent demon-namers too. If we are true Buddhists, may we all defend true Buddhism by propagating what is right to sort out confused messes of contention. If not capable of doing this, please at least appreciate, and not hamper those who are doing it.

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