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Robes! Helpful or No?

Rm. 6, Cloud Hall. Photo by Lulu

I'm in the above photo, talking to my wife about robes, saying something like, yeah, I wanted these lay robes so bad, and guess what? They're a nightmare! I've got at least 6 layers: T-shirt, Juban, Kimono, Obi, Robe, Rakusu. And sometimes it's so cold in the Zendo, I add a layer of long johns.

The robes you see are at least 10 years old, and I think they belonged to Rev. Tokushi's, who handed them down to me about a year after she ordained. Or they could be Rev. Koji's; Lulu and I were handed both and I chose the lighter ones because I tend to run hot while Lulu runs cold. During my previous temple residency, back in 08, I wore a wonderful lay robe that looks more like an akido outfit, but it was very, very sturdy and didn't require a kimono, juban, and obi understory. I still have it. I wear it to evening meditation.

However, the very complicated robes I wear now are the norm for those who wear robes. I wear robes because: 1) It's nice to have your legs free underneath 2) I want to distinguish Zen practice from working out or lounging, so no hanuman knickers or goofy PJ pants for me 3) I feel benefit from the container they've become, while I'm wearing them and while everyone else is wearing them. And when you go to Tassajara for a practice period, it's required.

The first time I put this accoutrement (equipment;TRAPPINGS) I felt like a triple tortilla burrito. I was at Santa Cruz Zen Center for a sesshin, and I was the only lay person in robes. First scene in the horror show: Get on the tan and turn to face the wall. Everything was twisted around, as I didn't know the trick of pulling your robe to the front and hoisting it up a bit. Second scene in the horror show: my collar was pinning me down, having been drawn taught by my knees. Third scene in the horror show: while adjusting my zafu, my sleeve was caught under my butt and I couldn't pull it out without the zafu, so then I'd have to push it back under, and then my sleeve would get caught again, over and over, (you know, samsara). Fourth scene in the horror show: Sweat. I was sitting right in the sun.

There was no picture taken, but it would probably look like me hunched forward, my own hand up my butt, sweating.

Oh, and I tore a huge whole in the seat during Oryoki. (then I had to mend them! Perpetual care!)

That was two weeks ago. I've become more comfortable as I curtsy before sitting down, hold my right sleeve with my left hand, and remembering to untuck from the zafu so my head can press the sky. I keep wearing them because I feel committed to them and because I'm the guy who wants to ordain, which would mean adding knee length sleeves and an O'kesa. If I can't manage these robes, what hope do I have to be graceful and confident as I doshi some day? I also value them as another form to support the practice; I've got nothing to do but sit, chant, clean, and be mindful when I'm in my robes.

Please weigh in: Do you wear sitting robes? Do you think we're silly Zen nerds for wearing them? Let me have it!


  1. I don't wear robes. I can't say you've made me want to after reading about your wrestling match with your own. I admire your commitment to them, however.

  2. I was trying to think of something good to say about robes, and besides having an affinity for the archetype of monk or priest, I can't really say!

    Personally, I also like them because they neutralize my appearance. I have a lot of tattoos, I had a lot of old punk rock t-shirts, and I don't think they made me all that available to the sangha. Most people don't even know I have a full sleeve +.

  3. My husband really likes to wear them on Sesshin. They are not required in our Sangha. He feels similar to you, I suspect, in that the affinity for robes may not quite be able to be articulated. He runs hot as well, and finds it is comfortable "like sitting wrapped in sheets" in the summer. He has that monk archetype, too, though.

    I tried it for a while, and felt the horror show scenario you described, though most of it was in my own mind. I find them rather noisy and "crunchy", they wrinkle, and all the new people look at me to know what to do next in the complex morning service. The pressure!

  4. Jomon- I've found that if you show up to a sesshin with lay robes, you'll find yourself in doanryo by evening service! Not always great, since almost every temple is a little different...but a great way to leap into beginner's mind!


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