The Gospel of Buddha: “You May Wear Rags or Lay-Robes”

As I wrote last Tuesday, I’ve been reading The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus. If you missed that post, it has some background material about Carus, one of the pioneers of Buddhism in the west.

The book is subtitled “Compiled from Ancient Records” which means the Tipitaka. One story I thought unfamiliar concerns the bhikkhus and their robes. I must have seen it at least once since Carus’ source is The sacred books of the East by Friedrich Max Muller (1880). However, I haven’t read much from that since I was in college.

Carus calls the story “Jivaka, The Physician.” Jivaka, almost certainly a mythological figure, is said to be the most famous doctor in India during the Buddha’s time.

“Jivaka, The Physician” begins with this passage:

Long before the Blessed One had attained enlightenment, self-mortification had been the custom among those who earnestly sought for salvation. Deliverance of the soul from all the necessities of life and finally from the body itself, they regarded as the aim of religion. Thus, they avoided everything that might be a luxury in food, shelter, and clothing, and lived like the beasts in the woods. Some went naked, while others wore the rags cast away upon cemeteries or dungheaps.

When the Blessed One retired from the world, he recognized at once the error of the naked ascetics, and, considering the indecency of their habit, clad himself in cast-off rags.

Having attained enlightenment and rejected all unnecessary self-mortifications, the Blessed One and his bhikkhus continued for a long time to wear the cast-off rags of cemeteries and dung-heaps.

When he writes that the Buddha “retired from the world”, Carus is obviously referring to the Buddha’s “Great Renunciation”, which actually was not so great. After all, as the passage above indicates, didn’t the Buddha reject the severe renunciation and austerities of the “naked ascetics” and advocate a Middle Way? The Buddha did not retire from the world, quite the contrary. He was deeply involved in the world. He and his followers did not live in seclusion. They always stayed on the edges of towns and villages and interacted with ordinary people on a regular basis.

Perhaps, this was merely Carus’ choice of words, or maybe he borrowed it from one of his sources, but surely he must have been cognizant of the fact that the Buddha and the bhikkhus were not monastics.

In any case, as the story continues, the bhikkhus were visited with all kinds of disease from wearing the filthy rags. Then, the Buddha became sick. Ananda went to Jivaka, who was physician to King Bimbisara. Jivaka treated and healed the Buddha, Still, the Buddha and the bhikkhus continued to wear only rags. Sometime later Jivaka received a fine robe as a gift and he wanted to donate it to the Buddha.  After going back and forth about it with Jivaka, the Buddha finally consented to wear the robe and then he addressed the Bhikkhus,

Henceforth ye shall be at liberty to wear either cast-off rags or lay robes. Whether ye are pleased with the one or with the other, I will approve of it.”

When the people at Rajagaha heard, “The Blessed One has allowed the bhikkhus to wear lay robes,” those who were willing to bestow gifts became glad. And in one day many thousands of robes were presented at Rajagaha to the bhikkhus.

I was intrigued by the use of the term “lay-robes.” I looked at some of the other accounts, and while it seems that Carus condensed the story somewhat, “lay-robes” is consistent with other translations. Muller describes the robe Jivaka offers to the Buddha as both a lay-robe and “a suit of Siveyyaka cloth.” Hermann Oldenberg and Thomas William Rhys Davids in Vinaya Texts (1881) mention that Buddhaghosa gave two explations of Siveyyaka cloth, one being a cloth used in Uttarakuru for covering dead bodies, and secondly as a excellent cloth made in Sivi. Since all the translations indicate that the cloth was of the best material and other sources say that Siveyyaka cloth was valuable, I think it is safe to assume it was the latter. Vinaya Texts has “lay-robes” and S. Beal in his translation uses “householder robes.”

We should not take literally the stories we find in Buddhist texts, but rather understand them as allegory, and this is true for all ancient spiritual literature.  In creating these stories there was a message the original compilers were trying to convey, hidden in the symbolism or between the lines. What is the message here?

It seems to me that one point is about judging by appearance. Wearing a robe, or certain kind of robe, does not make a person a bhikkhu. It is something else, such as one’s dedication to the path, one’s commitment to the ethical way of life that Buddhism promotes. I think the implication of the story is if the bhikkhus were to wear lay-robes then how would people tell the difference between them and householders? In the relative sense, sure, they are differences, but ultimately, there are none. So, I think a second point is that by wearing “lay-robes” the bhikkhus were symbolically honoring the laity, saying we are essentially a one-fold sangha, not two or four-fold.

Today there is still a prejudice against lay practitioners and lay Buddhism and I feel it is really a divisive attitude. From time to time, I run across individuals who only want to practice with monks or at temples and monasteries. Somehow to them lay Buddhism doesn’t have the right stuff. And in at least one Buddhist tradition I have some experience in, the opposite is the prevailing frame of mind.

But the real truth is that it doesn’t matter whether your teachers or the people you practice with wear robes or blue jeans. I’ve encountered liars, fakes, ego-trippers and authoritarians wearing both. All that is important is the quality of the dharma you get. Capturing the spirit of Buddhism and practicing with some effort is all that matters in the long run.

Sessen Doji offered his body to a demon to receive a teaching composed of eight characters. Bodhisattva Yakuo, having no oil, burned his elbow as an offering to the Lotus Sutra. In our own country, Prince Shotoku peeled off the skin of his hand on which to copy the Lotus Sutra, and Emperor Tenji burned his third finger as an offering to Shakyamuni Buddha. Such austere practices are for saints and sages, but not for ordinary people. Yet even common mortals can attain Buddhahood if they cherish one thing: earnest faith. In the deepest sense, earnest faith is the will to understand and live up to the spirit, not the words, of the sutras.

– Nichiren, “The Gift of Rice”

A person who lives “up to the spirit, not the words” of the teachings can be a good mentor whether they wear a robe or a business suit, rags or t-shirts. And if we have that same attitude, we can practice anywhere, in a temple, in a tent – it’s not important. All we need is to see past appearance and capture the spirit.


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