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Dressing up as Buddhists Barry Magid October 31st 2009

This being Halloween I suppose many of you wondered whether some of us would be showing up in costumes or masks. I remember though when I first started practicing Zen here in New York in the 70s and going over to Zen Studies Society to sit, every day there, even if you were a beginner, you changed out of your street clothes and put on a long robe, some people had rakusus and many had shaved heads, and in a setting like that, a Halloween costume is redundant. Supposedly Soen Roshi at one time on Halloween put a pumpkin on his zafu when people came down to dokusan. And he stood behind the door laughing at them when they came in and made their bows to the pumpkin.

So he had a good sense of humor, and wanted people not to take all this stuff too seriously in its own way, but he also had a highly developed sense of ritual and the sacramental. And so being in costume was very much part of what it meant to practice Zen.

And even now it's an ongoing question particularly for lay practitioners, of whether they're going to dress up in some way as Zen students, even to the extent of wearing a rakusu or not. When I've talked to other teachers about the whole question of lay vs. ordained, many ordained teachers feel that it is a teacher's job, if not the job of any committed student, to look the part, to be out in the world, visibly and clearly as a representative of practice. You should be flying the flag at all times.

As we were out this morning walking the dog my son and I passed a group of people in suits and black hats and yarmulkes on their way to synagogue, and my son joked, oh they're dressed up like Jews for Halloween. Great costumes, you know. The standard joke at all the Halloween parades was to go up to the cops and say, "Great costume."

And so rather than put on a costume or a mask for Halloween I think it's more a time for us to consider what costume we're already wearing - to what extent we wear a Buddhist costume, a Buddhist mask, wear a visible or invisible Buddhist label or persona, who we think we are or not. It's one thing to walk around all the time dressed as a Buddhist, it's another to have no outward sign except a little halo of specialness that we wear, feeling that our practice has given us this certain something that other people don't have.

Joko used to respond to requests of people to be ordained as priests or monks by saying, "Well if you want to be a monk just act like one." I don't want to do anything to make you look special. I don't want to give you any new identities. If you think a monk is something different, well show me by your behavior. Mostly that just shut people up.

And yet a big part certainly of being a teacher is performative. One adopts a role and enacts it publicly. And at the same time one accepts being the object of people's idealization and expectation. You have to wear the attribute, you have to be willing to be seen a certain way for better or for worse by students, give them their own opportunity to work through their picture, work through the costume that they've put you in in their own mind.

And sometimes teachers choose to play that role to the hilt, sometimes they choose to try to constantly reject it and deconstruct it, refuse it. All different hopefully skillful means for dealing with the inevitable projection and fantasy that we put on ourselves and each other around this practice and what we think it's all about.

The zendo is a formal and ritualized place--this one less so than many, but still we have our forms and our rituals and they're part of what it means to practice. And we watch how well we move through the forms of practice, and how much we chafe at them. Or how much we have an opinion or a judgment about how formal or informal things are - whether they should be more relaxed, or stricter. Whether they should be completely invisible and made entirely a matter of lay practice, and everybody in street clothes, with no outward sign at all, or whether we need reminders of the tradition that we're part of. And it's by mastering some of the old forms that we keep it alive.

Just because we are not putting on Halloween masks today doesn't mean we're not wearing masks of our own. An old Kentucky photographer, a favorite of mine, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who passed away about 40 years ago, the last year of his life compiled a book of photographs that he called The Family Album of Miss Lucy Bell Crater. And all the photos in it were pictures of his wife and his friends, dual portraits, usually two at a time, and he put his wife and the friend in identical, very grotesque Halloween masks, otherwise they were in their street clothes and usually posed in front of a suburban house, very non-descript setting. They'd be standing there in these very strange masks. And every photograph had the same caption: Miss Lucy Bell Crater and her friend Miss Lucy Bell Crater.

Aren't we all the same under the skin—aren't we all the same under the mask. What is it that we need to be reminded of that is beneath the surface for all of us?

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