Enclothed cognition and the Robe of Buddha

With a lot of bustling around, cardboard boxes, packing tape, cat carriers, excitement, trepidation, pouring rain, a rental truck, and incredible help from extended family, Devon, the baby, and I got ourselves moved up to Oakland last month, and are slowly settling into the new rhythms of our life here.  Among the joys of the new situation is the fact that we’re living near our local Zen temple, so for the first time in many months I’m able to sit morning zazen one or two times a week, with others, in robes.

I’ve been struck by what a different experience that is than sitting mostly by myself, mostly in Western clothes, in my living room.  Part of it, I think, is the importance of the group, of the other breathing bodies nearby.  In the few moments I can grab these days in between the baby, unpacking, and work, I’ve been taking a look at David Abram’s book, Becoming Animal:  An Earthly Cosmology, and that’s helped me think about all of this in terms of animality, in terms of my embodied, sensory experience.  Not just zazen, but a mammal’s zazen, with other mammals, in the zendo’s half-dark.  Very different than a mammal by himself in an apartment somewhere.  I’m really taken by Abram’s writings, and by his call to make our bodily experience central to our thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.  Here’s a long passage from the introduction:

For too long we’ve closed ourselves to the participatory life of our senses, inured ourselves to the felt intelligence of our muscled flesh and its manifold solidarities.  We’ve taken our primary truths from technologies that hold the world at a distance.  Such tools can be mighty useful, and beneficial as well, as long as the insights that they yield are carried carefully back to the lived world, and placed in service to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience.  But technology can also, and easily, be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shield—etched with lines of code or cryptic jargon—to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the ambiguity of the real.

Only by welcoming uncertainty from the get-go can we acclimate ourselves to the shattering wonder that enfolds us.  This animal body, for all its susceptibility and vertigo, remains the primary instrument of all our knowing, as the capricious earth remains our primary cosmos.

His first book The Spell of the Sensuous, which I read a few years ago, explores a lot of the same terrain, in equally vivid and interesting ways.  I highly, highly recommend them both.

So, as I say, I’ve been reflecting on my experience of morning zazen in terms of animality, corporeality, the relationship of my living body to the living world.  All wonderful and valid and rich.  But then a few weeks ago, I saw this article in the New York Times and since then I’ve also been thinking of the importance of the robes, of what the body is draped in.  Here are the article’s opening sentences:

If you wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply. But if you wear the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, you will show no such improvement.

So scientists report after studying a phenomenon they call enclothed cognition: the effects of clothing on cognitive processes.

It is not enough to see a doctor’s coat hanging in your doorway, said Adam D. Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who led the study. The effect occurs only if you actually wear the coat and know its symbolic meaning — that physicians tend to be careful, rigorous and good at paying attention.

Isn’t that wild?  And doesn’t it follow that something similar must happen when we put our hands in gassho and put on something we know is called “the great robe of liberation?”  If putting on a doctor’s coat makes us act like we think doctors do, does putting on the robe of Buddha make us act like we think Buddhas do?  Does unfolding the rakusu and slipping it over our heads, or fumbling in the dark for the ties of the okesa, serve in some way to help us enter our practice in a different way?  Experience differently?  Act differently?

At the first shuso ceremony I ever attended, a friend told a story about a little kid dressed up as Batman.  “Great Batman costume,” someone says.

“I’m not in a costume,” the kid says, puzzled.  “I’m Batman.”



12 thoughts on “Enclothed cognition and the Robe of Buddha

    • Hi, Mike.

      Thanks for the question. I wasn’t thinking so much of good and bad around this, and it depends some on what we think Buddhas do, I guess. But sure, I’ll bite–trying to manifest perfect generosity, perfect ethics, perfect patience, etc. seems good to me . . .

      How do you see it?


      • Hi Dave,


        Polishing a tile springs to mind but it’s also not quite accurate in this case.

        NLP Anchoring is a very powerful technique. When I’m in an office I will tend to wear a nice shirt and pants regardless of dress code because the fabric feel makes my ‘businessman’ side easier to access because historically I’m a suit-guy.

        Some people I’ve seen wear the robes lightly. Some become actors on a stage. Some go on a power trip. Some create something for me and others to aspire to. Some become emotionless zombies. Some are liberated and liberate, some are ensnared and ensnare.

        Being around people who are trying to be something other than themselves is very difficult for me. Always the issue is “Do I talk to the character or the actor?”

        [rhetorical] What do you _feel_ when you put on the robes? Does that feeling crush you or bring you home?

  1. Due to health issues, after three years of sitting weekday mornings with a group at our Zen Center, I’m now sitting at home by myself. What a difference! Somehow being surrounded by other practitioners seems to help my endurance. I don’t seem as bothered by back strain and such and can sit for longer stretches. On the other hand, I find letting go to be easier alone. My home is semi-rural and it can be very quiet at times. I’m enjoying the experience, but will be happy to return to group sitting when I can.

    “I’m not in a costume,” the kid says, puzzled. “I’m Batman.”
    Now that is authentic practice!
    A bow to the kid.

    David Clark

  2. Your last anecdote reminded me of the 4 yr. old who when it was pointed out to her that she had put on her clothes inside-out, said she knew that. She wanted to be invisible that day. Let me have child’s-mind.

  3. When all the practitioners are wearing robes I have heard that their can be great harmony in the Sangha. Buddhist attire helped remind me to try to practice wholeheartedly. When some practitioners are in robes and others are not, some difficulty arises. The Buddha prescribed the balm of loving-kindness to ease discord and create a wholesome atmosphere. I pray that Zen teachers will take a second look at incorporating loving-kindness meditation into The Schedule.

  4. Although the wearing of robes has not been discussed in a systematic way so far, a fair number of pros & cons are already coming into focus. On the asset side, robes can serve as a way of maintaining a connection with tradition, conscious & subliminal. As Hondo Dave’s posting suggests, robes can facilitate role-playing, as in “you are what you wear.” For some people at least, the robes confer the appearance of dignity that can uplift the wearer by a kind of autosuggestion. Robes are also a formof advertising; they announce, “Buddhism spoken here.”

    On the debit side, there is the danger of self-alienation (I am not Chinese, this is not the Tang Dynasty, nor am I attending a fancy-dress ball. What’s going on?) & culture clash: most of the people around me are not Asian either, & won’t get it—unless, of course, they are of the sort who are attracted to the mystique of Zen, well known to be a spiritual bog. Then, as has been mentioned, robes enable the enrobed to look the part of wayfarers without actually having to look at themselves. To those potential liabilities I would add a matter of cultural confusion that may also entail a degree of dishonesty, namely, the fact that the vast majority of American Zen priests are not monks, but householders. The clothes betoken a lifestyle of radical renunciation that is very far from our actual practice.

    There no inherent problem with acting. We all do it, some people more than others. We’re taught to do it. It is part of becoming socialized. If we are taught our social & interpersonal roles thoroughly & skillfully, in such ways as to engender little or no inner conflict, we will not even be aware of them. So it’s not necessarily a matter of authenticity versus faking it, but how a particular role fits a given person. Time is a factor, too. The costume that seems exotic at first becomes, after a year or two of practice, just the clothes one happens to be wearing. To what extent inside & outside harmonize depends on how well we have internalized the teachings.

    Anti-dualistic Zen absolutism notwithstanding, we ought not ignore how the robes look to those who are not wearing them. Some observers will find them aesthetically pleasing &/or conducive to fantasies of perpetual serenity. Others will be put off. As we all well know, there a plenty of Westerners who abhor the least suggestion of hierarchy, some of whom choose more superficially secular paths while others try to reform Japanese Zen traditions from within.

    In the end we are forced to recognize that the kesa & koromo have nothing whatever to do with the essence of Zen, & everything to do with the history of Buddhist monasticism in China, so that one’s attitude toward the wearing of robes will be colored by such considerations as the value of monasticism & the nature of the relationship between Buddhism & Zen.

    One aspect of robe-wearing is of particular interest to me & that is the conduct of the “ordained” Buddhist in the sphere of social & political action. I have in mind the kinds of questions that arise when one is invited to participate in, say, an anti-war demonstration, & requested to go “in robes.” It has become standard operating procedure for Buddhist clergy to attend political events as Buddhist clergy, despite the danger & folly in presuming to represent either the Dharma or the Sangha under such conditions. I would be most interested in hearing what y’all have to say.

    The closing lines of Hondo Dave’s post tell a lovely story, but not the whole story, & they leave us with a misleading impression. Why? Because the boy is not Batman. He is pretending to be Batman, He is able, from his own viewpoint to do it perfectly because he has a powerful & unfettered imagination & because he is able successfully to reject any information that does not fit his design. What’s more, the boy will, sooner or later, cease imagining himself to be Batman. He will awaken one day to the truth of two propositions, to wit, “I was never actually Batma,” & “There is no such personas Batman.” It is understandable that the story’s underlying message—that whatever I think, feel or imagine I am, that I am—should be very well received in a society whose members have spent the whole of their lives under the influence of cinema, television or both. We are the ultimate consumers & we have been led to believe, and convinced ourselves, that we will be granted as many do-overs as we may require. Belabor the obvious because there is a parallel her that we mustn’t overlook. Bodhidharma & the Sixth Patriarch are hardly more real than Batman & Robin. Mike’s question hints at the difficulty of striving to become like an idealized & quasi-fictitious person when our basic task is to see into what Harada Sekkei calls “this thing.”

  5. I think we should abandon any mandatory dress code in the zendo and just wear what we would normally wear to work. If you’re a surgeon, wear your scrubs. If you’re a cop, wear your blues. If you’re a cook, wear your apron. If you’re a priest, wear your okesa. Then let’s all practice together. Let’s abandon hierarchies and meet everyone on equal ground.

  6. As for the robe issue – how about a compromise? Why not some sort of comfortable casual western clothes and a simple (meaning plain) rakusu? The rakusu could symbolize the robes, while maintaining the western dress.

  7. Thank you for this post. Enclothed cognition speaks to so much of this practice, even beyond the robe.

    I’m interested in Richard’s comment, specifically the assertion that ultimately, the boy is not Batman. Two things come to mind:
    (1) That is true, but neither is Batman (Batman being not real). But he might be his best embodied understanding of Batman when he says that’s who he is, which means he may be genuinely manifesting greater strength, courage, and resolve than he would without the suit. The kid knows he’s not Batman, but he also knows, intuitively, that when he claims that identity, he is cultivating something that he doesn’t otherwise know how to cultivate.
    (2) We are Buddha. The tradition shouts it, over and over. So while it may be true that the kid has to grow up and realize that he’s not Batman, those who wear robes (and those who don’t) have no other direction but to grow up and realize that they are Buddha, that they always were. There need be no idealization behind that, nothing fictitious. It’s not that I put on a robe and dress like Buddha, not exactly–it’s more like when I take it off, Buddha is dressing as Koun.

    Is Bruce Wayne Batman? If so, is he ever not Batman? Is Batman Bruce Wayne? Will Bruce Wayne one day “become” Batman, or is Batman turning into Bruce Wayne? These are sincere questions.

    Again, thank you–you’re hosting such a great discussion here.


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