November 21, 2014

Vested Interests

If you've watched the old Kung Fu series on television, you might have the impression that becoming a Zen priest requires passing some kind of test-and you'd be correct. The real test, though, is nothing so exotic as walking on rice paper, hefting a tureen full of red-hot scorpions, or juggling live hand grenades. The real test - the one that separates the Zen man from the dilettante - is getting dressed.

For the record, I was born a Methodist; I was baptized a Methodist; I was raised a Methodist; and for all I know I might still be a Methodist - a bald, bead-jiggling, robe-wearing, lotus-sitting, incense-burning, Namo-Guan-Shr-Yin-Pu-Sa-chanting Methodist. But I hope not. Methodists have to dress for church, and that means clip-on bowties.

A clip-on bowtie is a small strip of fabric tied in a natty bow (hence the name), camouflaging a stainless steel molly-bolt designed to be plunged into the Adam's apple where its metal claws lock into place, never to be removed. It was invented by John Wesley right after he wrote "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection." He got the idea from the Spanish Inquisition. At some point between 1963 and 1970, I broke with the church, having determined that a just and loving God would never force his children to wear clip-on bowties.

For a while, I thought Catholicism might be the way to go. From what I'd heard, only the priest has to get gussied up for church; the congregation wears street clothes. God is great, God is good, and His dress code is business casual. It falls to the priest to compensate the lack of sartorial torture by wearing a bewildering array of traditional accoutrements. This includes the alp, the snood, the dalmatian, the monotreme, the croup, the parenthesis, the thong, the lagomorph, the prophylaxis, and the corona borealis. Sadly, I didn't want to be responsible for some poor guy sweating under all that raiment every Sunday. I'd heard the Vatican was perfecting an environmental control system like NASA puts in the space suits, but I couldn't wait that long.

I thought my search for comfortable holy-wear had ended when I discovered Zen. Buddhists seem so casual in the matter of dress. Meditation requires only loose, comfortable clothing. I could meditate in my gym shorts; a smoking jacket and a fez; or a nice pair of silky boxers. I could even sit in the nude if nobody was looking. In Zen it wasn't the outfit that was important - it was the man inside it. This was fortuitous since according to my bathroom scale, I am a lot of man.

Eventually, my attachment to Zen fashion grew to an unnatural fondness...a need. I decided to pick up the cloth...or, maybe, the cloth picked me up. Buddhist vestments are so deceptive.

The priest's attire appears to be simplicity itself. Wash-and-wear robes over pajamas, with the pajama bottoms stuffed deep into knee socks to create a kind of "Warren G. Harding teeing off at Augusta" effect. Completing the cleric's ensemble, a sash called a kesa is worn. Yes, this was what I was looking for. I remembered Kung Fu: all those serene looking guys with their robes and sashes and Dr. Dentons--they seemed so content. I imagined myself floating mysteriously around the living room, my socks creating scarcely a whisper on the carpet and a nice, cool breeze wafting up under my robe. Sweet.

Now, I'm pretty happy with Zen, but I couldn't have been more wrong about the vestments. Oh, the jammies are fine, but the robe is something else. For one thing, Chinese robes are made for Chinese men, who come in four sizes: Small, Petite, Junior Petite, and Yoda. Ho-ti and myself aside, there are no fat, jolly, Friar-Tuckish, polish-off-a-trencher-of-capons-and-wash-it-down-with-a-butt-of-humming-ale- before-matins type of Zen guys. Nobody makes robes to fit the Tucks of this world. Hence, mine is a tad small. It's held together by a piece of string that must--MUST--be tied in the Secret Knot of Zen. The Granny, the Square, and the Sheepshank all lead straight to Hell. My piece of string is about eight inches too short to go around my middle, even without being tied in the Secret Knot of Zen.

Despite lots of help from Master and my more experienced dharma-kin - not to mention my best efforts to suck it in and look ascetic - I still haven't become one with Buddhist outerwear. In my priestly garb, I look a bit like a stale andouille - sort of plump and greasy, with a tight brown wrapper.

And then comes the kesa. In its natural state, it's a big patched square tablecloth with a napkin ring sewn on one edge and a shower curtain hook on another. When not in use it must be folded in a precise manner similar to the way Marines fold the American flag. This Special Fold of Zen is as difficult to undo as it is to do. You have to get the ring edge to go here and the hook edge to go there so that with appropriate sleight-of-hand the garment can mysteriously open into a dignified and body-circling robe of office - without ever having touched the floor - and then the reverse moves have to be made. (This, incidentally, is how the Japanese invented origami: some poor novice was trying to fold his kesa into a simple rectangle, but kept coming up with lotuses, cranes, bunnies, and Washington Crossing the Delaware.) A Zen Master can perform the necessary moves in seconds: a crisp fold here, a jaunty snap there, followed by a casual toss over the shoulder and a flawless hook-up - just like Roy Rogers slapping Trigger's reins over the hitching post. I never managed. Time after time, I short-sheeted myself. It was like trying to fold Rubik's bath towel.

The fact is, I don't attend too many Buddhist functions these days. Mostly, I'm afraid of looking like the guy at the Homecoming dance whose mother still picks out his clothes.

But someday I'll have my own Sect, and then I'll get to decide what kind of clothes we wear. We might have robes, sure - but with a zipper down the back like a gorilla suit. And the sashes? Easy: Iron-ons. And we'll have merit badges for all the different levels of Attainment, and also refrigerator magnets and custom mud-flaps for our trucks and...but I digress. The point is, no Special Folds or Secret Knots. And the same size range as The Fashion Barn. Maybe we'll keep a few traditional duds around - but only for the Kung Fu fans.