Vanity, Thy Name is...Me

August 11, 2015

 

I’ve been thinking about vanity a lot lately…does that mean that I’ve been vainly contemplating vanity? {Smile} What is vain and how is vanity dealt with in Buddhism?  Can we define vanity as a certain way of dressing or looking?  What did the Buddha say about vanity?  As a Buddhist should I shave my head and only wear thrift shop clothes? All good questions and things we should consider.

 

So what did the Buddha have to say about vanity?  He only used the term a few times and always as an attribute of fools, but what did he really mean?  Normally he was talking specifically about “chasing after vanity” - in other words attachment to our looks.  It is the attachment and craving that is the pursuit of fools, not looking attractive.  He did, in the Atthakavagga, talk about a beautiful woman as being, “Having seen goddesses I refused them without a second thought; why should I crave after any human body?  A body is a container for blood and piss and dung; why would I desire to touch it even with my foot?”  Again he is talking more about craving the body than condemning the simple act of being attractive; yet we do need to remember that, no matter how attractive, all bodies are equally a “container for blood and piss and dung.”

 

Is vanity a certain way of dressing or taking care of yourself? No and Yes; but that applies to both directions of dress and personal hygiene. It is not any particular style that we need to be aware of as Buddhists but rather clinging to that style.  In many Western sanghas if you go for meditation you’ll see a lot of people looking rather unkempt - long, undressed hair, old clothes, often with body odor from not bathing frequently.  Are these people better Buddhist than the people in the same meditation hall dressed nicely with styled hair and clean scent?  Maybe; but you can’t tell by the way they look. 

 

There is no way that a Buddhist should look.  The only thing a Buddhist needs to be aware of is how attached they are to the way they look.  The man in dress slacks and shirt may well be less attached to the way he looks than the woman with dreadlocks and peasant skirt who hasn’t bathed in days - or he may be more attached.  It is the attachment, the intention, behind our dress that we need to remain aware of.  My dharma-grandfather, Ryugen Fisher Roshi, had long hair and a beard.  When asked about why he looked like that instead of a shaved head and face like “most monks” he would explain that he found he had less attachment to his looks when he let his hair go than when he was maintaining it shaved.  I can testify this is an issue with shaving the head.  I maintain a shaved head but I purposefully only shave it once every couple of weeks to avoid becoming more attached to the shaving than I was to the hair.

 

This is not just an issue with Buddhist laity but with monks as well (and remember I apply that term to both men and women).  Yes, there are monks who are attached to the Robe; who take an obvious pride in appearing robed.  This is different than being content and happy in your role as a monk. What I’m talking about are those who spend as much attention on their monastic attire as any person that the world would consider vain.  However, this is not just an affliction of those who wear the robe, but those who don’t as well.  There are those monks who are just as attached to NOT wearing the robe under any circumstances as those who are attached to wearing it all the time.  You can see the same attachment among Catholic monks and nuns, by the way.  After Vatican II many - though certainly not all - Catholic Religious fall into two camps; those who are passionately attached to wearing the habit and those who are just as passionately opposed to wearing the habit. 

 

Whether Catholic or Buddhist, monk or laity it’s never what you are wearing but whether you’re attached to that attire as somehow being a defining characteristic of who you are.  I sometimes wear a robe because it’s a great conversation starter to get people thinking about the Dharma; but I’m neither more nor less a monk whether I’m wearing a robe or jeans and a t-shirt.  At the same time I’m neither more nor less a normal human being whether I’m wearing a robe or a suit.

 

So far I’ve been talking mostly about dress but the same argument applies to cosmetics, skin care, hair care, etc.  It’s all about the attachment and intention behind the action.  Since my best friend is a esthetician I get frequent facials.  Had I started at a younger age I can see that I could have become attached to this as a way to “look younger”.  Fortunately at my age that’s no longer a concern of mine so I do it purely as a way to keep my skin as healthy as possible.

 

The other important thing to remember when I say that it’s all about the attachment and intention behind the action is that this means it’s never possible to judge another person just by how they appear or dress.  You can never know their intentions and attachments - unless they make them obvious.  There are certainly those who preen and pose looking for compliments and acknowledgement.  Even so it is our task only to show through our own actions the contentment and peace that comes from following the dharma path - and that can never come from the pursuit of vanity.

 

So wear nice clothes, or shop at thrift shops.  Do your hair, or shave it off, or let it hang.  Just remember that a style doesn’t define you.  Letting it do so is the pursuit of vanity that we need to avoid as followers of the Middle Way.

 

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