Many years ago Deb’s mother said to her: Just because someone’s wearing a robe doesn’t make him or her any more spiritual than you are.
So what is it that makes us stand and bow our heads when we see a monk, priest or any robed religious teacher? What makes us more polite, and pay extra attention? What makes us feel such people are more holy or enlightened than we are?
Her mother’s wise adage came at a time when Deb was still living at home and her mother was friends with and teaching English to Tibetan monks new to England having escaped from Tibet, so red robes were often seen floating around their house.
It was easy to think of these monks as holy, spiritually superior, or somehow unworldly and to forget they were part of a long-standing tradition of becoming a monk at an early age, which may or may not have had any influence on the depth of their spiritual understanding.
That a robe does not automatically mean the wearer is more spiritual has been of tremendous importance not only throughout Deb’s life but also throughout our joint seeking, training and teaching. Together we have met numerous teachers: Swamis, Gurus, Rinpoches, Yogis and spiritual guides of every shape and form. In our early years Ed was initiated as a Swami and Deb as a Buddhist. We both wore robes. And we both left our particular orders to discover what living a spiritual life in the world really means.
It is easy to be in awe of robed ones in all their exoticness. In India the Swamis may wander freely while people bow and touch their feet, symbolizing the surrender of ego to the divine. While many who wear robes are very well intended a spiritual ego can arise that says, “Look at me, I am in robes, therefore I am a wise and holy person and I am the way to your salvation.”
Such teachers encourage us to look outside of ourselves for answers: maybe that Swami or this Buddhist monk or that Sheik will show us how to be free of confusion, will take away our difficulties. But as much of today’s teaching is ancient wisdom re-packaged so it comes with the potential for being diluted and misinterpreted.
Many years ago we met with the Dalai Lama at his residence in Northern India. As we approached him we went to prostrate, as is customary when greeting a great Buddhist teacher. He immediately took our hands and made us stand, saying: We are all equal here.
Grasping the depth of those words was transformative: we are all equal, whether we are wearing robes, rags or a crown. Our spirituality does not depend on what outer image we have, but on our own inner understanding.
Whether a good teacher is wearing robes or not is unimportant compared to their depth of sincerity. What matters is not creating suffering, either to oneself or any others. A true teacher radiates peace, is loving, naturally compassionate, and imbues wisdom.
So let’s not discredit our own insight or deny our own wisdom by making another’s insight more important than our own. As the Buddha is known to have said: Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman