Sunday, August 19, 2012

On having no hair

Josh Mu'nen Bartok, Sensei, James Myo'un Ford, Roshi, David Dae An Rynick, Roshi, and me

At our last Boundless Way Zen sesshin (silent retreat), all of us teachers decided to shave our heads.  We were going to ordain a priest, and part of the ordination ritual involves shaving the head of the ordination candidate.  We all wanted to support our new priest, and it was fun to gather in the bathroom and trim and shave together.  (Josh and David had already shaved their heads, and were very helpful, along with James' wife Jan Seymour-Ford, in fulfilling our sudden inspiration.)  

Heading-shaving is a symbol of leaving behind the ordinary world of day-to-day concerns.  I had first shaved my head when my teacher James ordained me, and ever since, I've kept it pretty short for a girl.  Many women Zen teachers and priests keep their heads shaved, but I always felt that it set me apart from regular folks in a way that wasn't particularly helpful.  After I became a priest, strangers were extremely polite to me, and friends who didn't know about the head-shaving tradition or Zen in general would gasp or embrace me with sadness, hoping that I'd feel better soon.  The fact is, in our culture, choosing baldness for men is a fashion statement, and for women, most usually, it means that we're in some stage of chemotherapy for cancer.  (Of course, for some bold women, it is slowly evolving into a fashionable choice.  Very slowly, and not so much in Worcester.)  Even when I wear my Zen outfit outside of the Temple, if I'm not asked about my health, I am usually asked if I do martial arts.  

This time, I have to say I enjoyed the feeling very much.  It coincided with a hot and humid weather pattern, so I felt much cooler than usual.  In terms of temperature. sesshin, it felt very normal.  But once the retreat ended, and I went out to meet the world, I felt immediately how my shiny head made me special, and not in a good way.  Rather than being a symbol of renunciation and simplicity, it became a symbol of being different and apart.  And odd.  Or sick.

For me, Zen is partly about dissolving the barrier between self and other, and my very short hair creates a new barrier.  There are some benefits -- if people ask me about it, I get to tell them a little bit about Zen.  And, I have to admit, although I don't like the pity, it's interesting to be treated with kid gloves by shopkeepers.  At the farmer's market,  I was sometimes given the best vegetables, at a slight discount.  I figure I must have broken a few precepts by accepting this generosity and not explaining that my baldness wasn't earned through suffering, but had been a choice.  As I walked away from one booth, I heard a woman say, "what a shame!"  And her friend replied, "well, we all have to go sometime."

My hairdresser (who I will not see for a few months) told me that human hair grows about a half inch per month.  I am saving money on shampoo, and hot days are more comfortable.  But once my hair grows back, I'm thinking I'll keep it short again -- short for a girl, that is.  It feels like the friendliest option, and the one designed to help those barriers between us fall.  


  1. Thank you - I have wondered too about the parts of Zen dress and appearance that separate us from wider society, and whether looking "different" is actually intimidating or alarming to others (instead of helping to share the dharma). Nice to know I'm not the only one who has had such thoughts!

  2. Thanks for sharing about your experience. I'm filled with thoughtfulness about how we sometimes make choices that can create barriers between ourselves and others. It's wonderful to bring mindfulness to those choices and to notice I/we have them. - Denise

  3. It's really helpful to read your experience of having a shaved head. I'm new to zen, though a long time Buddhist and am put off getting more involved in a zen group because of the head shaving. Also I've noticed that there seem to be many more men than women in the zen world and I wonder whether the head shaving is a factor.