Sleeep Talking
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Sleeep Talking

The Fashionable Zen Monk

My encounter with Toryo Ito-san, the Zen Monk of Ryosoku-in, Kyoto, Japan, and the meditation on fashion.

When I first met Toryo Ito-san, I was with our team of X.O.s (eXperience Officers from SLEEEP) on a Research Retreat (as Japanese would call it a 研修.) The elegance of the setting and Toryo-san’s approachable guided meditation left a strong impression on me. I introduced myself to Toryo-san, and we exchanged our contacts. Little did we know that a year later, I would become the first (experimental) lived-in ‘artist’-in-residence at Ryosokuin, and we would become very close friends.

Monks in general have very specific fashions. The way the Zen monks dress in Japan, like the way Japanese do tea, or flowers, or many otherwise normal practices, are sophisticated to say the least. The translucent layers, the 90% black with a glimpse of bright white, the weaving of the ropes with subtle use of shimmering threads, ever so thoughtful, every so detailed.

Then there is Toryo Ito, as a Zen monk, who openly and so passionately cares about fashion. He would wait for the pieces of Issey Miyake to appear on the second-hand market and snatch them, changes his clothes to change his mood throughout the day, and imagine the next generation of monk uniform blending outdoor functionality with social attire. I admire his genuine passion. But one might question, is this pursuit of fashion not in conflict with the quest for non-attachment, or the taming of material desires? I, too, wondered.

To some, even myself at one point in my life, there’s a perception of fashion that was extravagant and wasteful, best articulated by the flamboyant writer:

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” ― Oscar Wilde

Despite the opinionated and hypocritical definition of the word, Wilde’s account would have been a remark based on the following dictionary definition of fashion:
fashion | ˈfaʃ(ə)n | noun
1. a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration, or behaviour: the latest Parisian fashions.

What I find problematic in the pursuit of this fashion is not so much in its potential wastefulness, as in its subconscious imprisonment of our genuine expression. For if one were to pursue what is popular and the latest, one would have subscribed oneself to something completely outside of one’s control. That, indeed, goes against the wisdom for happiness.

Now if we take the other definition of the word fashion:
2. a manner of doing something: He conducts his meetings in a professional fashion.
Then that is a totally different story. Indeed, in this perspective, fashion is completely in one’s control. How we choose to behave, dress, do our hair, and decorate our space are all our own fashion. This is not to say that we dress however we want irregardless of the context or party, but this is to see fashion, not as a passive-catch-up, but an active-communication.

How one speaks –the rhythm, the tone, the word choices, the eye-contacts–affects the effectiveness of the communication, it builds or breaks trust. Similarly, how one dresses –in what fashion we envelop ourselves– presents ourselves in different lights.

Toryo-san meditating in an art installation featuring point clouds of Ryosokuin

Now, I have never seen Toryo-san reading a fashion magazine or talking about fashion trends, but I have witnessed, over and over again, his endeavor in communicating better: more precise, more respectful, more compassionate, and more trustworthy. It ‘appears’ to me then, that fashion is but an extension of his core passion of building trust: by presenting himself dressed in what he genuinely loves, while speaking with words in which he genuinely believes.

How about you? What are you trying to communicate through your fashion?

Toryo-san and I are currently partnering up in conducting our global meditation experiment –Cloud Sitting– building an online community through guided meditation and open dialogues. Learn more: https://sleeep.io/experience/cloud/sitting

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A collection of essays, poems and notes glued together by the honey-heavy dew of slumber.

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