Shaving the Head

When I lived at Tassajara, I followed the traditional strictures about only shaving – and shaving the head – on ‘four and nine days’ (the traditional personal days in the schedule), or after sesshin. Of course the real tradition was that these were the only days you could bathe; the ritual that I did as shuso with the benji, where we bathed Manjushri at the end of the morning schedule on personal days, represented the idea that the baths were open to all only after the notional head student (Manjushri) had had his turn. When I took my turn at the baths, usually after a run, the sun would be warming the deck. The steam room was an ideal place to sit and wield the razor, and it would sometimes be a social – if silent – activity.
These days I don’t have the luxury of a steam room to hand, but I do enjoy having hot baths. I find lying in the bath a great place to think as well as relax, not to mention keeping up with the New Yorker. Nowadays I tend to shave my head every other day, and it still feels like a ritual; there is something refreshing about having a new blade to cut through the roots leaving smooth skin, and something liberating about being without hair. I still bring to mind the traditional gatha for the occasion (there being gatha for just about every activity in the day to underscore the fact that each part of our life has the significance of a ritual and that we should pay equal attention to everything that we do):

Shaving off the hair,
Dedicated to all beings,
Dropping off all worldly desires,
Completely entering Nirvana.

I had the benji take this picture as I bathed Manjushri for the last time as shuso; he is represented by a cloth banner that the two of us take in procession from the zendo to the bathhouse and back, while chanting the Heart Sutra – Japanese outbound, English on the return leg.

2 thoughts on “Shaving the Head

  1. Hmm, Myles and I chanted the Heart Sutra in Japanese in both directions – maybe that changed between your shuso-ship and mine. (“Shuso-ship” is a delightful word. I’ll try to use it more.)


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