Look, Mommy, that Lady Has No Hair!
by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©
Walking around Green
Lake in Seattle one afternoon, I passed a woman with her little
girl. The child looked at me and exclaimed, "Look, Mommy! That
lady doesn't have any hair!" Unfazed, I smiled at her. I'm
used to it. Although Buddhism is better known in the West now than
twenty years ago, people seldom expect a Western woman to be a Buddhist
When I give talks in high schools, I'm frequently
asked, "Why do Buddhists shave their heads?" I respond
that not all Buddhists shave their heads, just the monastics. Many
people who are Buddhists have long hair; they look and dress like
everyone else. It is a person's personal decision whether or not
to become a monastic; no one forces us to do it or makes the decision
for us. However, if someone becomes a monastic, he or she adopts
a "look." Just as some occupations entail wearing a uniform
so people can identify them, monastics wear a "uniform,"
our monastic robes. Part of our appearance is our hair, or rather
our lack of it. Why is shaving off our hair part of taking monastic
Shaving our head symbolizes cutting off confusion,
hostility, and attachment-what the Buddha called the "three
poisonous attitudes." These three mental toxins poison our
well-being and our relationships with others. Confusion makes us
ignorant about the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering.
Hostility and anger ruin our relationships with others, especially
with those we care about the most. Attachment clings to people,
things, places, and ideas with the mistaken notion that they will
make us happy. Cutting off these three eliminates the causes of
our misery. It also frees us to direct our energy to cultivating
equanimity, love, compassion, joy, and wisdom in our hearts.
Whenever we monastics shave our head, we think
about cutting off our own and others' confusion, hostility, and
attachment. Cutting our hair becomes a way to recall the purpose
of our life. In other words, we haven't become monastics in order
to look good, be popular, gain prestige, be rich, or have a lot
of possessions. We don't seek security from family or romantic relationships.
We aren't trying to climb the corporate ladder or become an acclaimed
artist or skilled athlete. Instead, our spiritual practice and cultivating
the ability to help others are what make our lives meaningful. Our
purpose in life is to subdue our afflictive emotions and attitudes
and cultivate beneficial ones through practicing the Buddha's teachings.
In addition, to the extent that we are able to, we try to guide
others to eliminate the three poisonous attitudes from their minds.
Another reason for shaving our head is that
for most people, their hair is an object of attachment. People fuss
a lot about their hair, spending a lot of time trying to get it
to look right. They talk about their hair a lot and comment on others'
hair. People who have blonde hair dye it black; those with brown
hair want it to be blonde. Those with curly hair straighten it,
and people with straight hair curl it. We're seldom satisfied with
our hair or our appearance. Sometimes people think it's only women
who make a big to-do about their hair. That's not so! Men who don't
have hair buy toupees or lotion to make their hair rejuvenate. They
comb their hair a certain way to make it look like they aren't as
bald as they are. They put cream on it, cut it in a stylish way,
and dye it. In short, both men and women have a lot of vanity regarding
their hair and looks and spend a lot of time and money trying to
As monastics, we don't try to impress people
by looking good because we understand that relationships based on
superficial appearances don't last long. If someone likes me because
I'm attractive, what will happen to their affection when I don't
look so good? When I'm sick? As I age? It'll disappear because they
don't really care about us as a human being.
In any case, trying to always look good is futile.
Our society idolizes youth, yet no one is becoming younger. It's
rather ridiculous that the media and advertising exalt what no one
is becoming. We're all aging. Wrinkles are in the process of arriving,
hair is turning gray or it will soon enough. So I've given up trying
to look good. In fact, I don't want people to like me because I
look good. I'd rather have deep and stable friendships with people
who look for inner beauty--what a person has in his or her heart.
Thus we monastics are committed to developing our inner beauty because
that won't fade with age. Inner beauty--a kind heart that cherishes
others for who they are-will draw others to us, be a base of true
friendship, and enable us to be of benefit to others.
What does this have to do with young people?
Am I hinting that everyone should shave their head? No! You can
still work to cultivate equanimity, love, compassion, joy, and wisdom
without shaving your head. But understanding the underlying symbolism
of a shaved head--that it is not our outer appearances that matter
but our inner beauty--will help you to let go of useless attachments
in order to find true, lasting happiness.