One of the ways, though certainly not the only way, that Buddhist monastics are identified is by their shaved heads. It is a common sight in many Asian countries, and increasingly in the West as well. Some find it beautiful, others find it disturbing, and still others don't even notice it as they go about their busy day. No matter how one feels about it, though, a shaved head is a statement. What kind of statement is it, and what does it have to do with Buddhism?
Investigating the meaning of the act of shaving the head, I turned to the life story of Prince Siddhartha, the man who later became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. According to some of the earliest accounts of the Buddha's life, the then Prince cut his hair at the start of his journey in search of the resolution to the difficulties of life.
Siddhartha left the palace. It was midnight, and the prince was on his white horse Kanthaka with Channa, his faithful servant, holding on to its tail. He was going away to try to understand old age, sickness and death. He rode to the bank of a river and dismounted from his horse. He removed his jewelry and princely clothes and gave them to Channa to return to (his father) the King. Then the prince took his sword and cut his long hair, put on a monk's robes, took a begging bowl and told Channa to go back with Kanthaka to the palace.
From this story it seems that Siddhartha saw his long hair as a symbol of his high social status, and he chose to cut it and change his clothes in order to make clear that he was renouncing that life. Then he went on to practice asceticism for six years, living on very little food and spending all of his time meditating. During that time, Siddhartha's hair must have grown long and matted, as is common for ascetic practitioners. Thus, there are also later stories of the Buddha's haircut by Upali, of his "giving the tonsure" to his disciples, and of many women, men and children shaving their heads prior to and as part of becoming ordained sangha. In this way, the Buddhist sangha was visibly different from the ascetics, Brahmins, lay folk, and royalty of that time. By shaving their heads, they became more identifiable as "Buddhists," though to be sure that term had not yet been used.
It is traditional, even today, that shaving of the head is a key element in the ordination of Buddhist monks in most traditions. That said, due to the Meiji Restoration that took place in Japan in 1868, laws were passed enabling Buddhist monks to grow their hair and make other changes to their lifestyle and appearance. Thus, while the shaving of the head continues to be a traditional part of the ordination ceremony of Zen monks, they may grow their hair longer at some point afterward.
Still, it was an important question in the Buddha's time and in 19th Century Japan, and the question of religious identity is certainly one that was and is also of concern to Americans. In fact, this concern was important enough to be inscribed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. There in the First Amendment, each person's right to practice their religious beliefs is expressly affirmed. So we are fortunate, even in this country where the practice of Buddhism is a relatively new phenomenon, to be able to wear the robes and the shaved head of the sangha.
In the Soto Zen ordination ceremony as I have experienced it, the candidate's head is usually fully shaved the day before, except for a small patch near the crown of the head, called the "shura." During the ceremony, as it's performed at San Francisco Zen Center, the important and significance of shaving the head is described by the Preceptor, who also cuts off the shura:
Therefore, one should not view shaving the head as merely a choice of appearance. There is a deeper meaning that is being expressed, the Dharma of cutting the hair which is explicitly linked to the Dharma of renunciation. What is renounced is clinging to outward appearances, thus enabling the appearance of the original self, which is free. This Dharma was taught very explicitly by the Buddha himself, and it has been transmitted to us in these words from the Dhammapada, as translated by Gil Fronsdal:
In this verse I hear the Buddha suggesting that even the matted hair of an ascetic could be as much a status symbol as the long locks of a prince. So the Buddha exhorts the practitioner to turn inward and study the nature of self, rather than concern oneself with outward appearances.
So shaving the head is renouncing both attention to, and inattention to the hair. It is simply a way of taking care of the hair without getting caught by it. Shaving the head, then, is a practice of neither aversion to, nor attachment to hair. One simply removes it so that it doesn't require any other care or become a mess. In this way, hair cannot become a focus of attention or divert energy from the practice. Shaving is acknowledging the body for what it is: a vehicle for our practice of renouncing the view of self in this very life. This is a lesson for everyone, not just those who are ordained.
In speaking about the meaning of shaving the head, a good friend and fellow Zen monk quoted the Abbess of Mount Equity Zendo, a woman by the name of Dai-En Bennage. My friend said that Dai-En Roshi had mentioned that having our heads shaved makes it easier for people to find us. I would agree. As monastics, we vow to be visibly available to support all beings on the path of awakening. And I would add that having our heads shaved might make it easier for us to find our selves too.