Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Virtual Buddhist Monk Robes: Cyborgs, Gender, and the Self-Fashioning of a Mindful Second Life Resident

Gregory Grieve studies virtual clothing in Hoben, a Second Life Zen community. He argues that Second Life residents emerge from their virtual practices where the ability to choose one’s gender, clothing and appearance increases mindfulness and offers a creative alternative to conventional heteronormative roles on both a political and spiritual level.

MLA citation format: 
Grieve, Gregory Price "Virtual Buddhist Monk Robes:
Cyborgs, Gender, and the Self-Fashioning of a Mindful Second Life Resident" 
Web blog post. Material Religions. 
24 February 2016. Web. [date of access]

On February 23, 2010, I logged onto the virtual world of Second Life and discovered that free virtual monk robes were being distributed at the Hoben Mountain Zen Retreat. As I describe in my book, Cyber Zen [i], Hoben is a Convert Zen Buddhist community that practices in Second Life, a three-dimensional, immersive, and interactive virtual world housed in cyberspace and accessed via the Internet [ii]. Often labeled Western, Nightstand, or Convert Buddhists, residents of Hoben typically engage from North America, Europe, or other parts of the developed world, but can also be found in many cosmopolitan centers of developing nations. Convert Buddhism is a diverse and flexible religion, but it tends to focus on several facets of the tradition: the therapeutic, the non-hierarchical, the non-violent, the ecological, and, most importantly, the meditative.  

Female Avatar Wearing Virtual Monk Robes (Second Life Snapshot by Gregory Grieve).
On the day in question, free virtual Buddhist monk robes (kāṣāya) had just been made available, and a group of male avatars were helping a female avatar, Algama GossipGirl, edit the robes so they would fit. As a default, the robes had been made to fit male avatars; however, I found that they tended to be mostly modified and worn by female avatars. 
Transcript of conversation at Hoben Mountain Zen Retreat (February 23, 2010).
Beyond the general question of “Why bother with virtual monk robes?”, this blog post asks, “Why do female avatars tend to don them?” One might argue that because virtual robes lack physicality, they are unreal – a judgment that may be especially true for objects of fashion, which are often dismissed as frivolous. I argue, however, that for many female avatars, the Buddhist robes play an important part in fashioning online selves that are both politically and spiritually liberating. As this post illustrates, the robes are significant for material religion because they help one understand the relationship between gender, spirituality, and self-fashioning. 

Virtual Monk Robes 

Oftentimes, clothing is reduced to need, and, as naked apes, human beings undoubtedly seek cover from the elements. Fashion emerges, however, not from the function clothes perform but from what those clothes mean to the wearer and to society as a whole. Particularly in contemporary consumer society, fashion has more to do with provoking desire and marking distinction than with physical necessity. One might assume that fashion is just added adornment and is therefore not worthy of serious analysis; however, because desire often outstrips need in contemporary culture, fashion is not considered superfluous at all. In fact, for many consumers, fashion is indispensable if one wants to be viewed as an accepted member of society. 

Although merely pixels on a screen, fashion in Second Life reflects a crucial aspect of everyday life in the virtual world. My research revealed that Second Life lacked the fixed ranks and status of traditional societies, and therefore fashion emerged as the central focus of many residents. For residents, shopping was not an added, but rather an essential, part of their virtual world experience. When I asked whether she shopped in Second Life, resident Algama GossipGirl ironically responded, “I buy there for my avatar is.”  

Free Buddhist monk Robes from Hoben Mountain Zen Retreat. (Second Life snapshot by Gregory Grieve).
From Jesus baseball caps and yarmulkes, to Yoga pants and angel wings, the centrality of self-fabrication was also true for many Second Life religious groups. Interestingly, however, even more than other traditions in Second Life, dress played a key role in Convert Zen Buddhism. This may come as no surprise, for monk robes have always played a crucial role in Buddhist practice. In his classic article, “Quand l'habit fait le moine” (or “When the Clothes Make the Man”), the Buddhologist Bernard Faure writes, “The monastic garment became the symbol par excellence of the Dharma, outperforming other symbols and relics, and occupying a prominent place in the Buddhist imaginary.” [iii] 

The free robes handed out in February 2010 were created by the talented builder Ryusho Ort, and were based on his popular “Soto So-Fuku” robes, which he described as “Japanese Soto monk kesa (robes). Also applicable for Chinese and Korean Traditions.” Following some twenty-five centuries of custom, which had traveled from India and been adapted as Buddhism spread throughout Asia, Ryusho’s robes consisted of the “triple robe” style: a lower covering (antarvāsa) made of a skirt and pants, an upper covering (uttarāsaṇga) made of a shirt, and an outer robe (saṃghāti) made of a jacket and flexi attachments. In Second Life, skirts, pants, shirts, and jackets describe different layer-based textured clothing that can be applied directly to a user’s avatar. Flexi attachments are prims (primitives) that are set to “flex” so that they mimic the physical movement of cloth; for example, shirttails blowing in the wind. 


Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of anthropology and women's and gender studies, writes, "The self is always a construction, never a natural or found entity." [iv] Selves are fashioned, and virtual worlds make self-fashioning more conspicuous because there is no physical world referent and ultimately selves are mere media practices. In Second Life, selves do not stem from a fixed body, but are rather constructed through repeated media practices that are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time. Selves are never created of whole cloth, nor do they exist under complete conscious or rational control. Similar to a half-improvised script, virtual world selves are templates, erected through repeated interactions, which sanction acceptable behaviors on behalf of Second Life societal norms. 


In the early stages of my research, I had completed one of my first meditation sessions and sat impatiently waiting for the customary follow-up discussion. I watched as the other practitioners began to rouse themselves from their digital slumber, their avatars suddenly beginning to stir as each user returned his or her fingers to keyboards. Much to my surprise, one of the first questions the leader directed towards the group was the rather ambiguous, “Who are you?” In real life, this seems a simple enough question to answer; in Second Life, it proved much more difficult. Was I the user, the avatar, or some fusion of the two? I also began to wonder out of which materials selves are fashioned. Am I my thoughts? My words and actions? What about possessions and relationships? Do virtual objects and fashion count? As the American philosopher and psychologist William James writes in The Principles of Psychology, “Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw.” [v] 

Second Life residents do not exist before users log on, but rather emerge from Second Life media practices. Employed throughout the platform and within the surrounding SLogosphere, instead of the term “player,” resident is “meant to give users a feeling of ‘belonging’ and ownership of the virtual world.” [vi] The word “resident” was used almost from the inception of Second Life. The expression can be observed as far back as 2003 in the beta testing website, which states, “Residents of Second Life will face a host of choices daily . . . [in this] multi-layered boundless universe that is constantly changed by - and constantly changes - its inhabitants.” [vii] 

As the website “Create Your Avatar” shows, when residents initially log on to Second Life, the first thing they do is use the virtual world’s media practices to fashion themselves. [viii] All new residents choose a default avatar when they first sign up for Second Life, but may modify the avatar depending on their imagination, editing skills, and Linden dollars. Residents can choose to be either male or female with the click of a few buttons, and can also change their appearance by wearing different shapes and skins. 

Our research found that residents could purchase or find many shapes and skins, as well as customize avatars through the “Appearance” menu. Skins wrap around the avatar’s wire mesh, and, like shapes, could be purchased, found, or created. Avatars’ hair and eyes could also be customized. In later iterations of the Second Life viewer, users could also change their avatar’s physics, customizing the way their avatar's breasts, belly, and butt bounced and swayed. Residents could also change their appearance by finding, purchasing, or designing clothing. In Second Life, seemingly infinite styles of clothing could be obtained and worn with just a few clicks of a mouse. 

Resident as Cyborg  

Resident as cyborg, hybrid feedback loops of machine and biologic organisms, composed of user and avatar (Drawing by Greg Grieve).

Studies of online subjectivity frequently frame analyses around dystopic lamentations over the loss of an essential coherent modern self or, conversely, present a utopic hagiography praising the liberating potential of constructed postmodern fluid identities. Compare, for instance, scholar of science and technology Sherry Turkle’s latest work, Alone Together, to her earlier work, Life on the Screen. [viii] Neither of these publications adequately described the everyday reality that we came across in Second Life. To provide a more accurate account, I used Second Life’s search engine filter of “people” to locate residents, a term which describes cybersocial beings that are activated in the virtual world via feedback between user and avatar. Users are the flesh-and-blood individuals behind the screens, while avatars are the virtual rendering of that user within the virtual world. Rather than emphasize the real world or virtual world, I recognize residents as “cyborgs,” hybrid systems of machine and biologic organisms. 

Virtual Gender 

The cyborg model of online self illustrates how Second Life media practices are used to fashion alternative residents through a careful cultivation of shapes, skins, and virtual dress. To analyze such alternative self-fashioning, I employ the category of gender, which is regarded on Second Life not as a natural phenomenon, but as the materialized interaction between a user’s desire, agency, and social norms. My goal is to not simply add to the ample literature on gender and online identity, but to use the category of gender to explore how residents fashion selves that are products of, and alternatives to, the norms of contemporary society. 

My analysis was complicated, however, when it became evident that the aforementioned resident, Algama, was “gender-swapping.” A scholar of online community and identity, Amy Bruckman refers to gender-swapping as “the ability to pretend to be the opposite gender,” and notes that “in these virtual worlds, the way gender structures basic human interaction is often noticed and reflected upon.” [ix] Gender-swapping is an ethical issue, often falling into a dichotomy between those who see it as immoral, and those who praise it as an emancipating media practice. 

I personally maintain that material religion cannot adjudge universal moral judgments about gender-swapping, and should instead focus on the subtle, ingrained tactics of its everyday use. Using Algama’s donning of Buddhist robes as a touchstone, I conclude that Second Life Convert Zen residents follow mindful media practices that entangle users and avatars. In a mindful approach, authenticity lies neither solely with the avatar nor with the user, but rather in the awareness of the interplay between Second Life and real life. As Buddhist resident Yidam Roads said on May 22, 2009, “If you change avatars especially, I think it can help you explore different facets of personal identity and perhaps hold your identification with ‘self’ more lightly.” 

Heteronormative Identities and Culture Jamming 

When I first logged on to Second Life, I naively assumed that I would face no gender complications since I had been freed from my physical body. When a user is able to fashion any body of their choosing, Second Life might seem to confirm a voluntarist, even rational, theory of gender invention. One does not have a gender in Second Life; rather, one constructs gender through media practices, creating fantasies that bridge what is desired with what is possible. It might seem that the embodied “I” somehow precedes the avatar; however, avatars, like real bodies, are actually constrained and controlled by cultural norms, conventions, and laws. For instance, during our research, sitting residents were usually given a choice of clicking on a blue poseball for male characters or a pink one for female characters. Poseballs are common scripted objects that usually appear as round, colored spheres and affix an animation to the avatar that clicks on them. If an avatar clicked on a blue poseball, it would sit “like a male.” If one clicked on the pink ball, it would sit “like a female.”  

Second Life Pose Balls (Second Life snapshot by Gregory Grieve).

Cyberspace has often been regarded as a place where gender and sexual identities can be performed in liberating ways. Most residents engage in a cisgender relationship, where the user identity matches that of the avatar. Second Life residents can, however, “jam” these enforced heteronormative identities, and during the time of our research we ran across some very transgressive examples. “Culture jamming” is a communications tactic that disrupts dominant messages through alternatives, which often parody the mainstream. For example, Algama GossipGirl described herself as a “sissy girl,” going on to say, “It fits me better than any other term. A ‘girl’ is feminine, soft, beautiful, young, like, wow, and free. A ‘sissy’ isn’t male or masculine, mostly, but it implies that I am not female in real life.”


Convert Zen Buddhists jam the norms of network consumer society through mindfulness, a practice that cultivates a calm awareness of one's body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, and consciousness itself. The mindful tactic sees ultimate reality as empty, an important aspect of which is the impermanent nature of the self (anātman). The mindful spiritual path lay neither in the real life user nor in the virtual avatar, but rather in an awareness of the interplay between the two. 

After a Dharma talk, I asked Skeptical Starshine, “Would you say you see your avatar as a mask, a reflection of a Real Life self, or as a projection of an inner self?” She answered, “At different times it is any of those things. Just like the self I project into the world via flesh.” In response to the same question, gender-swapping resident Algama said, “I am both in real life, and Second Life, meat and pixels its all me, its all me,” while Ashley Lee replied, “Mostly I just take classes, make things, garden, and make friends.” After a long pause, she added: “Not a mask, for sure. Both my real life and Second Life mes are me.” Encouraging further reflection, I added, “I guess the question is ‘What is that *real* self?’” Ashley smiled, rejoining, “A moving point of balance. Water crashing against rocks. That's what makes trying to be real so tricky - need to be awfully mindful! Authentic. Integrity...that kind of thing.” 


Still the original question persists: Why did female avatars tend to wear the robes? And why in particular did a gender swapping resident find the robes spiritually significant. We contend that female avatars wearing the robes operated similarly to the concept of “drag” proposed by American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, in which a person of one gender dons the clothing associated with a person of another gender. Butler argues that drag is subversive because, as she writes in Bodies that Matter, it “disputes heterosexuality’s claim on naturalness and originality.” [x] Butler contends that because drag exposes gender binaries, it makes the constructed aspect of gender more obvious. [xi] 

My claim is not that the female use of robes is an expression of drag, but that virtual robes operate in a similar way to drag, making avatars mindful of how gender functions, and offering a creative alternative to conventional heteronormative roles on both a political and spiritual level. Being mindful of gender does not deny that it is a real-world concern, and Algama did not stop being a male in real life simply because her avatar was female. Rather, as a cyborg, s/he was nondual, and revealed that gender is ultimately a socially constructed category which has inescapable implications in the conventional everyday lived world. Residents need gender norms in order to live, yet they are simultaneously constrained by these very roles. 

Examples of Drag in Second Life. (Second Life Snapshot by Gregory Grieve).
The robes worked in a similar way to drag, and made the socially constructed nature of femininity more apparent. Algama noticed, “When you are a male, man, you are just you for yourself. But when you are a girl, oh boy, you seem to be everyone’s concern.” In our conversation, Algama explained that she had always fantasized about being a girl, but that once she actually played one through her avatar, it had not been what she had expected. Speaking about her avatar in the third person she admitted, “It was a lot of work! I still cannot believe how concerned everyone seems about her looks. Or more realistically, I am concerned about how others think she looks. I’m not sure if this is just my problem, or if maybe people feel freer to comment on a woman’s looks.” She wondered if the appearance of a female avatar was always a public concern: “I just want to have fun, or do my job, and every one is sticking their nose into my business.” 

Political and Spiritual Liberation 

On a political level, the robes’ austere and simple form allowed the fashioning of female avatars that were distinct from the hyper-heteronormativity that dominated Second Life, and, by extension, network consumer society. The robes illustrated that inworld gender is constructed through residents’ execution of a stylized repetition of acts, an imitation or miming of the dominant conventions of gender. 

On a spiritual level, the robes inspired awareness of the constructed but necessary role of fashioning selves. As a form of mindfulness practice, the virtual robes enabled Algama GossipGirl to acknowledge her desires, indicating that she did not escape gender altogether, but rather navigated the fantasy that gave gender power. For Convert Buddhists, the authentic spiritual resident was nondualitstic, implying that things appear distinct but not separate, and affirming the conception that while distinctions exist, dichotomies are illusory phenomena. This does not mean that gender roles are masks in a game of public presentation, because for Convert Buddhists there is no self behind the mask; instead, the self is the practice. The robes allow those who use a female avatar to explore the fluid and empty nature of identity. As Algama said, “I am a combination of my experiences, perceptions and understandings, both in Second Life and real life.”  

The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma is based on two truths: a truth of worldly convention and an ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the distinction drawn between these two truths do not understand the Buddha's profound truth. Without a foundation in the conventional truth the significance of the ultimate cannot be taught. Without understanding the significance of the ultimate, liberation is not achieved.
— Nāgārjuna 
(Jay L. Garfield. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. [New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1995], 296, 298)

In “Quand l'habit fait le moine,” Faure writes that monastic robes embody the “Buddhist Two Truths,” a Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine which maintains that while there is a distinction between conventional reality and ultimate reality, in the end they are nondual and part of the same lived world. Conventional reality (saṃvṛti-satya) refers to the experience of everyday existence, while ultimate reality (paramārtha-satya) suggests emptiness (śunyatā) and enforces the perception that phenomena are impermanent collections of causes and conditions, designated by mere conceptual labels. 

In a similar fashion, just as drag demonstrates the constructed but necessary nature of gender, monastic robes, whether virtual or actual, engender an experience of these two truths and show the necessary but conventional nature of lived worlds. As Faure writes, “Through the ideological manipulation of the symbols adhering to [monk robes], the Zen adept gradually learned how to read through the superimposed symbolic systems, using the logic of the Two Truths, and to move from one symbolic system to another.” [xiii] 


In order to understand why female avatars tend to wear virtual robes, one must recognize the role that gender-swapping residents like Algama GossipGirl play in exposing the interaction between media practices and gender. The mindful donning of robes plays an important part in resident self-fashioning at Hoben, and, as this blog shows, contributes to the liberation of residents both politically and spiritually. On a political level, the robes allow female avatars to fashion online identities that transcend Second Life’s intense heteronormativity; on a spiritual level, they offer a glimpse into the constructed nature of gender, and of the world in general. 

In terms of material religions, Hoben’s robes reveal that community standards and codes shape residents’ spiritual identities, while at times allowing for modification and agency. In the virtual world, one is not born a resident, but rather becomes one. Similarly, although Second Life acknowledges virtual gender, natural differences in gender do not exist, but are rather created through media practices. The fact that gender is detached from the perceived biological sex of an individual’s body makes it more visible and accessible for analysis. 

In Hoben, robes illustrate the interplay between gender, fashion, and spirituality on one hand, and the feed back between user and avatar on the other. While they do not facilitate the experience of another being’s reality, self-fashioning and media practices in Second Life allow residents to become something novel in the virtual world, underlining the complications associated with social roles. As Algama said near the end of our conversation, “I don’t think playing a girl, ever allowed me to really know what it is like to…be a girl,...but I did see how being a guy was…different.” Mindfulness regarding the constructed nature of lived reality enables residents to imagine alternate existences, and to do so in a secure and responsive environment. 

End Notes 

i. Cyber Zen: Imagining Authentic Buddhist Identity, Community and Practices in the Virtual World of Second Life, Routledge. 

ii. Unless stated otherwise the names of Second Life residents and regions are pseudonyms. This choice was difficult because I wished to give credit to the individuals who became not just subjects, but friends, and without whom the study would have been impossible. However, to err on the side of protecting individuals, when information was collected through participant observation, interviews, or surveys, or if there was the possibility that public sources could be tied to a conversant, I use pseudonyms. Additionally, in an effort to obscure a resident’s identity and protect sensitive information, I take the liberty of changing or combining details from more than one resident. 

iii. Bernard Faure. “Quand l'habit fait le moine: The Symbolism of the Kāsāya in Sōtō Zen.” Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 8, no. 3 (1995), 335. 

iv. Lila Abu-Lughod “Writing Against Culture,” in Feminist Anthropology: A Reader, ed. Ellen Lewin (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing), 155. 

v. William James. The Principles of Psychology. (New York NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1890), 291. 

vi. “Resident,” [Accessed August 23, 2013] 

vii. “Press Room,” Linden Lab, [Accessed February 3, 2010] 

viii. “Create Your Avatar Like You,” Second Life, [Accessed January 7, 2016]. 

ix. Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and The Human Spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 

x. Amy Bruckman, “Gender Swapping on the Internet,” Presented at the Internet Society, San Francisco CA, August 1993, [accessed November 9 2015]. 

xi. Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” (New York NY: Routledge, 1993), 125. 

xii. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (New York NY: Routledge, 1990), 179. 

xiii. Bernard Faure. “Quand l'habit fait le moine: The Symbolism of the Kāsāya in Sōtō Zen.” Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 8, no. 3 (1995), 365).   



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