Heads of Humility: Religion, Renunciation and Head Shaving


boy Monk - Heads of Humility: Religion, Renunciation and Head Shaving

Buddhist monks shave their heads as a symbol of their renunciation and nonattachment to the world.

For many people, hair loss is a difficult experience to endure, especially because the loss is involuntary and forced upon the person. But there are people who willingly choose to shed their hair, and for a variety of reasons. For example, actors may believe that a shaved head will better capture the character they are portraying. Other people do it because they simply believe that bald works better for them.

And some, such as Buddhist monks, do it for religious and spiritual reasons.

Head shaving is part of the ordination process for most Buddhist monks, although it should be pointed out that not EVERY Buddhist monk has his head shaved. There also is great variation in how “shaved” one keeps one’s head. For example, some orders require shaving only at the ordination and leave it up to the individual to decide whether he will maintain the shaved state.

Others recommend that the head be shaved regularly, although the definition of “regularly” may differ from one temple to another.

But why shave the head for ordination or beyond? According to Reverend T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki of the New York Buddhist Church, shaving one’s head is consistent with the concept of renunciation. “Buddhist monks strive to have no attachment to the world. At the ordination, we adopt a simple kasaya or kesa (robe) and we shave our heads to demonstrate that renunciation.”

Desire causes suffering and we all desire a full head of hair

The Buddhist idea of renunciation is based on their universal belief that desire causes suffering. This belief stresses that learning to live a bare-bones lifestyle in which one truly does not desire more than what one has lessens suffering and allows one to concentrate on a deeper and more fulfilling life.

“Buddhist monks strive to have no attachment to the world. At the ordination, we adopt a simple kasaya or kesa (robe) and we shave our heads to demonstrate that renunciation.”
– Reverend T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, New York Buddhist Church

The idea of head shaving originates in one of the Buddhist texts (called “Sutras”), which talks about 16 ways in which hair (on both the face and the top of the head) can interfere with keeping clean. In addition, as the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism states:

Hair is often used as a metaphor for a human being’s illusion or ignorance, so it is called the ‘weeds of ignorance.’ Thus, cutting the hairs implies symbolically getting rid of ignorance. The body and the mind should be kept clean in order to reach the final aim of true understanding.

Thus cutting and shaving the hair represent a sort of determination to keep the body and the mind clean and then to attain enlightenment and save all beings… Shaving the head is not only a conventional tradition but a practice for getting rid of useless worldly desires and illusions in order to concentrate on pursuing the goal. It makes practitioners examine themselves and awaken their own consciousness.

Korean Buddhist monks and nuns, who shave their heads every 15 days, do not do “self shavings.” Instead, they shave each other’s heads, which symbolizes their wish to help and support each other.

“It was an interesting feeling,” Rev. Nakagaki says of his head shaving for his ordination. “The whole class was shaved at basically the same time, before the ceremony, and it was interesting to see so many shaved heads at once. I felt very celebratory, not necessarily because my head was shaved, but because it was all part of the ordination process, of becoming a Buddhist monk, which was a special experience.

Rev. Nakagaki added that “it was a little strange afterwards, walking in the street alone. I did feel a little embarrassed, but my joy overcame that.”

In general, Rev. Nakagaki chooses to shave his head every three or four days, depending upon the time of year and the temperature.

“Shaving now is a much easier experience,” he says. “Modern shavers, which have three or four razors on them, are much easier to use and there are fewer cuts than with the older models.”

Renunciation: The advantages and disadvantages

And while he does find some practical advantages to a shaved head – e.g., it’s more economical in terms of money spent on shampoo – there are some disadvantages. “You need protection from the sun and the cold,” Rev. Nakagaki says, “but it also can take time to remember that that layer of hair is gone. That hair can act as a layer of protection, telling you to stop before you bump your head on something.”

Sometimes a shaved head can act as a symbol of religious solidarity, even for a person involved in a religion for which head shaving is not prevalent. For example, in 2007, Father Robert Reyes, a Filipino Catholic priest serving in Hong Kong, shaved his head to support Buddhist monks who encountered violence while protesting a repressive regime in Burma. “Today, I will have my head shaved for the first time,” Father Reyes said in a statement. “I let go of my hair and ask the rest of the world to let go of their indifference as well. Hair represents both attachment and defilement. The Burmese Generals … are madly attached to power which has not only defiled them but is now leading them to murder those who stand for what they are not … the Buddhists monks.”

Those who choose to shave their heads for religious reasons do so with the realization that having no hair can be a positive experience. For them, it is part of a path that leads to inner peace and greater personal acceptance.