Dog Collars Allowed:
A Justification of the Western Clergy Collar
Reverend Father Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.
Semiotics and the Dog Collar
As a long-practicing
American Buddhist, I have realized the importance of being earnestly
Western, and specifically, American. Too many Buddhists here are trying
desperately to turn into some other race or nationality; it is beyond
me why a born and bred Texan, for example, would want to convert to
Soto or Rinzai Zen Buddhism just to turn into a Japanese.
This is nothing to do with racism, mind you- I once wanted to be Chinese
and I also went through a phase during which I desperately longed to
be a full-blooded Eskimo. That is neither here nor there. The point
is that religions adapt to their cultural environments.
Buddhism, as an example, saw its monks scrambling for clothes when they
first reached China. It had less to do with weather than with appearances:
the Chinese would have no truck with raggedy mendicants. Indian Buddhists,
accustomed to one thin robe and an even thinner outer cloak, found themselves
swathed in Chinese yi, those lovely proto-kimonos. They had to put the
old, thin Buddhist robes on top of the nice Chinese robes.
The modern Western clergy collar, sometimes wrongly called a "Roman"
collar, is the example of the millennium. In surfing the web trying
to find clergy apparel dealers, I ran across the most asinine debates
about the propriety of, and necessity for, the clergy collar. The essays
and comments ranged from the desperately pro to the rabidly con.
A clergy-collared shirt is an integral part of my daily dress. This
is because in the West, a priest or minister is recognized by this particular
detail of his "uniform". I was not the first to introduce
Western clergy apparel to Buddhism in the West; that credit goes to
Reverend Master Jiyu Kennett, Abbess and Founder of the Soto Zen Order
of Buddhist Contemplatives in Mt. Shasta, California. Reverend Kennett
saw the need to Westernize Buddhism in that particular way in order
to ease it comfortably into American life.
My clergy dress on a daily basis always includes a clergy collar. I
may or may not wear robes over my Western clothes, depending on the
situation, and thus I will never be confused with a Christian. It is
only meet that Buddhism should adjust to America as it has adjusted
to the cultures everywhere else it has been. My Western collar is part
of that natural evolution.
The controversial collar originated as a Mandarin collar on the black
cassock worn by Catholic priests after the Rennaissance. The priests
found their black collars becoming soiled, and covered them with a simple,
folded band of linen which could then be removed and laundered. By the
time they adopted the practice, everyone else had opted for long, frilly
linens and lace at the throat. Thus was born the white "dog collar",
and hence the term "man of the cloth".
The outer cassocks which were adopted later had a larger Mandarin collar
with an opening at the front- this fit nicely over the linen-banded
collar. It created the classic collar we know today: that rigid black
circlet with a small square of white at the front. Today, cleverly and
comfortably designed clergy shirts are available in a rainbow of colors
My favorite shirt is called a tab-collar, called a "tunnel-neck"
by the British. It has a beautifully tailored standing collar with a
small opening at the front. A strip of white plastic is inserted into
the opening, and presto!- instant clergy. A few old school folks like
myself sometimes also wear the old "parson's" white neckband
It seems the disturbance is truly caused by the way others perceive
the collar. I have read ridiculous apologetics written by clerics, and
vitriolic criticisms about the abuses of collar-wearers. The problem
is simple: if one is a minister, rabbi or priest, does it matter very
much what strangers think? If someone sees me in a hospital and assumes
I am somehow "abusing my privileges" because I'm wearing a
collar, is that my problem, or theirs?
The symbolism of the collar or the message it conveys to others is not
the point of wearing the collar, and never has been. Some hot-heads
believe the collar's outer message/symbol is all-important, but is not.
The whole point of the clergy collar consists of an inner message and
symbol: that it cause discomfort, both physical and spiritual. In such
a collar, any priest will tell you, one is reminded of the example one
must set. (One has no choice but to guard one's behavior while strapped
into one of these collars.)
Even at their most comfortable, they are uncomfortable. They are unbearably
hot even in the dead of winter- and are often soaked and grimy
at the end of the day. No wonder so many spiritually lazy people want
to toss them out the window. I say go ahead, if you want to surrender
the least part of a faith worth defending. But, if you cannot be trusted
there, how far can you be trusted? Einstein once wrote that a person
not to be trusted in small matters can never be trusted in great ones.
It sounds contradictory and cheap, but yes: looking the part of clergy
is inherent and implicit to any ministry, albeit the least important
aspect. My heartiest agreement is with those who say it is ridiculous
to tee off, garden, mow the lawn or dig a hole while wearing a clergy
collar. My recommendation to such a collar-crazy person would be to
check into the nearest "rest home".
Yet the collar is the sole identifier ministers have left- unless they
belong to a religion that employs another habit of dress. Not so long
ago, Catholics howled when priests first appeared in the clergy collar
and black suit. "PROTESTANTISM!!" they shouted. Not long after,
the pope ordered that all priests wear the "Roman" collar
at all times while out of doors. Today, Catholic designs in clergy shirts
are the standard, with the exception of the exquisite Anglican shirts-
but even these descend from the modern Catholic designs.
Of course even a minister or priest must enjoy personal time, and no
clergy collars are allowed then. One may relax alone or in company;
casual dress can be excused. One may even find oneself in an emergency
pastoral situation and not be appropriately dressed. (During the cold
months, I keep a spare shirt in my car at all times.) At all other times
it is the minister's duty to keep on his collar, if his religion employs
the use of it for its ministers. When I was a boy, even seminarians
and theology students wore "clerical" collars to distinguish
themselves from other students.
I am one of those priests who loves wearing a clergy collar. It is my
karma, a part of my service and duty to the universe in my vocation
as a humble servant. There is no way I can imagine anyone abusing the
ministerial office using the collar itself for the purpose. Americans
are not that easily cowed.
Americans are generally a respectful people. They see a clergy collar
- true, sometimes they can't see past it - but they respect it. It is
one of the little blessings that helps ease the burdens associated with
the collar itself. As with all blessings, it cannot be ignored or refused;
it should be accepted humbly and gratefully.
I took note of the argument that wearing a collar elicits hoots, laughter,
hateful stares and other ridiculous scenarios. Certainly I have experienced
my share of this. If a person can't take that sort of childishness in
his stride, why be in the ministry at all? If it's mocked or despised,
isn't the collar its own best defense? After all, such rude people don't
really know the person wearing the collar. Thus they are like dogs chasing
Now, if the reader doesn't mind, I shall slip out of my little blessing
and into a t-shirt for some puttering around the yard.
© Rev Antiono
Hernandez September 2003
all rights reserved