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Understanding not Tolerance

When I was studying overseas, I used to dye my hair and shave the sides. As soon as I got back home, however, my parents and relatives started to nag me about my hair. I seriously don’t know what their problem is, but after six months, their comments are beginning to get on my nerves and I feel I’m losing my self-confidence. I should add that I have a good job and contribute to the household. What should I do? Should I just change my hair style to look like everyone else or should I continue the way I am? What is Lam’s personal feeling about dyed hair? Do you think people should be more tolerant of each other? Lama, I know that this is not a very profound question, but I’d appreciate your input.  

Confused guy, Thimphu    

Hi Confused Guy. Well, to solve any issue, it is always best to look at it from different angles, and so I’m going to throw out some ideas for you and your parents to consider. 

First of all, we need to understand that codes of behavior and dress/hair styles evolve to help members of social groups feel comfortable and relaxed with each other. Even animals have codes of social behaviour. As an example, observe how a dog passes by a pack of unknown dogs. He will drop his tail, lower his head, and walk very slowly, almost respectfully. As a result, the other dogs will identify him as unthreatening, and so likely allow him to pass unchallenged. Had he not adopted these recognizable codes of behaviour, he may have been perceived as a threat and attacked. 

In this respect, your parent’s nagging is a subconscious way of persuading you to adopt social norms. Basically, they want you to be accepted by the community and remain safe. If you can understand that your family’s intentions are good, maybe you will not feel so irritated by their words.

From another side, your family should recognize that social norms are not fixed, universal laws. In contrast, they have developed over time and are constantly changing according to new influences and social needs. 

To realize this point, we only have to consider trends in recent history. At certain times long hair was the social norm for men, while at other times short hair was the accepted style. A century ago in the west, women’s clothes that revealed ankles were considered immoral, whereas now even short skirts are accepted. Likewise, some religious schools consider a shaved head as a symbol of devotion, whereas other traditions regard long hair as a sign of piety. Consequently, we understand that hair styles are not in themselves innately good or bad. It is people that make such distinctions based on changing social and educational influences.    

Therefore, while codes of behavior and style are important for social cohesion, we need to keep things in prospective. Basically, we should recognize that they are just man-made tools of communication that are very likely to change in a very short space of time. Certainly, we should not discriminate against someone because of their hairstyle, but instead view such issues wisely and from a broad prospective. In reality, fixed and rigid views are the root cause of prejudice and the main reason for mass violence against others. By fixed and rigid views, I mean categorizing a group of people as all having the same inherent and permanent characteristics – as if everyone who has tattoos, used drugs, or has a particular skin colour are all joined to a central brain and have exactly the same thoughts and personality. From the Buddhist point of emptiness, this is a totally illogical argument. 

Anyway, I’m getting into a deeper issue here. On a simpler level, maybe we can reflect on stories such as ‘Sunita the Scavenger’. Despite being dirty and a social outcast, the Buddha spoke with him gently and invited him to join his sangha. So what can we learn from the way the Buddha dealt with Sunita? Well, in the context of your issue, maybe we should recognize that everyone has inner qualities and so be less quick to make judgments based on outer appearances and social status. In this respect, perhaps the English idiom – ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ – is very apt.       

You asked about my personal opinion about dyed hair. Well, if I am honest, I have to say that I couldn’t care less whether a person has dyed or natural coloured hair. To me, it is more important how a person treats others and cares for their family members than the style of their hair. Also, from my experiences around the world, I can truthfully say that I have not noticed any correlation between hairstyle and a person’s character. In fact, I have known many people with so-called decent, standard hairstyles who have a really bad attitude and are dishonest. Of course, the reverse is also true.    

So, you ask do we need more tolerance. No, I would contend that tolerance is a kind suppression of our true feelings. For example, we might tolerate our neighbours making a noise, but it implies that we are holding in our anger. Instead, I think we need more understanding. When we can put ourselves in another person’s shoes, then prejudices that are based on misunderstanding and ignorance drop away. In the context of your question, you should try to understand where your parents are coming from. At the same time, your family members need to ask themselves why they are so opposed to dyed hair. What is the actual issue? At the end of the day, you may still not agree, but at least there will be more respect of each other’s opinions. To take this point to a more general level, we should consider minority interests, such as the LGBT community, people with HIV, or recovering addicts, in the same way. They do not need tolerance, but understanding. Like a candle lit in a dark room, wisdom naturally eliminates ignorance. So, when people talk about world peace etc, we should understand that it cannot be initiated from outside, but needs to start in the minds of each of us. As Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said, “Where hatred, pride, jealousy, desire and stupidity decrease, not only conflicts but also epidemics and natural calamities in the world will decrease as well, like smoke disappearing when a fire is extinguished.” Anyway, I apologize that I digressed from your question, but I at least hope some of the points raised helped with your dilemma.   

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programmes.

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