Why do Buddhists wear robes?
Buddhist monks are often depicted wearing a long, brightly colored tunic. Do you know the origin of this outfit which has become a real symbol?
The robes of Buddhist monks and nuns are part of a tradition that dates back 25 centuries to the time of the Historical Buddha . Early monks wore robes patched from rags, as many holy beggars in India did at the time.
As the community of wandering disciples grew, the Buddha found that certain rules regarding dresses were necessary. These are recorded in the Vinaya-pitaka of the Canon Pali or Tripitaka.
Fabric of the Buddhist robe
The Buddha taught the first monks and nuns to make their robes from "pure" fabric, that is, fabric that no one wanted. Pure tissue types included tissue that had been chewed by rats or oxen, burned in fire, soiled by childbirth or menstrual blood, or used as shrouds to wrap the dead before cremation. The monks collected the fabrics from garbage piles and cremation sites.
Any unusable part of the fabric was cut and the fabric was washed. It was dyed by boiling it with vegetable matter - tubers, bark, flowers, leaves - and spices such as turmeric or saffron, which gave the fabric a yellow-orange color. This is the origin of the term "saffron dress". Southeast Asian Theravada monks still wear spice-colored robes today, in shades of curry, cumin and paprika as well as blazing saffron orange.
You might be relieved to learn that Buddhist monks and nuns no longer rummage in garbage piles and cremation sites for clothes. Instead, they wear dresses made from donated or purchased fabrics.
The triple and quintuple Buddhist robes
The robes worn today by Theravada monks and nuns in Southeast Asia are believed to be unchanged from the original robes of 25 centuries ago. The dress consists of three parts:
- The uttarasanga is the most prominent dress. It is sometimes also called the kashaya dress. It is a large rectangle of approximately 1.80 m by 1.90 m. It can be wrapped to cover both shoulders, but more often it is wrapped to cover the left shoulder but leaves the right shoulder and arm bare.
- The antaravasaka is worn under the uttarasanga. It is wrapped around the waist like a sarong, covering the body from the waist to the knees.
- The sanghati is an extra robe that can be wrapped around the upper body to warm it up. When not in use, it is sometimes folded and wrapped around a shoulder.
The original nuns robe consisted of the same three parts as the monks robe, with two additional parts, making it a "quintuple" robe. Nuns wear a bodice (samkacchika) under the uterasanga, and they wear a bath towel (udakasatika).
Today, Theravada women's dresses are usually in muted colors, such as white or pink, instead of bright, spicy colors. However, fully ordained Theravada nuns are rare.
According to the Vinaya-pitaka, the Buddha asked his leader Ananda to design a rice field pattern for the robes. Ananda sewed strips of fabric representing the rice fields in a pattern separated by narrower strips to represent the paths between the rice fields.
Even today many individual garments worn by monks in all schools are made of strips of fabric sewn together in this traditional pattern. This is often a five column pattern of stripes, although sometimes seven or nine bands are used
In the Zen tradition, the motif is said to represent a "formless field of blessings". The pattern can also be seen as a mandala representing the world.
The Buddhist robe moves north: China, Japan, Korea
Buddhism spread to China from around the 1st century AD and quickly found itself at odds with Chinese culture. In India, exposing a shoulder was a sign of respect. But that was not the case in China.
In Chinese culture, it was respectful to cover the whole body, including the arms and shoulders. Also, China tends to be cooler than India, and the traditional triple robe did not provide enough warmth.
With some sectarian controversy, Chinese monks began to wear a long robe with sleeves that tie in the front, similar to the dresses worn by Taoist scholars. The kashaya (uttarasanga) was then rolled up on the sleeved robe. The colors of the robes have become more subdued, although bright yellow - an auspicious color in Chinese culture - is common.
Additionally, in China, monks have become less dependent on begging and instead lived in monastic communities as autonomous as possible. As Chinese monks spent part of the day doing household chores and gardening, it was inconvenient to wear kashaya all the time.
Chinese monks only wore kashaya for meditation and ceremonies. Eventually, it became common for Chinese monks to wear a slit skirt - something like a culottes - or pants for daily non-ceremonial attire.
Chinese practice continues today in China , Japan and Korea. Sleeveless dresses come in various styles. There is also a wide range of belts, capes, obis, stoles and other accessories worn with dresses in these Mahayana countries. The Kimonos are an example of this diversity.
During ceremonies, monks, priests and sometimes nuns of many schools often wear an "inner" robe with sleeves, usually gray or white; a sleeved outer robe, tied at the front or wrapped like a kimono, and a kashaya wrapped over the sleeved outer robe.
In Japan and Korea, the outer sleeve robe is often black, brown, or gray, and the kashaya is black, brown, or gold, but there are many exceptions to this rule.
The Buddhist dress in Tibet
Tibetan nuns, monks and llamas wear a huge variety of robes, hats and capes, but the basic robe is made up of these elements:
- The dhonka , a short-sleeved shirt. The dhonka is brown or brown and yellow with a blue border.
- The shemdap is a brown skirt made of patched fabric and a varying number of pleats.
- The chogyu is a kind of sanghati, a scarf made of coins and worn over the upper body, although it is sometimes draped over one shoulder like a kashaya robe. The chogyu is yellow and worn for certain ceremonies and teachings.
- The zhen is similar to the chogyu, but brown in color, and can be worn everyday.
- The namjar is larger than the chogyu, with more spots, and it is yellow and often silk.It is intended for official ceremonies and is worn in the kashaya style, leaving the right arm bare