Ask A Buddhist: Monastic Robes

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By Ven. Thubten Chonyi

What are each of your robes called and are there regular undergarments or are those specialized too, and do you have to wear a particular kind of shoe?

Robes are an important aspect of a monastic’s life. They cover our bodies, protect us from heat and cold, and serve as a visible sign of our ordination. We wear our robes every day for all occasions, unless it’s hazardous to do so (like when climbing a very tall ladder or using a chain saw). Monastics are allowed only one set of robes, although we can have a second set on hand for laundry days; we just can’t think of this extra set as our own. Thus we learn to live simply, without outer adornments, as we seek to develop our inner beauty instead.

Buddha gave many instructions about robes for ordained Buddhist monastics, which lets us know that acquiring and caring for robes was an important concern in ancient India. Fabric was hard to come by, so monks and nuns pieced their robes together from what they could find—rags from garbage dumps, shrouds from burial grounds, and the like. Monastics sewed their fabric patches together to resemble the landscape of patch-like rice paddies of ancient India, then dyed them a uniform, unattractive color. This patch pattern still exists today in the robes of all Buddhist traditions.

Over centuries, as Buddhism spread from India into other countries, the style of monastic robes was adapted to fit the climate and culture. Even what colors are deemed unattractive varies by culture. On the surface, monastic robes in Sri Lanka look very different from Tibetan monastic robes, which appear dissimilar from Chinese robes. If you examine them closely, however, you will discover that they all follow the Buddha’s direction.

Nuns from the Sravasti Abbey wear maroon robes/Tracy Simmons – SpokaneFAVS

Basically, all monastics wear what are known as “the three robes:”

  • A lower or inner robe, (antarvasas in Sanskrit, shamdap in Tibetan), which is worn at all times. For Tibetan Buddhists, the shamdap is maroon. This robe is folded in a particular manner and held on by a belt.
  • An upper robe (uttarasangha in Sanskrit, chogu in Tibetan) worn for reading sutras, meditating, listening to teachings, or engaging in official monastic activities. In the Tibetan tradition, the chogu is yellow.
  • A heavier outer robe made from many more patches (samghati in Sanskrit, namjar in Tibetan), worn only by fully ordained monks or nuns. Originally, the namjar was worn when giving Dharma talks, going on alms round for food, and during the ceremonies to give all levels of precepts. Today it appears on the most special spiritual occasions. The chogu and namjar are worn wrapped around the body, but under the right arm.

Nuns were originally assigned two additional undergarments. Modern underwear—plain and functional—serves the purpose for western monastics.

Other garments are also worn nowadays and vary depending on the Buddhist tradition and the weather in the country. Tibetan Buddhists wear a sleeveles vest, called a dhonka, and another upper robe worn for everyday activities called a zen, as well as shirts and jackets as needed. Today, monks and nuns following Tibetan Buddhism wear ordinary shoes, preferably brown or maroon, with a simple in design. Monastics in Taiwan wear black, brown, or gray slip-on shoes. In Thailand, they often wear flip-flops because the weather is hot. At Sravasti Abbey, where I train, our diet is vegetarian, so our shoes are too.

To learn about some of symbolism designed into Tibetan Buddhist robes, see this article by  Geshe Lhundup Sopa, late founder of Deer Park Buddhist Center in Wisconsin and professor in the University of Wisconsin’s Department of South Asian Studies.

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