There is a steep curve for the new bhikkhu who comes from a land that provides little opportunity to observe the attire, deportment and activities of Buddhist monks. Shucks, I never even saw monks on alms round until I came to Myanmar. In this short essay, I would like to highlight The Robes of the Bhikkhu, in particular The Upper Robe.
Ahem … The upper robe is about the size and shape of a queen bed sheet. In Myanmar it is most commonly burgundy in color. I have three sets of two robes (upper and lower) in my possession, as well as one of the less-often used (for cold weather) outer robe. They are all burgundy, in color. Now, the Theravada robe is quite archaic. Apparently the principle is not to involve any clothing- or fastener-technology developed after the Buddha's parinirvana. This seems to allow belts and knots, for instance, but not the belt loop or the buckel. This seems adequate for keeping my lower robe in place.
The upper robe is quite versatile: It can easily become a blanket, a hood, a curtain, a sunscreen. Should the bhikkhu find himself stranded on a desert island, it could provide the sail for a driftwood craft. In its primary function, as clothing, it proves no less versatile, providing a variety of options to ensure fashionable attire for any occasion.
For instance, for informal occasions the bhikkhu positions the robe over the left shoulder and under the right, throws the right corner over the left shoulder and folds the left edge over the left shoulder. This turns the previously topless bhikkhu into the casual monk about town, ready, for instance, to receive an offering of a coke and fries.
Alternately, the exact same robe provides attire for formal occasions, such as meeting dignitaries, collecting alms, or (can I suggest?) the opera. It's all in the folding.
The basic principle of the formal robe is to construct a sleeve for the left arm. Miraculously the leftover material drapes smoothly and evenly over the rest of the body, covering both shoulders. I will describe the Burmese variant of this technique; the Thai is a bit different. The Burmese gives a stylish ruffled neckline. (Remember turtle-necks?)
Now, to construct the sleeve, the bhikkhu makes two seams, consuming thereby three of the four edges of the robe material. A couple of zippers would make this easy, but nooooo, that would be beyond the state of fastener technology at the time of the Buddha. Instead, the bhikkhu forms a seam by rolling two edges together. To understand the principle, you may experiment with your bed sheet. Go ahead, take one off your bed! Now try to make a "sleeping tube" by rolling two opposing edges together. It doesn't exactly work, does it? However, in a remarkable piece of ancient engineering, rivaling that of the modern, uh, zipper, some monk or nun discovered that if you cinch the rolled edges at certain points and create lateral tension, the edges do not come unrolled! … at least not as readily. In this case, the cinch points are the left elbow and under the left arm. This effectively immobilizes your left arm, except for a claw-like hand. Also, one wrong move causes the long seam to unravel, as I discovered on an early alms round at Pa Auk Tawya, much to the delight of a perfectly attired twelve-year-old novice, who rushed to my aid.
The rest of the garment drapes nicely. The bhikku's head pops out through one end of the first seam, providing the monk with the capability to see where he is going, as well as to be recognized by others. The second seam extends from the hand, up the left arm, cinches in the back under the arm, then continues over the left shoulder and down the front to below the knees, inconveniently unraveling about waist level enough that the right hand can communicate with the outer world, should it be needed, for instance, to open a door, or receive a filtered juice drink (permissible after noon).
Now, the formally attired bhikkhu is quite the dapper fellow indeed, ready for many formal occasions. However, lest the bhikkhu lest this go to the bikkhu’s head, let me point out that the robe is best worn in situations where no fun is involved. The robe has a way of enforcing the practice of disenchantment with sensual pleasures. For instance, consider ballroom dancing. In this situation, if the bhikkhu, in his excitement, lifts the left arm even slightly, the next dance steps — ONE two three ONE two three — will likely waltz the bhikkhu right out of the better part of his clothing, and also, create a situation of burgundy entanglement for others on the dance floor.