Robes of the Bhikkhu

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, October 30, 2012

From a forthcoming chapter of my bio, much of it originally written in Burma in 2009, appropriate now with the end of the Rains Retreat on this Full Moon Day.
The bhikkhu traditionally has Four Requisites that substantially form the material world of the monk. These are:

  • robes,
  • food,
  • housing and
  • medicine.

The Theravada bhikkhu’s robes are 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 nor the buckle. Generally two robes are worn: the upper robe is about the size and shape of a queen bed sheet and the lower robe about half that size, to be worn below the waist. In Myanmar both are most commonly burgundy in color. The less often used  outer robe, the size of the upper robe but twice as thick, supplements the others in cold weather. The lower robe wraps around like a skirt, with a large pleat folded in to permit walking and other necessary leg motions that may be required. It is simply rolled at the top, then a belt is tied around to for upgraded security from embarrassment.

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, in informal contexts 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, leaving the right shoulder bare. This turns the previously topless bhikkhu into the casual fellow about the monastery often found lounging under a mango tree, meditating in the shrine room or receiving homage from a devout family on Uposatha Days.

Alternately, the exact same robe provides attire for formal occasions. The basic principle of the formal robe is painstakingly 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, which gives a stylish ruffled neckline (remember turtle-necks?). The Thai is a bit different and the sensible Sri Lankans are barely on talking terms with the formal robe. In any case the proper folding of the upper robe transforms the bhikkhu into the elegant monk about town ready for such eventualities as meeting dignitaries, collecting alms, or (dare I suggest?) the opera.

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 ancient fastener technology. 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 so quickly. 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 a very early alms round at Pa Auk Tawya, much to the delight of a meticulously 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, but in theory permitting the right hand to communicate with the outer world at about  waist level by untwisting the seam, should the right hand be needed, for instance, to open a door, or receive a filtered juice drink. If the right hand is needed for an extended period, for instance to sit at a table to eat a meal, then the elbow can be tactically placed before the seam snaps shut.

Now, the formally attired bhikkhu is quite the dapper fellow indeed, ready for many formal occasions. However, 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.

The robes are not actually the only durable item a monk can carry about. In fact, in order to start you out as a monk in the first place eight requisites are necessary before ordination:

  • three robes,
  • one belt,
  • one alms bowl,
  • one razor,
  • one needle and thread and
  • one water filter.

Early in our travels before my ordination we checked one day into an international hotel in which I was delighted to acquire 25% of these eight requisites effortlessly: a complementary razor and a little sewing kit with both needle and thread! I ran through the list once more in my head to ascertain with some chagrin that shampoo and shower cap were indeed absent from the list. However a donor would be found who would generously provided all eight requisites, all of which are among the most easily obtainable merchandise in Burma due to the great number of ordinations that take place every year.

The modern monk also generally possesses some books, unavailable or rather encrypted in the monk’s memory at the time of the Buddha, nail clippers reading glasses and other small items. Recently I was joking with a Burmese monk in America that a laptop computer has become the Fifth Requisite of the modern bhikkhu, as it is indispensable for study and research, writing and blogging (on matters dharmic of course) and downloading and playing talks by all the famous sayadaws, yet can almost fit into an alms bowl.


2 Responses to “Robes of the Bhikkhu”

  1. Kevin Says:

    What about a monks bag ? Sometimes I see monks carry a bag . Or did I see this on a nun ?


  2. bhikkhucintita Says:

    There is a standard monk’s bag; I have one. Monks don’t always carry them and I know nothing about their history, except the design seems to be common in all Buddhist lands. They may be a recent innovation. Mine is actually Chinese.


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