Bhikkhu’s Robes

The Bhikkhu’s Robes: a Short Introduction

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.

Formal and Informal

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 generally 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 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.

14 Responses to “Bhikkhu’s Robes”

  1. Viriya Says:

    Venerable, I think you missed your calling as a fashion writer!


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  3. Ananda Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    May I know whether it is an offense to the Vinaya that, for example, a popular Theravadin monk receiving President Prize and, well, as a formal attire, he does not wear the full robes and wear a formal suit and tuxedo instead.

    I cannot find the reference to the Theravadin Vinaya.

    thank you
    with metta


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Ananda, I think what you describe is a “wrong doing” according to the Vinaya, a very small offense. The reference I found is in the Cullavagga V.29.4. It is not in the Patimokkha, the standard list, but not all rules are. Many rules of wrong doing are frequently disregarded as a matter of convenience, but this one has the force of tradition behind it such that anyone close to the Theravada monastic tradition would be quite shocked to see a monk wearing a tux.


  4. an Says:

    in appreciation of bhikku cintita’s weblog.

    i am making some robes. i am using any shade of brown, any earthen shade, using second-hand material; any material will do as long as it is not fine or shiny material, such as silk. it doesn’t matter to me whether any of the robes contain different earthen shades, as i believe this reflects the blessed one’s reported instructions concerning replication of the rice field pattern; except that where i live in britain, there are no rice fields, but there are ploughed fields. in this way my robes shall reflect our dear mother earth, she who sustains us.

    this wearing of mixed earthern colors, if that’s how the cloth available falls out, shall be a tradition of this sangha.

    the wearing of robes of mixed colours, resulting in robes of slightly different appearance confers no particular status on any person wearing them; we shall not be overly concerned about the different colors, but mainly that the robes fit. the cloth we use cannot be purchased by us new, if it is purchased by us it has to be used cloth, or it has to be given to us, or found by us abandoned.

    we shall never wear fine cloth, for we all know that we are not particularly worthy and that finery is misleading.

    wishing for a peaceful world.



    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Good for you!
      BTW, are you a monastic? Most monastics in Asia buy robes that are manufactured in factories. Some Theravada forest monks sew their own. Although all of my robes are manufactured, I had the experience of sewing robes before I became a Zen priest. In Japan there is a small movement in the Soto school for priests to sew their own robes in the ancient way. This has carried over to the Shunryu Suzuki lineage to which I belonged, as well as to the Uchiayama lineage. It took me about one year to sew the robes by hand. The rice field pattern is very similar in the case both of Theravada robes and Zen robes.


  5. an Says:

    bhante, it’s inattentive of me to have taken a short while to reply.

    i’m as monastic as circumstance permits, and although i’m not free of particular obligations to specific living beings, i do try my best with metta for all.

    i’ve made my life as simple as possible at present, although there’s still plenty of room for further simplification. the dwelling i inhabit i regard as a wat (i’m not concerned if acquaintances may and probably do regard me as a bit crazy). any visitors or guests are asked to to do their best to practice attha-sila, and to follow a daily rhythm based on the rhythm of the nearest wat in the ajahn chah lineage; a wat some distance from here, and which causes and conditions, alas, prevent me from visiting much, especially as i don’t want to drive there in a borrowed vehicle (only last night i lifted up a dead being from the highway outside here and laid it to rest on the sidewalk – it was a cat, with its back snapped; i could have left it there to become a squashed splodge, but i thought it may belong to an old lady or a family with kids, so i moved the cat where it could still be found intact).

    to explain a little more or less how my bhikkhu’s robes idea came about: after an absence from buddhism of 300 moons, i suggested to a couple of friends that we form a sangha (in the loose sense of the noun) and on upossatha days hold meetings for meditation and discussion; which we did.

    finding the world unsatisfactory, unstable and subject to endless morphing; and having walked down the road one day and seen with eye all compound things around me in decay, i asked the question how to live in this world? one would have to surrender to simplicity, and stop doing all the silly things that make life even more complicated and unsatisfactory. i’d have to live in a cave (but there aren’t too many of those around here and i would probably get locked up by a social worker if i did live in one) or a monastery (not a frenetic one, lol).
    “Hey, let’s start a monastery,” i said.
    “Okay,” said friends.
    “But we haven’t got a bhikkhu!”
    “You are!” they said.

    i haven’t seen them for a long time, lol.

    .. to cut to the chase, i’m now sufficiently conceited to regard myself as an anagarika, even though i’m not a homeless one (and oh.. wouldn’t it be a delight to extend to 10 precepts and get away from handling money and the khamma associated with it) and i’m resipiscent about bhikkhus’ robes; although i do say that i do like to see plain old muted robes on a bhikkhu, rather than fashion robes——–doesn’t bhikkhu literally translate as “beggar”? if, however, bhikkhus want to wear garish robes, it’s entirely up to them, but i would not take such bhukkhus too seriously; since i stopped being overwhelmed by impressive clothing many years ago. everyone looks more or less the same naked.

    it is heartening to know that awakening is possible. my very best wishes and many thanks for your guidance and writing. wishing that vassa is wonderful for you.


  6. an Says:

    bhante, thank you very much for your reply.

    i live in the united kingdom. cittaviveka is about forty miles away. it’s possible to walk over the hills to get there, taking a couple of days.

    the main reasons for not living in an established monastery at present are:

    1) i have a personal and metta-based obligation to be readily available to a 16 year old offspring;

    2) i have a personal and metta-based obligation to look after a 7 year old dog, whom when she was a puppy i bought from under a news agent’s counter; and i haven’t been able to find a suitable alternative home for her;

    3) i am already 63 and i think training might be very difficult.

    the remainder, the material possessions, the roof over my head, and any professional aspirations are of no real significance, and i would happily abandon the lot right now if my existing obligations were absent; however, i do have those obligations, and i feel that to walk away from these would be making negative khamma and would cause suffering.

    so as you may discern i’m somewhat conflicted. it would be very helpful to receive any guidance from you about this. i have visited cittaviveka and nearly went to stay at one time. the bhikkhus there are welcoming, although i haven’t had opportunity to have any extensive discussion with any bhikkhu.

    although the future is the future and never certain, i will visit the monastery again if possible, and perhaps i’ll be able to talk with a bhikkhu about my situation; although i’ll probably have to take the dog with me, and i’m not sure how that’ll go down.

    i can only say that when i entered the shrine room and paid respect, it was as if an huge weight lifted from my shoulders. apologies for the cliche, but that’s the way it was.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      AN, Sorry for the delay in replying. I think it is important to fulfil familial obligations, particularly to children or parents. However, at some point these end. My feeling is that as a monastic (probably particularly in the west, where there are so few of us) there is a lot of opportunity to benefit others. This consideration gives some urgency to letting go of familial obligations at the earliest possible point. A dog would be most welcome at our monastery … as long as he would refrain from eating one of our cats.


  7. an Says:

    bhante, i want to put the quietus on the question, and i’m sorry if i have troubled you with it. i kinda know what to do really, which is to reduce wanting as far as possible, preferably stop wanting anything; just keep observing the mind, studying when possible, and doing my best with sila. things fall into place somehow and a person doesn’t necessarily need to go anywhere; and although it’s a little harder to practise without a sangha, life is good enough. wishing you peace.


  8. an Says:


  9. Charles Seabrook Says:

    Bhante, Circumstances change (of course). You know what? If I was was resident in the USA then I would come with the dog (not a cat eater, usually, but a being) to your monastery and seek refuge there. Thank you very much for the kind offer. I do hope you are in fine fettle. With metta, An


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