Robes and Clothing

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Buddhist robes (kāṣāya; Chinese, jiasha; Japanese, kesa) originally reflected the ideals of a life of poverty and simplicity. The Vinaya or monastic codes permitted a monk only three rectangular pieces of cloth of different sizes for use as religious robes. The small-, medium-, and large-sized robes were worn alone or in combination with each other. These rectangular mantles had no tailoring and simply wrapped around the body. They resembled the clothing of ordinary people and therefore used distinctive colors, materials, and fabrication to distinguish the wearer as one who had left the ordinary world to embark upon the path to enlightenment. As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, the robes delineated in greater detail such things as rank and sectarian affiliations through further variations in color, materials, and fabrication. The robes also came to be regarded as merit-making objects themselves, requiring special treatment, much like any other ritual object.

Regulations for early Buddhist robes

To differentiate Buddhist robes from the ordinary white robes of common people, the robes were dyed. Texts do not concur on the exact colors to be used, but most prohibit the use of undiluted primary colors. However, there is consensus that the preferred color is kāṣāya, which literally means impure, and came to refer to a reddish-yellow or brownish-yellow saffron or ocher color. TheravĀda monks still regularly wear this color; MahĀyĀna monks wear it less often. The actual shades vary, but the use of impure or mixed coloring is essential and emphasizes the teaching of nonattachment and nonpreference even for the color of one's robes. The use of impure or muddied color was such an important characteristic that the word, kāṣāya, became the common name for the robes themselves.

According to the precepts, the actual material for Buddhist robes was not as important as the humble origins of the material. The best material was that which had no value to others, such as unwanted and soiled rags. The precepts urged monks to be wearers of robes taken from the dust heap. While acceptable materials included silk, cotton, wool, hemp, and even fur, the most important characteristic was that they be tattered and defiled in some way, such as having been charred by fire, gnawed by rats, used as a shroud for the dead, or stained with menstrual blood, mucus, urine, or feces. Texts also caution against the use of embroidery and ornate weaving, a proscription later ignored. Plain, common materials are best, but the primary requirement is that they should not engender covetousness or attachment.

The third distinguishing feature of Buddhist robes is that they should be sewn from many pieces. Against charges that robes of whole cloth might reflect sensual enjoyment, the Buddha announced that robes made of uncut cloth should not be worn. Although in later passages of the Vinaya the Buddha allowed two of the three robes to be made of whole cloth, the standard kāṣāya was a patchwork marked by horizontal and vertical divisions. The Vinaya reference to patterns of rice fields bordered by embankments inspired the patchwork design of the kāṣāya.

Robes were patched together in vertical columns, always odd in number, and edged by a binding. The smallest of the three regulation robes had five columns, each comprised of one long and one short panel; the medium-sized robe had seven columns, each comprised of one short and two long panels; and the largest and most formal robe either had nine columns, each made up of two long and one short panel, or twenty-five columns, each comprised of four long and one short panel. Figure 1 shows the pattern for a seven-columned medium-sized kāṣāya. Variations based on odd numbers of columns between nine and twenty-five also exist, and there are legends of unusual robes with more columns. Small square patches reinforce the material at the four outer corners and at spots where cords are attached. Buddhist robes did not have any kind of fastening until the disciple Ānanda's robes were blown by a breeze, and in order to maintain modesty the Buddha permitted the use of cords and buckles of wood, bone, or shell. Braided cords and buckles were common in East Asia, but not in Southeast and South Asia.

The precepts also reinforce the idea of the robe as ritual object regulated in size, shape, and methods of stitching. Moreover, various texts recommend that each stitch be accompanied by a bow or a mantra (incantation), and advise that robes be cleaned with purified water and stored on high shelves surrounded by flowers and incense. Before Japanese Sōtō Zen monks don their robes, for example, they make three prostrations, place the folded robe on top of their heads and chant a verse in praise of the robe as a garment of liberation. Clearly the color, materials, and fabrication transform common robes into mantles of piety that represent humility and require respect.

Buddhist robes as insignias of status, occasion, and sectarian affiliation

Despite the Buddha's exhortations, changes occurred. One of the most noticeable was the East Asian practice of bordering the patched panels with a dark material, forming a robe of striking contrasts. Most significantly, the colder climates and customs of dress in East Asia led to the use of tailored garments worn beneath the kāṣāya. Established by the sixth century in China, these underrobes consisted of an upper garment that had neckband sleeves falling to the wrist, and a piece of pleated cloth used for a skirt, which Indian Buddhists had also used. In East Asia these two pieces eventually were sewn into a single kimono-like garment. In Japan a culotte type of skirt was also worn. The use of these underrobes changed the function of the kāṣāya in East Asia. Kāṣāya were no longer needed for warmth and modesty, but rather were used to convey rank, status, occasion, and sectarian affiliation.

The colors of a kāṣāya distinguished rank, status, and the level of formality of the occasion. To move from white to saffron robes signaled the advance from layman to monk in Thailand, just as the first level of novices in Japan today wear black and are permitted ocher robes only after receiving the formal transmission. East Asian Buddhists created complex systems of ecclesiastical ranks and offices modeled after those used at the imperial court, and they assigned certain colors to specific ranks. Martin Collcutt in Five Mountains (1981) describes the ranks and titles within medieval Japanese Zen monasteries. He notes that ordinary monks wore black underrobes and kāṣāya, but abbots wore robes of color. These colors depended not just on the individual's rank but also on the status of the particular monastery. For example, only abbots of the senior monastery of the highest status were permitted to wear deep-purple robes.

The propriety of colorful robes was debated at various times. However, religious leaders as divergent as ParamĀrtha (499–569), an Indian monk and translator of the sixth century, and DŌgen (1200–1253), the founder of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in thirteenth-century Japan, affirmed that while muddy ocher may be best, robes of blue, yellow, red, black, purple, or a combination of these colors were permissible. Occasion also governed the selection of the robe's color. For example, in 1561 the New Pure Land sect decreed that henceforth their monks would wear white underrobes for happy events such as weddings, black underrobes for solemn occasions such as funerals, and colored underrobes for other ceremonial functions.

Another indication of a monk's rank was the quality of the kāṣāya material. Many kāṣāya for high-ranking monks in East Asia were made of exquisite brocades decorated with gold leaf, gold threads, and embroidery. These refinements were justified as marks of respect appropriate for robes that were devotional objects rather than ordinary garments. The precepts themselves also permit the use of donated materials, which could be refined, and this led to greater diversity of materials. The Vinaya relates the story of Jīvaka, who received an especially beautiful cloth from a king. When he asked the Buddha if it were permissible to wear such a cloth, the Buddha approved, saying that the monks were free to wear rag robes or to accept householders' garments, although it would be best to cut them. The status and fervor of the donor as well as the rank of the recipient were reflected in the quality of the donations, and thus donors contributed the most valuable materials they could afford. During the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries in Japan, for example, believers donated fragments of bright and richly decorated theatrical garments for monks to


patch together for robes. In modern times, Japanese congregations sometimes solicit funds to provide their monks with beautiful and expensive kāṣāya, which can cost up to $100,000. Even these fabrics, however, are still cut or overstitched to resemble the patchwork required by the Buddha's directive.

Other indications of rank and formality of occasion include the number of columns in the kāṣāya, five columns for ordinary monks and occasions, and seven and nine columns for high-ranking monks and more formal events. Even the fastening cords were color coded to rank. Certain accessories also emphasized rank. The head scarf or hood that was worn initially by important Tiantai monks, for example, originated from the story that Zhiyi (538–597), the Chinese founder of Tiantai school Buddhism, received a gift of a sleeve from the emperor to wear on his head for protection against the severe cold as he administered the precepts. Recalling this legend, the Japanese emperor also gave a sleeve for use as a hood to Saicho (767–822), who introduced Tiantai (Japanese, Tendai) Buddhism to Japan. Later, other sects adopted the sleevelike headdress.

Sectarian regulations were complex and underwent many revisions in the twentieth century. Japanese underrobes, for example, often have crests that symbolize particular sects, and sometimes kāṣāya incorporate scenes from the life of the sect's founder. Also in Japan, the abbreviated, folded kāṣāya forming long narrow bands vary in style according to sect. They are worn across the chest in the Nichiren school or sect, and as circlets around the neck in the New Pure Land sect, while Zen sects retain the use of a biblike abbreviated kāṣāya. Laypeople also wear the abbreviated kāṣāya around their necks as badges of affiliation and piety. While Buddhist robes convey shared ideals and meanings, it is clear that the color, materials, and fabrication can also distinguish the wearers from one another.

Buddhist robes as devotional objects

Kāṣāya are also objects of spiritual charisma that function as devotional objects and amulets. The robes of great religious teachers are passed down to disciples as evidence of transmission of the teachings, and they function as proof of spiritual lineage. DŌgen, in the chapter on "The Merits of the Buddhist Robe" in his Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), argues that kāṣāya are more important than Buddhist relics. The association of robes with relics is suggested too by the occasional deposit of robes within Buddhist sculptures along with sūtras and other valuable objects. Dōgen further argues that the Buddha himself told his monks to think of their robe as a stŪpa, that is, as a reliquary. And, in fact, relics and other precious objects were sometimes sewn into the backs of the robes. Kāṣāya were also visualized as altars, with the patches in the four corners representing the four Heavenly Kings that protect the four corners of the altar. The central patch was considered the seat of the Buddha, and the two patches on either side as the attendants to the Buddha.

The kāṣāya derives its spiritual worth from its ability to induce enlightenment and create merit. Tales of its power abound from India to Japan. Two famous examples include the story of Utpalavarnā, a prostitute in a previous life, who had once dressed herself in a kāṣāya as a joke. Despite her many sins, this action, even though it was in jest, produced sufficient merit to eventually lead her to enlightenment. Similarly, a jĀtaka tale tells of the Buddha's previous life as a lion that was tricked into allowing a hunter to approach because the hunter had disguised himself and hid his weapons within a kāṣāya. Realizing the ruse, the lion nevertheless sacrificed himself rather than hurt a person dressed in Buddhist robes. In short, the kāṣāya produced merit and provided protection, and laypeople sometimes made miniature kāṣāya to carry with them as amulets at all times.

The Buddhist robe is layered with meanings. It can symbolize simplicity or splendor and can convey identities of place and position. As Dōgen suggested, its essential importance lies in the fact that wearing this humble robe plants the seed of enlightenment and destroys the poisonous arrows of delusion.

See also:Etiquette; Merit and Merit-Making; Relics and Relics Cults


Collcutt, Martin. Five Mountains: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Council on East Asian Studies and Harvard University Press, 1981.

Dōgen Zenji. Shōbōgenzō, tr. Nishiyama Kosen. Tokyo: Nakayama Shobo, 1988.

Faure, Bernard. "Quand l'habit fait le moine: The Symbolism of the Kāṣāya in Sōtō Zen." Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie 9 (1995): 335–369.

Griswold, A. B. "Prolegomena to the Study of the Buddha's Dress in Chinese Sculpture." Artibus Asiae 26, no. 2 (1963): 85–131.

Kennedy, Alan. Manteau de Nuages: Kesa Japonais. Paris: Re-union des Musée Nationaux, 1992.

Kyūma, Echū. Kesa no hanashi. Kyoto: Hozokan, 1994.

Till, Barry, and Swart, Paula. Kesa: The Elegance of Japanese Monks' Robes. Victoria, BC: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1996.

Willa Jane Tanabe

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Robes and Clothing

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Robes and Clothing