The Buddha's Robe

01
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The Saffron Robe

Buddhist monks in Laos
Theravada Monks and the Original Robe Young monks in Laos wear their uttarasanga robes in traditional off-the-shoulder style. The smaller sanghati robes, not needed on a hot day, are folded and draped over their left shoulders and secured with yellow sashes. Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images

As Buddhism spread through Asia, the robes worn by monks adapted to local climate and culture. Today, the saffron robes of southeast Asian monks are thought to be nearly identical to the original robes of 25 centuries ago. However, what monks wear in China, Tibet, Japan, Korea and elsewhere can look quite a bit different.

This photo gallery doesn't come close to showing all the variations in styles of monks' robes. Monks' robes of the many schools and lineages, and even individual temples can be quite distinctive from each other. There are countless variations of sleeve styles alone, and you could probably find a monks' robe to match every color in the crayon box.

Instead, this gallery is a sampler of Buddhist robe images that represent and explain common features. The images also illustrate how most robes retain some characteristics of the original robes if you know where to look.

Theravada monks of southeast Asia wear robes thought to be very similar to the robes worn by the historical Buddha and his disciples.

The robes worn by Theravada monks and nuns of southeast Asia today are thought to be unchanged from the original robes of 25 centuries ago. The "Triple robe" consists of three parts:

  • The uttarasanga or kashaya is the most prominent robe. It is a large rectangle, about 6 by 9 feet, that can be wrapped to cover both shoulders, but most often it is wrapped to cover the left shoulder but leave the right shoulder and arm bare.
  • The antaravasaka is worn under the uttarasanga. It is wrapped around the waist like a sarong, covering the body from waist to knees.
  • The sanghati is an extra robe that can be wrapped around the upper body for warmth. When not in use it is sometimes folded and draped over a shoulder, as you see in the photograph.

The original monks made their robes from discarded cloth found in rubbish heaps and on cremation grounds. After washing, the robe cloth was boiled with vegetable matter -- leaves, roots and flowers -- and often spices, which would turn the cloth some shade of orange. Hence the name, "saffron robe." Monks today wear robes made of cloth that is donated or purchased, but in Southeast Asia, the cloth usually is still dyed in spice colors.

02
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The Buddha's Robe in Camobdia

Angor Wat Monks
Wearing the Sanghati at Angor Wat Monks at Angor Wat temple, Cambodia, have wrapped their sanghati robes around their upper bodies for warmth. © Pavalache Stelian | Dreamstime.com

When it is too cold to be bare-armed, Theravada monks wrap themselves in the sanghati.​ Theravada ​is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. The monks in those countries wear very similar robes in the style of early Buddhist monks' robes.

In Photo 1, the young monks have their sanghati robe folded and carried over the shoulder. These monks at Angor Wat, Cambodia, have wrapped the sanghati around their upper bodies for warmth.

03
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The Buddha's Robe: The Rice Field

Robe and Rice
Details of a Rice Field Pattern in a Kashaya Robe You can see the rice field pattern on this uttarasanga (kashaya) hanging on a clothesline in Laos. The rice field shown in the inset is in Bali. michale / flickr.com, Creative Commons License; inset, © Rick Lippiett | Dreamstime.com

The rice field pattern is common to Buddhist robes in most schools of Buddhism. According to the Vinaya-pitaka of the Pali Canon, one day the Buddha asked his cousin and attendant, Ananda, to sew a robe in the pattern of a rice field. Ananda did this, and the pattern has been repeated on monks' robes in most schools of Buddhism ever since.

As you can see in the inset photo, rice paddy fields can be roughly rectangular and separated by strips of dry ground for paths. The rice field pattern in the Theravada robe shown in the photo is in five columns, but sometimes there are seven or nine columns.

04
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The Buddha's Robe in China

Chinese Monk
The "Everyday" Robe A monk in Sichuan, China, wearing his "everyday" robe. China Photos/Getty Images

Chinese monks abandoned the bare-shoulder style in favor of a robe with sleeves. When Buddhism got to China, the bare-shoulder style of the original monks' robes became a problem. In Chinese culture, it was improper not to keep the arms and shoulders covered in public. So, Chinese Buddhist monks began to wear sleeved robes similar to a Taoist scholar's robe of the early 1st millennium CE.

Because Chinese Buddhist monks lived in self-sufficient monastic communities, monks spent part of each day doing custodial and gardening chores. Wearing the kashaya all the time was not practical, so it came to be saved for formal occasions. The robe in the photograph is an "everyday" robe for non-ceremonial wear.

05
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The Buddha's Robe in China

Chinese Buddhist Monks
Chinese Monk Formal Wear Monks of Hainan Island, south China, wearing their most formal ceremonial robes. China Photos/Getty Images

Monks in China wear the kashaya over their sleeved robes on ceremonial occasions. The rice paddy pattern is preserved in the Chinese kashaya, although an abbot's kashaya might be made of ornate, brocaded cloth. Yellow of a common color for monks' sleeved robes. In China, yellow represents earth and is also the "central" color that might be said to represent equanimity.

06
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The Buddha's Robe: Kyoto, Japan

Japanese Buddhist monks
Adapted From China These monks in Kyoto, Japan, are dressed for a formal ceremony. © Radu Razvan | Dreamstime.com

The Chinese practice of wearing a kashaya wrapped over a sleeved robe continues in Japan. There are many styles and colors of Buddhist monks' robes in Japan, and they don't all resemble the ensembles worn by the monks in this photograph. However, the robes in the photograph do illustrate how the Chinese style seen in Photo 5 was adapted in Japan.

The practice of wearing a shorter outer robe over a longer white or gray kimono is distinctively Japanese.

07
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The Buddha's Robe in Japan

Zen Takahatsu
Zen Monk With Rakasu A Japanese Zen monk properly dressed for takahatsu, or begging for alms. He wears a gold rakusu over a black koromo. Vintage Lulu, Flickr.com / Creative Commons License

The rakusu is a small garment representing the kashaya robe that is worn by Zen monks. The "bib" worn by the Japanese monk in the photograph is a rakusu, a garment unique to the Zen school that may have originated among Ch'an monks in China sometime after the T'ang Dynasty. The rectangle worn over the heart is a miniature kashaya, complete with the same "rice field" pattern seen in the third photo in this gallery. The rice field in a rakusu may have five, seven, or nine strips. Rakusu also come in a variety of colors.

Generally in Zen, the rakusu may be worn by all monks and priests, as well as laypeople who have received jukai ordination. But sometimes Zen monks who have received full ordination will wear a standard kashaya, called in Japanese the kesa, instead of the rakusu. The monks' straw hat is worn to partly cover his face during the alms ritual, or takahatsu, so that he and those who give him alms do not see each others' faces. This represents the perfection of giving -- no giver, no receiver. In this photo, you can see the monk's plain white kimono peaking out from under the black outer robe, called a koromo. The koromo is often black, but not always, and comes with different sleeve styles and diverse numbers of pleats in the front.

08
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The Buddha's Robe in Korea

Korean Chogye Monks
Big and Little Korean Chogye Monks Children are dressed in robes by monks at a Chogye temple in Seoul, South Korea. Chogye is a school of Korean Zen Buddhism. Children stay at the temple for 22 days to learn about Buddhism. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Big and little monks in South Korea wear big and little kashaya robes. In Korea, as in China and Japan, it is common for monks to wrap the kashaya robe over a sleeved robe. Also as in China and Japan, robes can come in a variety of colors and styles.

Every year, this Chogye (Korean Zen) monastery in Seoul "ordains" children temporarily, shaving their heads and dressing them in monks' robes. The children will live in the monastery for three weeks and learn about Buddhism. The "little" monks wear "little" kashaya robes in the style of a rakusu (see Photograph 7). The "big" monks wear a traditional kashaya.

09
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The Buddha's Robe in Tibet

Tibetan Monks Debate
Five Sections of a Tibetan Buddhist Robe Tibetan Gelugpa monks of the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, shed their zhen robes in the heat of a debate. Feng Li/Getty Images

Tibetan monks wear a shirt and a skirt instead of a one-piece robe. A shawl-type robe may be worn as an outer layer. Tibetan nuns, monks and lamas wear an enormous variety of robes, hats, capes, and even costumes, but the basic robe consist of these parts:

  • The dhonka, a wrap shirt with cap sleeves. The dhonka usually is maroon or maroon and yellow with blue piping.
  • The shemdap is a maroon skirt made with patched cloth and a varying number of pleats.
  • The chögu is something like a sanghati, a wrap made in patches and worn on the upper body, although sometimes it is draped over one shoulder like a kashaya robe. The chögu is yellow and worn for certain ceremonies and teachings.
  • The zhen is similar to the chögu, but maroon, and is for ordinary day-to-day wear.
  • The namjar is larger than the chögu, with more patches, and it is yellow and often made of silk. It is for formal ceremonial occasions.

The Gelugpa Tibetan monks in the photograph have shed their zhen robes in the heat of debate.

10
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The Buddha's Robe: A Tibetan Monk and His Zhen

Monk With Zhen
Maroon and Yellow A monk of the Tibetan Karma Kagyu tradition adjusts his zhen, part of his robe that is wrapped around his upper body. The photo was taken in the Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery in Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Tibetan Buddhist robes are distinctively from robes worn in other schools of Buddhism. Yet some similarities remain. Monks of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism wear somewhat different robes, but the dominant colors are maroon, yellow, and sometimes red, with blue piping on the sleeves of the dhonka.

Red and maroon came to be traditional monk robe colors in Tibet mostly because it was the most common and cheapest dye at one time. The color yellow has several symbolic meanings. It can represent wealth, but it also represents earth, and by extension, a foundation. The sleeves of the dhonka represent a lion's mane. There are a number of stories explaining the blue piping, but the most common story is that it commemorates a connection to China.

The zhen, the maroon "everyday" shawl, often is draped to leave the right arm bare in the style of a kashaya robe.