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Buddhist robes

Two Buddhist nuns in pink. Photograph by Shelley Anderson.

Two Buddhist nuns in pink. Photograph by Shelley Anderson.

I attended an international conference on Buddhist women recently and was fascinated with the variety of robes Buddhist nuns wore. It made me want to learn more.

Buddhism began some 2,500 years ago in northern India. There are three main traditions, each with a distinctive dress, and hundreds of denominations within each tradition.

The oldest tradition within Buddhism is Theravadan, practiced today mainly in southeast Asia. A Theravadan monk’s robe comes in three pieces: a sarong-like piece that falls from the waist to the ankles, tied by a cotton string; a rectangular piece (from two to almost three metres long) that is wrapped like a sari around the body, and draped over both shoulders or only the left shoulder; and a similar extra robe that can be worn in cold weather (called a sanghati robe). The nuns wear the same, plus a bodice underneath the robe.

“There’s a lot of fiddling and readjusting with Theravadan robes. They’re always slipping, as there’s no buttons or knots,” said an Australian Theravadan nun.

The colour of Theravadan robes ranges from orange to yellow to ochre. In Thailand, where there is a controversy about women’s ordination (hence, who can legally wear ordained robes), it can be a radical act for a nun to wear these robes.

Many Buddhist women in Thailand and Cambodia who want to renounce secular life wear a less controversial long white skirt, long-sleeved white blouse and a white rectangular cloth draped over their left shoulder. In Burma, nuns wear a saffron-coloured ankle-length skirt, a pink long-sleeved blouse and a pink rectangular cloth, again draped over their left shoulder.

Fortunately for Theravadans, the earliest Buddhist strictures around the appropriate cloth for robes no longer apply. Originally only cloth that had been thrown away was allowed: cloth soiled by childbirth or menstrual blood; gnawed by oxen or mice; burnt; or shrouds for the dead are specifically mentioned as permissible. Embellishing the robes by adding cowrie shells or owl feathers was prohibited. The cloth was scavenged, washed and then dyed with turmeric or saffron. These colours were supposedly considered unattractive. When I asked a Tibetan nun why her robes were maroon-coloured, I got a similar response: “It’s an unattractive colour.”

Theravadan nun from Thailand. Photograph by Shelley Anderson.

Theravadan nun from Thailand. Photograph by Shelley Anderson.

As Buddhism spread to northern Asia, robes changed. Exposing the right shoulder, a sign of respect in India, was considered indecent in China. There, nuns started to grow their own food rather than going on alms rounds. A grey long-sleeved tunic and loose trousers were practical to work in; a long-sleeved, ankle-length grey robe (adapted from Daoist robes), tied left over right; and an often differently coloured sanghati robe completed, and still completes, a Buddhist nun’s outfit. . “It’s very convenient and quick, if a visitor comes. Your clothes might be dirty from gardening but slip on a robe and you are ready to receive visitors to the temple,” a nun from Singapore told me.

It is the same in Korea, with some different details: a long grey cloth belt is knotted in front to close the robe. In some orders novices wear brown on their collars and cuffs for their first four years. A grey sun hat, grey tennis sneakers and grey knapsack may complete the nun’s every-day wear.

In Japan, a nun’s dress frequently consists of a white undershirt, and a short tunic and baggy trousers in grey or blue. A black ankle-length robe wrapped left over right (“You would frighten people if you wore it right over left—that’s for a dead person,” a young nun told me) can also be worn. This robe is made of a gauzy material for summer and a heavier material for winter (“It’s all polyester!” the same nun said).

Different denominations are shown by wearing different colored sashes over a shoulder, embroidered with the symbol of the denomination. More adaptations can be expected in robes as Buddhism spreads to the west. One Japanese teacher has suggested that American Buddhist robes should be made of blue denim, as it is inexpensive and common.

Shelley Anderson, 11th July 2017

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