The Meaning of Monastic Robes

The following article is from the Summer, 2000 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

BY GESHE LHUNDRUP SOPA (Reprinted from July Special Edition of Mandala)

The dhonka as much historical significance. It was created in the time of Tsong Khapa, in the 14th century; before then, monks dressed in the Indian Hinayana style, with nothing much on the upper part of the body. Tibet is very cold, though, so they created this upper garment.

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It is made of maroon and yellow cloth, sometimes all maroon. The two shoulders represent the lion's mane. The lion is the king of beasts who has no fear of other beings, remaining relaxed and peaceful. The same with anyone following Vinaya: they do not need to fear being born in suffering rebirths; they are on the path of emancipation.

The blue piping around the sleeve is also historically important. In the 9th century, King Langdarma assassinated his younger brother, who was king before him and who developed Buddhism. Langdarma ruled for many years and tried to wipe out Buddhism. It was the worst situation in Tibet until the Chinese in 1959.

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The Buddha's rules of discipline, the Vinaya, were almost wiped out. Three monks escaped to Amdo, near the Chinese border, and they wanted to revive the Vinaya rule by giving ordination to someone. There have to be five fully ordained monks, however, so they invited two Chinese monks to join them. At the time, Chinese monks always wore some blue garments, so this blue string is a reminder of them.

Under the arms, in the back, the cut of the cloth looks like two elephant tusks. This represents the lord of death, so we are always reminded of the impermanence of life. We are sitting in the jaws of death.

The shemdap is made of patches and is maroon. Originally, you would cut up the cloth into different pieces and then sew it together; now we simply sew it so it looks patched. As His Holiness said once, It's not of good quality, and it's patched. If it was of good material and in one piece, your could sell it and gain something. This way you can't. This reinforces our philosophy of becoming detached from worldly goods.

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The folds in the robes (at least in the Gelug lineage) have particular significance. The fold on the right side turn towards the back, which symbolizes that the monk or nun has left behind worldly concerns and activities, as well as following negative actions. The folds on the left turn towards the front, symbolic of following the Buddhist path and virtuous activities-the purpose is to go towards that. Monastics should always remember this when they put on their robes.

I'm not sure how it is in other traditions; sometimes they have the folds all towards the back. These folds are specific to the Tibetans, as the Indian robes use less cloth, so technically these folds aren't part of the Vinaya system. Also, the three folds in front sometimes symbolize different sayings, like Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and the three Principles of the Path, but overall these three folds make it easier to sit down.

The chogu is yellow and is usually worn during confession ceremony and teachings. It is similar to the Hinayana robe. It is also made of many pieces.

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For day-to-day life, monks and nuns don't wear the chogu; they wear the zen which is maroon, the same as the shemdap.

The namjar is also yellow and is bigger than the chogu. It is for special occasions, such as ordinations. His Holiness sometimes wears the namjar for initiations and certain ceremonies. It has more patches than the chogu, and sometimes, in Tibet, it was made of silk.

The dingwa is made of wool and is put on top of your cushion. Monks and nuns are supposed to always take it with them. Nowadays it's not used much, only for teachings and ceremonies. If you visit someone, you would sit on it so that it protects the person's seat from damage: if you spill something, for example, it's your own cloth that gets damaged.

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The hat is worn during special ceremonies. The bottom part is yellow and has the handle in the back with two handles. Inside is white, symbolic of Chen- rezig, the Buddha of Compassion; the handle inside is blue, symbolic of Vajrapani, the Buddha of Power; and the handle outside is reddish orange and symbolizes Maryushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. The many threads standing upright represent the thousand Buddhas of this age on top of your head. The yellow represents the purity of the teachings, similar to how gold is considered pure and free of stains. ä_æ


Illustrations by Thubten Gelek

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