Buddhist Clothing

The Buddhist Clothing And Everything You Need To Know

When you hear of the Buddhist clothing, the next thing that comes to mind is the robes worn by the Buddhist monks and nuns. Certainly, it is quite easy to notice the mono-color robes that the Buddhist monks wear. These robes may vary among the different countries practicing Buddhism, especially in colors. However, the origin of the Buddhist clothing system remains the same no matter how much it varies.

On the same note, back to the time of the Buddha himself around 25 centuries ago, the Buddhist monks dressed in robes made from rags. This showed their lifestyle as those who only depend on alms from people for survival. Moreover, the Buddha stated the rules of Buddhist clothing. And, you can find the rules in the Vinaya-pitaka as written in the Pali Canon.

Putting on the monastic robes is an obligation expected from a Buddhist monk. In fact, it is the first of the four traditional requirements of a Buddhist monk. On the other hand, the equivalent name of the monastic robe in Pali is Civara.

This article covers all you need to know about Buddhist clothing.

Let us now take a look at the topics for discussion:

  • The Origin Of The Buddhist Monk Robes
  • The Three Piece Monastic Robe (Tricivara)
  • The Five-Fold Monastic Robes
  • The Different Ways The Buddhist Monks Can Wear Their Robes
  • The Variation Of The Buddhist Clothing In Different Traditions
  • The Pattern Of The Buddhist Clothing
  • The General Buddhist Clothing For The Lay Community

The Buddhist monks appear in robes that are quite distinct. And, the robes are significant in the practice of Buddhism. As a result, the ceremony for becoming a Buddhist monk suggests the importance of the robe and referred to as “Taking The Robes”. On the other hand, it also signifies the self-denial lifestyle of the Buddhist monks.

The Origin Of The Buddhist Monk Robes

The history of the Buddhist saffron robes dated back to the time of the Buddha. At that time, the Buddha instructed his initial monks to adorn on robes made from that appealed to no one else. This cloth material is what he called pure cloths. And by pure cloths, the Buddha was talking about cloth materials that one can consider as rags and is out of any use. For example, the recommended cloth includes torn cloths, fire burnt cloths, the cloth used as shroud mostly for dead bodies, and cloth used for cleaning of menstrual blood.

As a result, the Buddhist monks would search for cloths thrown away in refuse dumps. They will pick these cloths and cut out the parts that they cannot reuse. Subsequently, they will wash the cloths and sew them into one piece. At this stage, they will dye the cloth with plant matter. The plant matter they use includes roots, barks, and leaves of plants. However, the main ingredient used for the cloth dying is the spices turmeric or saffron. This is what gives the robe an orange-yellow color. As a result, today Buddhists still refer to the robes monk wear with the phrase “saffron robe”.

The Theravada Buddhist of today still wear robes dyed in saffron orange color. In addition, they also wear robes in other spice colors which include shades of paprika, cumin, and curry. On the other hand, Theravada Buddhism is prevalent in southeast Asia.


Nowadays, the Buddhist monks and nuns do not wear robes scavenged from refuse dumps and cremation grounds again. That is to say, they now wear robes made from cloths donated during one of the public Buddhist ceremonies. For example, the Buddhist ceremony which involves donating of cloths is the Kathina ceremony. The Buddhist monks gain merits from the laypersons during the ceremony. Consequently, they get most of the cloths for the robes from here.

The Three Piece Monastic Robe (Tricivara)

Whenever you see a Buddhist monk, it likely that they are wearing their full robe which consists of three parts. This is because the monks do not go into the village without the complete robe. On the same note, the three-piece robe is:

  1. The Inner Cloth (Antaravasaka)

This is in the form of a waistcloth. As a result, the monks wrap this cloth around the waist. And, it covers from the waist to the knee. This is the innermost part of the three-piece monastic robe.

2. The Upper Cloth (Uttarasanga)

The monks wear this cloth above the Antaravasaka. It covers the upper part of the body, around the torso and shoulders. However, most times the monks wear the Uttarasanga to cover the left shoulder and leaving the right shoulder bare. Certainly, this is the most conspicuous part of the robes. And, it measures around 6ft × 9ft in size.

3. The Outer Cloth (Sanghati)

This is in the form of an overgarment. The monks wear it to cover their upper body. Moreover, they use it during cold weather conditions to keep their body warm. As a result, when they are not using the Sanghati, the monks will hang it over their shoulder.

Buddhists believe that this form of dressing remained unchanged from the original mode of dressing from the time of the Buddha.

The Five-Fold Monastic Robes

The five-fold robes are for the nuns. This consists of the three-piece robes and extra two pieces of cloth. And, the additional cloths include:

  • A Bodice or Vest (Samkacchika): The nuns will usually wear this under the Uttarasanga.
  • A Bathing Cloth (Udakasatika): The nuns will always carry a bathing cloth around.

These additional two pieces of cloth with the three pieces that the monks wear make up the five-fold monastic robes. In addition, the Theravada nuns of recent days wear robes that are mostly in pink or white color. On the other hand, it is quite rare to see a Buddhist nun.

The Different Ways The Buddhist Monks Can Wear Their Robes

The Buddhist monks can wear their robes to differ depending on various factors. For example, depending on the school of Buddhism where they belong, the tradition or country of practice, and other factors such as their location, that is, whether they are in the monastery or in the village. However, the most recognized way a Buddhist monk can put on his robe is alms-round and using the upper cloth (Uttarasanga) to cover both shoulders.

On the other hand, when a monk is in the monastery, he can wear his robe in a much unrestricted way. That is to say, he can leave the right shoulder bare as the upper cloth goes under the armpit. Also, this method of wearing the monastic robe serves as a sign of respect when the monk is with a senior monk. Moreover, this will give the arm enough space to move freely in order to aid work.

When a Buddhist monk leaves the monastery to visit the village, he will wear the complete three-piece robe. That is the inner cloth, the upper cloth, and the outer cloth.

Most importantly, these robes are suitable for any situation. They can serve as cover for cold, spread for ground and chair, windbreaker, head cover, and many other uses. In addition, the robe is quite easy to make and use, very simple and straight to the point.

The Variation Of The Buddhist Clothing In Different Traditions

There are differences in the type and colors of the robes worn by the Buddhist monks. And, you can see these variations in the different countries practicing Buddhism. On the same note, we are going to see these differences in the major schools of Buddhism.

Thus, these schools include:

The Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is the school of Buddhism dominant in Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. And, the monks of the Theravada Buddhist tradition wear saffron robes of orange-yellow color. Further, the Pali language translates the saffron yellow color as “Kasaya” and in some cases “Kasava”. Also, in Sanskrit, it translates to “kashaya”.

The Theravada Buddhist monks wear robes to emulate that of the Buddha. As a result, their robe is very simple and suggests a life taken apart from the world. This helps them choose simplicity as a means of attaining awakening just like the Buddha.

The Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism sprang up as Buddhism traveled through China, Korea, and Japan. On the same note, the Buddhist monks in the Mahayana tradition wear robes that are quite different from that of the Buddha. This variation is mostly because of the climatic condition of the area. That is to say, China is a cold nation and the three-piece robe tends not to provide enough warmth.

On the other hand, we have seen that the exposing of the right shoulder is a sign of respect for most Buddhism practicing nations. However, this is not so in Mahayana countries. In fact, the reverse is the case. The Chinese Buddhist monks found it more respectful to cover the whole body.

After some controversy involving sects, the Chinese Buddhist monks started wearing long-sleeved robes. The sleeves fastened on the front side. This robe appeared more like those of the scholars practicing Taoism. However, they wrap the upper cloth (Uttarasanga) over the long-sleeved robe.

The robes of the Mahayana Buddhist monks are simple and plain. In addition, the colors of the robe appear more silent. The monks in China and Korea wear robes of brown, grey or blue color. On the other hand, Japanese Buddhist monks will most likely wear robes of black or grey colors. Moreover, the Japanese monks wear a prayer robe “Kesa” over the usual Monastic Robe. They make the Kesa from pieces of fine silk brocade materials sewn together in patches. Usually, the patches are to emulate the patched robes the Buddha wore during his time.

Within the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the robes with sleeves also come in different styles. Moreover, there are many clothing accessories worn with the robe. For example, they use capes, stoles, sashes, and so on.


The Chinese Buddhist monks live in a community of monks usually in a monastery. And, the community tends to be independent of the external communities, at least to a reasonable extent. As a result, the monks begged less from the public. Also, they stayed mostly within the community doing chores. Therefore, they do not have to wear the sleeved robe all the time. This gave rise to the common split skirt commonly worn by the monks. Then, they use the upper robe (Uttarasanga) as a ceremonial outfit.

The Vajrayana Buddhism

The monks in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition wear the fanciest robes of all. Vajrayana Buddhism covers the areas of Tibet and the Himalaya. And, just as the Tibetans gained recognition with their art, their Buddhist monk robes also are quite colorful.

The robes of the Vajrayana Buddhist monks differ in style and color depending on sect and occasion. Also, the monks wear the robes with many clothing accessories such as capes and hats.

However, there are basic robes of the Vajrayana monks which includes:

  • The Dhonka: This is usually a maroon colored wrap shirt. Also, it has a cap sleeve and sometimes a yellow color with a blue design on the edges (piping).
  • The Shemdap: This is a skirt of a usually maroon color. It is made with cloths patched together and has different numbers of pleats for free movement.
  • The Zhen: This is a maroon color wrap cloth made from patches of pieces of cloth. And, the monks wear this robe to cover the upper part of the body. Moreover, they wear this for daily ordinary activities.
  • The Chogyu: This is a yellow wrap cloth similar to the Sanghati and worn to cover the upper part of the body. Just like the Zhen, the Chogyu consists of pieces of cloths patched together. However, the monks wear the Chogyu during recognized teachings and ceremonies. Sometimes, instead of wearing this robe, the monks just let it rest on a shoulder.
  • The Namjar: This is a large robe usually worn like the Uttarasanga (Kasaya) with the right shoulder left bare. The robe is larger in size than the Chogyu. As a result, it has more patches. In addition, it is usually in yellow color and made of silk material.


During some of the Vajrayana Buddhist ceremonies and rituals, the monks and lamas wear other clothing accessories to support their robe and the process. For example, during an exorcism, the lamas will wear headdresses just like a helmet. Also, the headdress has peaks shaped like a crescent.

Another example is during the initiation ceremony, here the lamas will wear a five-part crown. The five parts of the crown contain each the five Dhyani Buddhas. On the other hand, they can equally make use of the Sanskrit syllable representation of the essence. Most importantly, the monks wear this crown to summon a deity represented in an image with a similar five-section crown.

The Pattern Of The Buddhist Clothing

Most of the robes the Buddhist monks and nuns wear is in a traditional rice paddy pattern. That is to say, the robes come in patches of cloths sewn together. Mostly, the pattern is in columns of five strips of cloths. However, sometimes it can be up to seven or nine strips of cloth.

The origin of the rice paddy pattern goes back to the time of the Buddha. And, the Vinaya-Pitaka recorded that the Buddha asked Ananda who was his chief attendant to design the robes in a rice paddy pattern. As a result, Ananda with the idea of rice paddies had to sew strips of cloths together to represent this idea. In addition, he used narrower strips of cloths to separate the paddy patterns. The narrower strips form the paths through the Paddies.

The rice paddy pattern of the Buddhist monks robes is still in use today. Further, in the Zen Buddhist tradition, the rice paddy pattern represents a formless field of benefaction. On the other hand, it also represents a depiction of the universe or referred to as mandala.

The General Buddhist Clothing For The Lay Community

The lay community in Buddhism do not have any obligation to wear a particular type of robes. However, during special occasions, the devout laypersons may wear austere robes. For example, during the days of a full moon (Uposatha days), the laypersons may wear simple all white robes. This is to show their purity and the taking of the five ethical Buddhist vows (Pañcha śîla).

Moreover, this mode of dressing by the devout lay community is formal. That is to say, there are special kinds of lay people (Anagarika) who adopted the ascetic lifestyle. Consequently, they now wear the all-white robe all the time and hold on to the ethical rules of Buddhism. This introduction came from a Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala.

Last Words On Buddhist Clothing

The robes the Buddhist monks wear today have gone through a series of evolution. This is as a result of Buddhism traveling to different countries and cultures. However, we have noted the remarkable differences seen in the Buddhist monk robes. Also, each variation has a significance based on the tradition that adopted it.

On the other hand, Buddhism did not place any strong rule on the lay Buddhist community on clothing. Therefore, one can devotedly practice Buddhism without having to worry about the clothing demands.