Why do monks wear red and yellow?

WHY DO MONKS WEAR RED AND YELLOW ROBES?

You must have seen Buddhist monk putting on robes during meditation and other ceremonial exercises, right? Or, you might have at one point or another bumped into pictures of Buddhist monks online. Surprisingly, it seems to you that the color of robes they wear only falls within the red, orange, and yellow. Now, you want to know, “why do monks wear red and yellow robes?”

This is just an enlightenment guide that answers the basic questions on why Buddhist monks put on red and yellow robes. Also, you may want to know “Why Do Buddhist Monks Wear Orange Clothes?

Inside this page, you will find the origin of the red and yellow robes. In addition, you will understand what they symbolize and the teachings guiding the wearing of such robes. More so, this page touched Buddhist nuns and what they wear.

You may want to learn about “THE BUDDHIST CLOTHING AND EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW” first. This will help you understand why people develop an interest in the following questions.

When Did Robes Come in Existence?

The robes of Buddhist monks and nuns are part of a tradition going back 25 centuries. Thus, to the time of the historical Buddha. As such, the first monks wore dresses patched together from rags. Generally, this was the way of many mendicant holy men in India at the time.

Hence, as the wandering community of disciples grew, the Buddha found that some rules about robes were necessary. As a result, he introduced some rules on robes recorded in the Vinaya-Pitaka of the Pali Canon or Tripitaka.

What are the Rules of the Robe Cloth?

The Buddha taught the first monks and nuns to make their robes of “pure” cloth. That is to say, from materials that no one wanted. Therein, types of pure cloth included cloth that had been chewed by rats or oxen. Blackened by fire, soiled by childbirth or menstrual blood. Or, a cloth used as a shroud to wrap the dead before cremation. As a result, monks would search for cloth from rubbish heaps and cremation grounds.

However, any part of the cloth that was unusable was trimmed away. And, subsequently, they washed clean the cloth. Then, they dye it by boiling with vegetable matter, tubers, bark, flowers, leaves, and spices such as turmeric or saffron. Basically, this is what gives the cloth a yellow-orange color. And, this is the origin of the term “saffron robe”.

Definitely, Theravada monks of southeast Asia still wear spice-color robes today. The colors come in shades of curry, cumin, and paprika as well as blazing saffron orange.

Do Buddhist Monks Still Search for Robes from Rubbish Heaps?

It may relieve you to know that Buddhist monks and nuns no longer scavenge for cloth in rubbish heaps and cremation grounds. Instead, they wear robes made from cloth that the public donated or purchased.

What are the Types of Cloth Worn by the Monks?

Most Buddhists believe that the robes the Theravada monks and nuns of southeast Asia wear today are still unchanged from the original robes of 25 centuries ago. As such, the robe has three parts:

Inner Robe (Antarvāsa)

The antarvāsa is the inner robe covering the lower body. It is the undergarment that flows underneath the other layers of clothing. Generally, it has a large top, and almost entirely covering the chest. This is in the representation of the Buddha. Hence, the bottom of the robe usually protrudes and appears in the rough shape of a triangle.

Basically, this garment is essentially a skirt. And, it is familiar enough as ancient menswear. When needed, the wearer can simply adjust the height. This is so it did not hang as low as the ankles.

Upper Robe (Uttarāsaṅga)

This is a robe covering the upper body. It comes over the undergarment or antarvāsa. In the representations of the Buddha, the uttarāsaṅga rarely appears as the uppermost garment. Since the outer robe or saṃghāti often cover it.

Outer Robe (Saṃghāti)

The saṃghāti is a double layers’ robe of Bhikkhus or Bhikkhunis used as an outer cloak for various occasions. Usually, it comes over the upper robe (uttarāsaṅga) and the undergarment (antarvāsa). In the representations of the Buddha, the saṃghāti is usually the most visible garment. Most of all, with the undergarment or uttarāsaṅga protruding at the bottom.

Actually, it is quite similar in shape to the Greek himation. And, its form and folds have been treated in Greek style in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhāra.

Additions

Other items that may have been worn with the triple robe were:

  • a waist cloth, the kushalaka
  • a buckled belt, the samakaksika

For Nuns, What do They Wear?

The traditional appearance of Theravada nuns is nearly identical to that of male monks. As such, they appear in a shaved head, shaved eyebrows, and saffron robes. In some countries, nuns wear dark chocolate robes or sometimes the same color as monks.

As a consequence, the original nuns’ robe consisted of the same three parts as the monks’ robe. With two additional pieces, making it a “five-fold” robe. Nuns wear a bodice (samkacchika) under the uttarāsaṅga. And, they also carry a bathing cloth (udakasatika).

Today, Theravada women’s robes are usually in muted colors, such as white or pink, instead of bright spice colors. However, fully ordained Theravada nuns are rare.

Then Why is the Color Red and Yellow?

The color is not actually red but saffron. And, it comes from the dye used. The color has also come to signify the sangha. As such, one must understand that there is a precept to consider even a scrap of saffron cloth as the sangha.

Apart from the color, you will also see that the robe is not made from a single roll of cloth. Instead, it would come as a form of stitch from different pieces. The significance is that the monks were supposed to pick a cloth that has been discarded to make their robes. Then dye it afterward to a uniform color.

That is to say that, a common dye available during the days of the Buddha was saffron. Given that saffron is not that great a dye, other materials would have emerged. And, the colors also would have been varying.

Also, be aware that some monks in Srilanka, Thailand, wear yellow robes. More so, Tibetan and Myanmar monks wear Red robes. While monks in China and Japan wear blue as well as grey. So color preference changes according to the culture of the place.

What Do These Colors Symbolize?

If you are a visitor to Southeast Asia (especially in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia), you will notice Buddhist monks wearing Orange Robes. And, most of the time, they also appear in an almost skin tight haircut. Why? You may ask. What does it both symbolize?

The saffron (for a more appropriate name for the color) robes monk wear dates back centuries. As above stated, orange became prevalent mainly because of the dye available at the time. Consequently, the tradition stuck. Hence, orange is now the color of choice for Theravada Buddhist followers in Southeast Asia.

But, as opposed to a maroon color for Tibetan monks. The robes themselves symbolize simplicity and detachment of materialism.

For most Buddhist schools, including those whose, monks wear red robes. There is much special significance to this color. Generally, they are similar to the reasons “Why Do Buddhist Monks Wear Orange Clothes“.

And What About the Hair? Why is it Shaved?

A monk’s hair is shaved off so to symbolize simplicity and detachment of materialism. Yes, it is as simple as that. How many times have you stood in front of the mirror and combed your hair? Or, styled it? Or, complain about a bad hair day? This is precisely what does not happen with a shaved head.

Are There Other Designs for Robes?

Yes, according to the Vinaya-Pitaka, the Buddha asked his chief attendant Ananda to design a rice paddy pattern for the robes. As a result, Ananda sewed strips of cloth representing rice paddies into a pattern. Narrower strips separated this pattern to represent paths between the paddies.

To this day, many of the individual garments worn by monks of all schools are made of strips of cloth sewn together in this traditional pattern. It is often a five-column pattern of strips. Though, it is sometimes up to seven or nine strips used.

In the Zen tradition, the pattern is said to represent a “formless field of benefaction”. More so, one can still take the design like a mandala representing the world.

Do Buddhist Monks Generally Wear Underwear Underneath Their Robes?

The Buddha set the rules for the Sangha (monks and nuns). Thus, according to these rules the obligatory possessions of a monk are:

  • an upper robe,
  • a lower robe,
  • a belt (to adjust the robe around the waist),
  • needle (for fixing the robes) and
  • a water filter (to separate living from the water one has to drink and avoid killing them).

So, basically, underwear is not a part of that list.

Additionally, a monk can possess things that help him in the practice, learning, and teaching of the dhamma. If the underwear can help him in that respect, then, of course, he is free to use it.

But definitely, underwear is not among the list of things forbidden for a monk to possess. In that, weapons, things used for pleasure or entertainment, money, alcohol, recreational drugs, perfumes, cosmetics, other beings (wives, lovers, slaves, pets) are banned.

What are Ways to Wear a Monastic Robe?

There are many ways Buddhist monks wear their robes. Most of all, it depends on their sect and country. However, a universal one is that which the monks wear for the alms-round when the robe is covering both the shoulders.

On the other hand, within the monastery or residence. Or, when having an audience with a more senior monk. The monk adopts a more straightforward style. Probably as a gesture of respect and to facilitate work. Hence, the monks push the right side of the robe under the armpit. And, as well over the robe on the left. Thus, leaving the right shoulder bare.

Nevertheless, the Buddhist monastic robe is so versatile that the monks can also use it as a blanket. Further, it can also serve as a seat-spread, a groundsheet, a head-cover, and a windbreaker, etc. Above all, it is easy to clean and repair. It is perhaps the oldest style of dress still in fashion after 2,500 years.

Variations in the Use of Robes Across Other Buddhist Countries

Mahayana Buddhist Robes

The robes of Mahayana (Northern) Buddhist monks, on one hand, varies considerably, due mainly to geography and climate. In paintings, the founders of many East Asian Buddhist sects are commonly shown wearing beautifully sewed and brocaded silk robes.

However, the monks of many of the schools of China, Korea, and Japan generally wear more austere robes. This, with a simple cloth collar, suspended around their necks.

Also, Korean monks wear brown, grey, or blue. And, Japanese monks wear black or grey robes. In Japan, there is a type of prayer robe known as a kesa. The monks wear this over the regular robes. Kesa is usually patched together with scraps of beautiful silk brocade. This practice is in imitation of the Buddha’s patchwork robes. Like those of a mandala, the geometric patterns tend to symbolize the universe.

Chinese Buddhist Robes

Buddhist robe spread into China, beginning about the 1st century CE. And, soon found itself at odds with Chinese culture. All the same in India, exposing one shoulder was a sign of respect. But, this was not so in China.

In Chinese culture, it was respectful to cover the entire body. This includes the arms and shoulders. Further, China tends to be colder than India, and the traditional triple robe did not provide enough warmth.

In Which Other Style Does Chinese Monks Wear the Robes?

With some sectarian controversy, Chinese monks began to wear a long robe with sleeves that fastened in the front. Basically, this is similar to the robes worn by Taoist scholars. Then, the kashaya (uttarasanga) was wrapped over the sleeved robe. Hence, the colors of the robes became more muted. Even though, bright yellow an auspicious color in Chinese culture is typical.

Further, in China, monks became less dependent on begging and instead lived in monastic communities. Generally, these communities tend to be as self-sufficient as possible. Because Chinese monks spent part of every day doing household and garden chores. Hence, wearing the kashaya all the time was not practical.

Chinese monks wore the kashaya only for meditation and ceremonial observances. Eventually, it became common for Chinese monks to wear a split skirt — something like culottes. Or, pants for everyday non-ceremonial wear.

Most importantly, the practice continues today in China, Japan, and Korea. Nowadays, sleeved robes come in a variety of styles. There is also a wide range of sashes, capes, obis, stoles, and other accessories worn with robes in these Mahayana countries.

Theravada Buddhist Robes

Similarly, the monks of the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand wear plain saffron or ochre robes. Thus, they call this reddish-yellow color kasaya or kasava in Pali sources and kashaya in Sanskrit sources.

Basically, these Theravada monks wear these simple robes in emulation of the Buddha’s humble attire. And, to represent their detachment from the physical world. Thus, strengthening their pursuit of enlightenment.

Vajrayana Buddhist Robes

Mostly, the most elaborate Buddhist robes are found in Tibet and throughout the Himalayas. In the mysterious form of Buddhism known as Vajrayana. Like Tibetan Buddhist art, Tibetan Buddhist robes tend to be very colorful.

The colors vary according to the particular Sect. Thus, monks of the Gelukpa order, for example, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, wear yellow pointed hats.

During certain Vajrayana Buddhist ceremonies, such as exorcisms, lamas wear large helmet-like headdresses with crescent-shaped peaks.

In other rituals, such as initiation ceremonies, Lamas wear crowns with five sections. Generally, each section contains one of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. Or, the Sanskrit syllables that represent their essence. Conversely, while wearing such a crown, the monk or priest summons up a particular deity. may be depicted in painting wearing a similar five-part crown.

Tibetan Buddhist Robe

Tibetan nuns, monks, and lamas wear an enormous variety of robes, hats, and capes. But, the basic robe consists of these parts:

  • The dhonka, a wrap shirt with cap sleeves. It is maroon and yellow with blue piping.
  • The shemdap is a maroon skirt made with patched cloth and a varying number of pleats.
  • The chogyu 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 chogyu is yellow and worn for certain ceremonies and teachings.
  • The Zhen is similar to the chogyu. But, it is maroon and is for ordinary day-to-day wear.
  • The namjar is larger than the chogyu, with more patches. Moreover, it is yellow and often made of silk. Usually, it is for formal ceremonial occasions and worn in kashaya-style. Thus, leaving the right arm bare.

Conclusion

From this post, you must have learned that the Buddhist monastic robe is so versatile. Thus, the monks can use it for various purposes besides what is already mentioned. For example, like a blanket, a seat-spread, a groundsheet, a head-cover, a windbreak, etc. It is easy to clean and repair. It is perhaps the oldest style of dress still in fashion after 2,500 years. More so, there is a lot of significance attached to the monk’s robes.

All the same, the robes serve not just as a kind of uniform. Or, just to remind the wearer that he or she is a member of a larger universal community. But, is itself an object of reflection to be worn “properly considering them. Only to ward off cold, to ward off heat, to ward off the touch of insects, wind, sun, and reptiles; only for keeping myself decent” (M 1:10).

Above all, they remind the wearer that he or she has committed him or herself to high spiritual ideals. Hence, to master the Dharma, liberate oneself, and show others the Way.

Learn more on “THE BUDDHIST CLOTHING AND EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW“. All your questions on Buddhist clothing definitely have an answer.