7 October 2010


Hello Michael
Interesting project. Yes, I would be a good resource for you if I could provide you with some publication or article on the meaning of Buddhist robes, but I cannot. I have a slide presentation called "The Buddhist Robe: From Sakyamuni to Star Trek" but unfortunately I have no text to go with it. I just speak over top of the images.
The original Buddhist robe in India was made by sewing together pieces of defiled cloth--wrappings from corpses were considered ideal. The Japanese monk Dogen said the ideal cloth for a robe was one which had passed through the stomach of a cow. These pieces of cloth were stitched together (that is why the Buddhist robe has a checkerboard pattern, called "rice paddy" pattern in Asia) and then dyed a colour called kasyaya. The recipe for this dye was rust, earth and tree roots. The intention was to create a dirty unattractive color. The colour of the robe could not be one of the prime colors and not a color which, when put on the body, made the body attractive. The intention of the Buddhist robe was to cut the usual desire to making oneself attractive. Everyone wore the same style and color of robe to extinguish attachment to individuality (same justification for shaving the head). Everyone was limited to three basic robes (skirt robe, short robe and long robe) and these were not to be considered your own possession; they were given to you by the monastery. If a donor gave some fine cloth to the monastery for monks' robes, the monastery cut the cloth into small pieces to lessen its value. All dress was designed to cut the addiction to thinking of clothing as "my" possession and enhancing "my" appearance and expressing "my" status or individuality.
There is lots more on the history of the Buddhist robe. The end of the story however is that the robe gradually evolved into an adornment and came to be used in exactly the opposite way from the original Buddhist robe. The robe got made from expensive silk brocade and complicated ornamental design and pictures were woven into the fabric. Many colours were introduced to emphasize difference in rank. Monks had to had different kinds of robes, some for ordinary daily wear and some for formal ceremonial wear. Some robes now are fantastically expensive.
The peasant dress which Mao Tsu-tung instituted after the Chinese revolution in 1949 had many of the same purposes as the Buddhist robe. First, the old Chinese scholars' gown and the monks' robe were banned. These garments did not have legs, a split crotch, because Confucian scholars and Buddhist monks did no manual labour. So after Mao, everyone in China wore pants, signifying that everyone did manual labour. Then also, women wore pants as well, signifying gender equality. Even now, the older generation of women in China, the one that grew up in the 50s and 60s still wears pants. It is only very recently that younger women have started to wear skirts and dresses. In Mao's time, everyone wore the same colour and material of suit to emphasize their equality. And so on. The chief difference between the Buddhist robe and the Mao suit is that the Buddhist robe was donned as a personal decision for spiritual self-discipline; the Mao suit was imposed on people for political purposes, although lots of people personally agreed with its aims.
I did not mean to write this note. Got carried away with the topic.
Victor Sogen Hori
G. Victor Hori
Faculty of Religious Studies
McGill University
3520 University St.
Montreal, Quebec H3A 2A7
(514) 398-1347; fax (514) 398-6665
----- Original Message -----
To: XXXXXXXXX@mcgill.ca
Sent: Wednesday, May 19, 2004 11:58 AM
Subject: A history of Monastic robes

Greetings, my name is Michael Eddy and I am a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I have recently been asked by an artists' project out of Toronto, "The Grey Sweatsuit Revolution", to write a short account of the various meanings and interpretations behind the pratice of devotional dress. Specifially, my intention is to explore the approaches to the denial of one's self-image that various faiths and disciplines prescribe/suggest.

"The Grey Sweatsuit Revolution" is soliciting the general public to wear nothing but grey sweatsuits for the entire spring and summer in an ironic attempt to curb fashion authoritarianism. Initially I had sent the Revolution an e-mail questioning the redundancy of such a movement when various religious disciplines already take up the call; the organizer responded with an invitation to write an essay.

Terri Woo of Dalhousie University suggested I contact you, mentioning that you had been a monk and that you had written a piece on the topic of robes. You would seem a perfect resource.

Could you point me in a suitable direction? Thank you, Michael Eddy

1 comment:

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