Kathina - cooperation
Along with a shaven head it is the robes that visibly define a monk or nun and robes can been seen as part of most religious orders over the ages - not just Buddhist. In the time of the Buddha there was a wide range of religious individuals and sects and the Buddha made various attempts to distinguish between the 'Sons of the Sakyan' (his disciples) and all the rest. The robe was one way of doing this.
Some ascetics at the time (in fact to this day) renounced clothing, going about naked, so one of the early vinaya rules states that monks are not to go about naked - they must have robes. This principle developed to the degree that a candidate for ordination must now have a sponsor who agrees to ensure a set of robes are available. In the forest tradition it is customary for the novice to sew his own first set of robes but the sponsor may need to provide the cloth.
Initially the basic number of robes was two - one worn around the waist and another over the shoulder; like a toga, with the right shoulder open. As the Sangha grew and came to live in colder areas the Buddha allowed a third robe of double thickness. Several materials are allowed - linen, cotton, silk, wool, hemp, canvas - and several forbidden - hair, feathers, animal skins, grass, etc. The colour is generally an 'earth' hue and can often be seen derived from a common, locally available source. For example in north east Thailand the greenish-brown colour comes from boiling wood chips from the prolific jackfruit tree and dying the original white cotton in the resulting 'brew'.
As a result of trying to translate and convert ancient terms of measurent, robe size has been a topic of some discussion. The traditional size relates to the Buddha's handspan so the first problem was deciding how big was the Buddha? Some commentarial texts deified the man who then became considerably larger than life and the suggested robe size became enormous. There is currently no fixed size, with common sense and modesty being the order of the day - big enough to cover the body but not so big as to always be tripping over the hem.
At the time of the Buddha cloth was handmade, from harvest to spinning to weaving, and it was not always easily come by. The early tradition was that cloth could be taken from bodies in the charnel ground. This was later extended to allow monks to recieve cloth as gifts from lay people. As it was an expensive item a considerable number of vinaya rules evolved to regulate monastics ownership of cloth; mainly to encourage moderation on the part of the monks so as to protect generous lay people. Other rules were also initiated to encourage care and respect for the robe - if it is torn it must be sewn, they should be kept tidy, hung in a suitable place, etc.
As the renown of the Sangha grew, cloth became more available and various monks began to experiment with styles and ornamentation of their robes - some designs were radical enough so that people complained to the Buddha who agreed that some standard was needed. One day he was standing with Ananda, his attendant, on a hill top over looking the rice fields of Magadha. The padi was 'layed out in strips, in squares, in lines with walkways neatly arranged between' and the Buddha asked Ananda. 'Could we use this layout for the robe design?' And so the robe pattern is known as the fields of Magadha. Various traditions have modified the robe to suit their culture and climate but this pattern is still generally maintained. Here is a picture of the pattern with more infomation and a 'how to' download [§].
There is one special occasion where cloth becomes part of a celebration day - Kathina [see: LIFESTYLE - FESTIVALS]. Cloth is ceremonially offered to the Sangha in a massed public gathering and part of that cloth is made into a robe with every member of the ordained community taking some part in sewing it.
Care and respect for cloth generally, but the robes most particularly, is emphasised in the vinaya at many levels. They are not just items of clothing but a very powerful symbol of the holy life - they represent what it is to be a monk or nun. Someone leaving the order is talked about as having 'dis-robed'. At the incoming end of things - the 'robing' end - much is made of the robes. As part of the ordination ceremony they are formally offered to a novice candidate by their sponsor and then given to the preceptor. After various traditional formalities the robes are then given back to the novice who changes from white into the brown robe - a significant transition. [see: LIFESTYLE - MONASTIC - TRAINING].
The traditional reflection on robes:
|"Properly considering the robe I will use it to ward off cold and heat, to offer protection from insects and for covering the body out of modesty." |