Some 2,600 years ago, Buddha Gautama founded the Buddhist religion and Buddhist monks take a vow of extreme poverty. They forsake all of their worldly possessions – including modern clothing. Back then, their only possessions generally were two robes, a walking stick, simple medical supplies and an alms bowl.
Originally, robes were made from unwanted fabric which the general public had thrown away. Buddhists would forage for fabric; even from piles of trash. Then, the contaminated cloth would be carefully dissected away and the leftover product would be a mishmash of unpredictable fabrics.
These peculiar tapestries were then boiled in a brew of various tree barks, vegetable particulates, flowers and ancient herbs. The boiling created one uniform, comfortable sheet. Then, turmeric, cumin and saffron were added to dye the robes with their distinctive ‘Saffron’ (orange) colour, which we still commonly see in Thailand today.
Traditionally, Siamese Buddhist monks wore a three-piece Saffron robe and the ancient Order of Siamese Buddhist Nuns wore a five-piece robe. Ancient texts record that the pattern for the Saffron robe was inspired by a conversation with Buddha.
One day, Buddha instructed the disciple to go out into the fields of ancient India and to outline a standard robe design which was based upon the swaying rice paddies of the time. This resulted in a sectional pattern, and this general pattern still underlines many Buddhist robes throughout the world; albeit with some substantial regional differences.
However, weaving a robe was no easy affair in ancient times. Robes were constructed one at a time, and significant craftsmanship and attention to detail were required. Due to their large size, these robes also had to be constructed on a special wooden board called a ‘kathina’.
Buddhist monks and nuns were frequently forbidden from asking relatives or friends to sew them a robe. Instead, the ‘Kathina Holiday’ was declared as a four-week holiday in which robes could be gifted by the greater community.
Although forest monks often made their own robes, it was not uncommon in urban temples for the community to arrive en masse, whereupon the Senior Abbot would collect all of the robes that well-wishers had painstakingly constructed. He would generally dispense them based upon a combination of need and seniority.
However, young men who were not yet Monks wore plain white clothes prior to their ordination. In Thailand today, these white clothes sometimes bear the addition of gold striping because, for some Thais, the golden colour symbolises prosperity and health.
As Buddhism spread throughout Asia and entered into new lands, the most traditional robes were not always sufficiently warm as cold weather protection was not necessary for the sub-tropical climate of Thailand.
Additionally, ancient Chinese culture considered it rude to expose a shoulder, so the Indian style was discontinued due to local sensitivities. Even today many Thai monks also cover their shoulders when outside their temple.
Some Southeast Asian dyes were very expensive in East Asia. As a result, Tibet used red dye. Meanwhile, yellow was a very auspicious colour in ancient China, so this colour started to appear in some Chinese robes. Northeastern Asian robes frequently infused Taoist patterns.
Buddhism spread through most of Asia, so robes changed due to dyes, climates, preexisting Taoist and Shinto influence, as well as the fact that some Monks lived in agrarian Monasteries, and therefore did not collect morning alms. Robe colour also started to change due to theological and political disagreements and sadly, this discord continues today.
Many people do not understand that the ancient rules in Buddha’s time were actually not written down until several centuries later.
Previously, Monastic rules were passed down orally, and this passage of time causes problems today.
First, the Pali texts which still survive were not written down until long after Buddha had passed away, which increases the chances of variation. Worse still, we no longer have all of the original Indian texts. Many records largely survived in ancient Chinese translations, and some fragmented Pali records rediscovered by 19th Century British Colonialist scholars in India.
Six major translations of the Monastic Code were ferried by Monks into China, and it was these second-hand texts which survived intact as Buddhism declined in India.
Two of the Chinese records documenting robe colours directly contradict one another. While fundamentalists may hate to admit it, our records outlining life in the time of the Buddha really do leave room for interpretation and question.
Regardless, ancient texts conflict on many issues, so many powerful groups started interpreting the rules differently. So, China attempted to create a uniform Monastic Code in the 7th century and had surprisingly good luck.
Siam also attempted to organize uniform Buddhist practices in the 18th and 19th centuries but was not as successful as China.
Siam had several Supreme Patriarchs who commanded large numbers of regional Monks, but Siam eventually reduced this into one appointed Supreme Patriarch. Bangkok’s elites of the time were concerned about regionalism and desired central authority.
In 1833, King Mongkut created the Thammayut Order of Buddhists which eliminated certain folk practices and legends. King Chulalongkorn centralized Buddhism in 1902 in ways which were inspired by Japanese reforms a few years earlier. The Sangha Act of 1902 had a great interest in recently rediscovered Pali manuscripts and less interest in regional Siamese practices & manuscripts. However, formal historical preservation for the non-Pali documents was called for in a 1907 address.
However, only 10% of Thailand’s Buddhists became Thammayut. Much of the other 90% largely belong to a large denomination which is called ‘Maha Nikaya,’ and there are many regional Buddhist traditions in Thailand, as well as a small number of Mahayana Buddhists.
Additionally, there are a few rogue Buddhist leaders with unique ideas. These Buddhist preachers are sometimes controversial, and some have recently tried to modernize Buddhism; meeting fierce resistance from Thai fundamentalists who insist on only one form of Thai Buddhism.
In 2014, the Dhammayutti denomination asked every Monk in Thailand to wear the Saffron robe, but Thailand’s Forest Monks still wear brown robes (because their robes have historically been dyed from Thai jackfruit trees).
Some forest Monks still make their own robes by hand in traditional Thai ways.…but, the times they are a-changing.
In modern Bangkok, citizens have a plastic waste crisis and one local Thai Temple has transformed crisis into opportunity. In Samut Prakan (near Bangkok), the Wat Chak Daeng Temple has invented their own process of grinding used plastic water bottles down into a fine powder which is then mulled into a zinc-oxide, plasticized, artificial fabric. The ‘Nanoparticles’ are then added as a permanent fabric softener deodorizer.
Volunteers then make merit by sowing traditional robes out of this space-age new material. So, over 2,600 years, Buddhism has travelled all around the world. There are many denominations, many different people, as well as many competing ideas. Yet, despite all of our human faults-and-failings, the result is a dazzling explosion of beautiful colours.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to accommodate your interests.