Buddhist Monastic Robes

March 17, 2015 · updated December 18, 2023

Buddhist monk, Ladakh, India Prabhu B Doss

The clothing worn by Buddhist monks varies greatly, from the simple saffron robes of the monks of Thailand and Sri Lanka to the highly elaborate robes and headdresses of the Tibetan lamas. But they all share a similar origin and basic idea, making them recognizable as Buddhist monastic robes.

The Sanskrit and Pali word for monastic robes is civara. Wearing civara is the first of a monk's four traditional requirements (nisraya). Material for new robes is traditionally donated by laypersons in the kathina ceremony, which occurs across Southeast Asia after the rainy season. This is one of the few monastic ceremonies that involves the laity, and it helps them to gain merit.

Three Parts of the Monastic Robe

Monks are instructed never to enter a village without wearing all three parts of their robe:

  1. an inner robe, from the waist to the knee
  2. an upper robe, around the torso and shoulders
  3. an outer robe used as an overgarment

Ways to Wear a Monastic Robe

There are a number of ways Buddhist monks wear their robes, depending on their sect and country. The most universal one is that which is worn for the alms-round, when the robe is covering both the shoulders.

Within the monastery or residence or when having an audience with a more senior monk, a simpler style is adopted, as a gesture of respect and to facilitate work. The right side of the robe is pushed under the armpit and over the robe on the left, leaving the right shoulder bare.

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

Types and Colors of Buddhist Monastic Robes

The Buddha's Robes

The historical Buddha is said to have worn a humble monk's robe made of patched pieces of donated cloth throughout his life. He is depicted in painting and sculpture with such a robe draped over his body, often leaving his right shoulder bare.

Theravada Buddhist Robes

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

Theravada monks wear these simple robes in emulation of the Buddha's humble garb and to represent their own detachment from the physical world in their pursuit of enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhist Robes

The robes of Mahayana (Northern) Buddhist monks, on the other hand, varies considerably, due mainly to geography and climate. In paintings, the founders of many East Asian Buddhist sects are commonly depicted wearing beautifully embroidered and brocaded silk robes. However, the monks of many of the schools of China, Korea and Japan generally wear more austere robes, with a simple cloth collar suspended around their necks.

Chinese and Korean monks wear brown, grey or blue; Japanese monks wear black or grey robes. In Japan, a type of prayer robe known as a kesa is worn over the regular robes. Kesa are usually patched together with scraps of fine silk brocade in imitation of the Buddha's patchwork robes. Like those of a mandala, the geometric patterns are said to symbolize the universe.

Vajrayana Buddhist Robes

The most elaborate Buddhist robes are found in Tibet and throughout the Himalayas, in the esoteric 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: 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, each containing one of the Five Dhyani Buddhas or the Sanskrit syllables that represent their essence. While wearing such a crown, the monk or priest summons up a particular deity, who may be depicted in painting wearing a similar five-part crown.