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What is the significance of the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe?

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Thanks to this study trip, my friends and I were given the chance to see a large variety of temples in a number of places around China. As we traveled from place to place, we began to notice that the monksrobes were not always the same color. Typically, they were either a deep maroon or a mustard yellow color; however, there did not seem to be any rhyme or reason to which color a monk was wearing. As many of us come from religions in which robe colors are significant, we began trying to determine the meaning behind the different colors. Yet, we could not seem to organize it by any location or day of the week

(Seen above: Shaolin Temple monks wore bright orange robes, brownish robes, and greyish robes, all at the same temple. Upon entering Xining, we saw many monks in marroon-ish robes, similar to the ones I had once seen at Jietai Temple outside of Beijing.)

Nevertheless, we figured that there must be some significance. Due to the lack of internet on the trip, we resigned ourselves to the reality that we would probably need to remain curious about this for a few weeks; however, I stored the question in the back of my mind for when I once again had internet access. Here is what I have found since leaving China:

According to BuddhaNet: The monk’s robe goes back to the Buddha’s own time for it was He who introduced it to the early monks. The “triple robe” (tricivara) comprises an inner garment or waistcloth (antaravasaka), an upper robe (uttarsanga) and outer robe (sanghati). According to the Pali tradition, six kinds of cloth are allowed for making the upper and outer robes: plant fibres, cotton, silk, animal hair (e.g. wool, but not human), hemp, and a mixture of some or all of them. The Buddha recommended that the robe design should be cut in the pattern of the Magadha padi-fields. The color of the robes depends on the dye used. Until very recently, this would have been natural vegetable dye found in the jungle from roots or trees. The robe dye is allowed to be obtained from six kinds of substances: roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers and fruits. They should be boiled in water for a long time to get the dun dye. Nowadays, chemical dyes are more used and sometimes give that more vivid orange color. The color white is used by Buddhist devotees to show their commitment to keeping the Precepts — usually the Eight Precepts — on Observance Days. White robes are also worn by the anagarika, or postulant before he becomes a monk. Saffron (deep maroon) and ochre (mustard orange/gold) are the most prevalent colors today. Though there is a tendency among forest monks to wear ochre and city monks to wear saffron, but this is not always the rule.

Yeah… that’s all pretty confusing. At least I had names for my colors: “ochre” and “saffron.” Researching further, I found a more straight-forward explanation for the differences in color I had observed. According to scholar John Kieschnick in his book The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, “In India, monks belonging to different schools wore robes of different colors, ranging from red and ochre to blue and black, and in medieval China monks from different regions were recognized by the color of their robes” (p. 89).

I also learned from Kieschnick’s book that Chinese monks firmly wed to their Buddhist identities did not give up their robes without reluctance, with many monks risking persecution rather than surrendering their robes. Wearing a certain color of robe at certain points in Chinese history could have been a huge risk; however, monks loyal to their sect and their region continued to wear the colors anyway, despite persecution.

As my friends and I supposed, there is a great deal of significance behind the color of each monk’s robe, ranging from geographical area to stage in the process of becoming a monk. I am still not sure I can explain the reasoning behind each of the different colors I saw; nevertheless, I do feel as though I now have a much better grasp on the significance behind a number of robes.