New Designs for Monastic Robes

2010 Malaysia almsround

Agen, France
October 13th, 2014

To my beloved children across the world,

Today our monastic community is practicing and teaching all over the world. We have over 1000 monastics belonging to more than 30 nationalities, and many of our young monastics are from the West. As an international delegation we need to consider the way we dress: how we design our robes, our shoes, and our hats. It is long overdue for us to think about this.

As an international monastic community, we need to have a more western style and appearance. Everyone is becoming more international, and therefore we too need to be more international. Yet as a monastic community, and one rooted in the Vietnamese tradition, there are still certain essential elements we need to preserve.

nuns formal lunch

Most importantly, we have the yellow sanghati robe, the long brown robe (áo tràng and nhật bình), the brown under robes (vạt hò) and the straw hat (nón lá). The straw hat, alms bowl and long brown robe are recognised around the world. When someone sees a monastic wearing these, they know that the monastic has his or her roots in the Vietnamese tradition.

We have organised alms round processions in many cities around the world, and the image of the straw hat, the alms bowl, and the long brown robe is cherished by many Buddhist practitioners from all continents. Seeing these images, people instantly think of the practices in our tradition. Unfortunately in Vietnam today there are many Buddhist monastics who dress in colorful yellow robes, and the familiar image of the traditional long brown robes, representing the simplicity of rural life, is now disappearing.

nuns headscarf

The straw hat, even though it is beautiful, is quite bulky, and so many monks and nuns tend to prefer wearing the cloth fisherman’s style hat. We should design a monastic hat similar to that, for both monks and nuns to wear.

The headscarf worn by the nuns originates in northern Vietnam, and in the past monks in the north would also wear such a headscarf in the cold weather. This brown headscarf is very simple and very beautiful, and we should keep it.

First of all, we now need to design a pair of robes for the monks and nuns to wear during working meditation. We should not wear the long robes (áo tràng or nhật bình) when working.

working meditation
Photo: Paul Davis – Touching Peace Photography

The new work robes should be short and simple, and the sleeves should be short enough not to get in the way while working. Whether we are mowing the lawn, working in the garden, cooking, washing, cleaning, watering the plants, chopping wood, hoeing the grounds, mixing cement, or driving tractors and trucks… we needn’t wear our long robes. It is very inconvenient. We should remove our long robes and change into work robes before we start working. When we finish, we should change out of our work robes, take a shower or clean our hands and feet, and then put our long robes back on.

On days when the monks travel to work in the nuns’ hamlets or when the nuns travel to work in the monks’ hamlet, we should of course wear the long robes when traveling. However, we should change out of our long robes and into our work robes before we start working. To design unisex work robes that are practical, simple and beautiful, would be invaluable.

Now for the shoes. We all know that monastic shoes should not be made out of leather. We need new unisex fabric canvas shoes that are beautiful, yet simple, practical, and comfortable. This pair of shoes should be really new, and we shouldn’t copy a style that has already been used in past traditions. We should design a new style of shoes with a more international appearance.

Next we need to look into swimwear for the monks and nuns. Thầy remembers that in India during the time of the Buddha, monks would often bathe in the rivers, lakes, hot springs, and even in the rain. The nuns would also do the same.

monks swimming

Reading the Samidhi sutra we see the classic image of the young bhikshu Samidhi. On a hot summer morning he went to river, took off his robes, left them on the bank, and jumped into the river to bathe. After bathing he went back to the bank, and stood there until his body was dry, and he could put his robes back on. But by that time there were other people at the river bank, perhaps also women. In the case of the monk Samidhi, there was a deva. She approached him and asked why, as a young man whose hair is still black, he has shaved his head, turned his back on worldly life to seek happiness somewhere in the future, while other young people are indulging in the many kinds of happiness in the present moment.

What if, at that moment, the Venerable Samidhi’s body wasn’t dry yet, and so he hadn’t put his robes back on? If he hadn’t yet put his robes back on, that would have been very inconvenient. Who wouldn’t feel embarrassed? The Venerable Samidhi on this occasion would have definitely needed swimwear so he could bathe at ease in the river, ocean, lakes, and rain. The same is true for the nuns.

We do not know if the layman Anathapindika ever thought about designing swimwear for the monks. But we know that the laywomen Visakha, known as Migara’s Mother (Migāramāta), a great supporter of the bhikshuni sangha at Migāramātupāsāda Monastery near the town of Savatthi, had thought about it. She supported the nuns sangha just as the layman Anathapindika supported the monks, and the nuns looked upon her as a mother.

One day she came to visit the nuns’ monastery in a heavy rainshower, and she saw the nuns bathing in the rain without a scrap of cloth on their bodies. Seeing this, she had the aspiration to offer the nuns towels and clothes to wear when bathing in the rain. The Buddha’s monastic sangha had many young people, and our monastic sangha today is similar.

plum village monastics street hockey

Usually after the retreats, the monks and nuns have the opportunity to go to the beach, the lake, or the river to practice walking meditation, sitting meditation, exercise or sports, and to go swimming. Because we don’t have any swimwear we keep our short robe on and jump into the water. It is very inconvenient and can even be very dangerous. That’s why we have to design swimwear for monks and nuns.

If, at the monastery where we’re currently residing, we know of a lay friend with the skills and talent to design the work robes, shoes, hat, or swimwear for the monastics, then we should ask that person to help. Helping the sangha in this task is an invaluable contribution. It is a worthy task that will create great benefit and merit for many generations.

plum village cone hats

From the many designs put forward, we would choose one style for the working robes, one style for the hat, and a pair of shoes that is convenient, simple, and comfortable. After we have chosen the styles we will order them to be made and distributed to our entire international sangha, even to those currently in Vietnam. Thầy will also follow suit along with all his students.

Thầy hopes that you all can realise this as soon as possible.

Your Teacher,
Nhất Hạnh

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Join the conversation

  • I don’t think you need to change anything apart from when you do working meditation outside. You clothes may be inconvenient even a hazards for that. In other traditions i.e benedictine or soto zen for example, I have seen the monastics changing into plain clothes for outdoor work but you can keep the color brown if needed, but that’s common sense really to be practical when working. Some gets scared about a ‘westernization’ being too attached to exotism which is common in Western buddhism is also to bear in mind. At the end of the day, is it about being attached to appearance or is it about practicality?

    • When I was saying a private goodbye to her one chilly morning at Plum Village, I noticed that Sister Chan Kong was wearing brown pants, & brown sweater. Very practical!

  • Here in Norway and generally in Scandinavia the climate is colder and the terrain is wild and rugged. As yet we have no resident monastics. However, when monastics do establish themselves here they will definately need to review their clothing. It is very reassuring to see that Thay sees the practical need for appropriate clothing. I have faith that traditions and identity will enjoy a refreshing continuation in this context :-)

  • Yee we are almost in the year 2015, but, we need to stay as authentic as the original Buddha. When McDonald’s starts to sell Pizza, it is not be the same McDonald’s that everyone loves. When you change your outside, eventually, your inside as a beloved Sangha will change. The idea of Westernizing your cloths is making me worried that in a few years, the Sangha, the Sutras, and the traditions will be Westernized.

    C. G. Jung once said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” and if I may add to it, “and to stay truly who you are.”

  • Please forget about Monastic Fashion. You do not need to westernize your robes, unisex your shoes, and look into swimwear for the monks and nuns. Just stay the same; simple and compassionate beautiful souls.

    Let us (laymen and laywomen) imitate you and not you imitate the west. Thank you!

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