The Noble Sangha: Robes of the Enlightened One


One historian's take on the reach of the Dharma:


Tsering Shakya


     In a way, Buddhism is a religion of very affluent people. It doesn't provide immediate solutions; it is much more contemplative. When you look at the origin of the religion, in the Buddhist scripture it's a vary urban environment?athey talk about cities, they talk about mer­chants. Whereas in the other religions, like Hinduism, the scripture is always rural; it's an agrarian society. So Buddhism, as they say, emerged out of urban conditions in India.


    Also, when you look at the way Buddhism spreads to different parts of the world, it always spreads at the time when a society is at its peak of affluence. Buddhism was at its highest state of popularity in India in the reign of Asoka [king of Magadha, India, circa 273-232 B.C.], when the Indian empire was greatest; and in China during the Tang Dynasty Ifounded by Tang T'ai T'sung, A.D. 600-649], when China was at the peak of its imperial power. Similarly, Tibet in the seventh and eighth centuries was at the height of its imperial power. So Buddhism has always been attractive to the growing power of an urban society that is emerging out of affluence.


    Similarly, Buddhism appeals to the West because of its affluence. Buddhism doesn't appeal to any Third World countries, such as those in Africa or in Latin America?apoor countries?abecause to say to poor people: your salvation is in you if you meditate and contemplate, doesn't appeal. So it's not surprising that in America Buddhism is adopted, because after you have gained all that fame and material possessions, you say: what's next? Sometimes Buddhism answers that, so it's not surprising that wealthy people are now attracted to Buddhism and think about their spiritual condition and what they are doing.




Robes of the Enlightened One --

From "Life of a Tibetan Monk" by Geshe Rabten



Before entering the monastic discipline, one must acquire a complete set of clothing, from the cap down to the boots, and also a number of other special articles. These are not very attractive; but each is rich in meaning, specifically with regard to casting off the suffering of the round of rebirth (Samsara), and the attainment of the joy of liberation (Nirvana).


Take, for instance, the monk's boots. They symbolize the three mental poisons and their eradication. These poisons are attachment, hatred and confusion. The shape of the boots bears a resemblance to a rooster, a snake and a pig. They have a curved-up tip symbolizing the snout of a pig; on both sides of each shoe are two bumps resembling the upper part of a rooster's wing; and the curve from the top to the tip of the boot is like the curve of a snake. Buddha spoke of these three animals as being symbolic of the three mental poisons. The pig stands for con­fusion, the rooster for attachment and the snake for hatred. He declared that all suffering in the world arises in dependence upon these mental distortions. The monk wears them on his feet, symbolizing his suppression of the poisons and is thus reminded always to avoid them.


The boots themselves, aside from their symbolic significance, are neither comfortable nor stylish. In fact, when first seeing them, one is likely to think they are the boots of a barbarian. The reason for their unattractive­ness is to counteract attachment for them. Most harmful actions are due to attachment; so there is a great need to prevent its arisal.


Buddha commanded his ordained followers to wear their skirt-like lower garment; for when a monk puts it on,

it reminds him of his vows and the duties resulting from his ordination. This garment has one border at the top and another at the bottom, with orderly patches between them. The borders symbolize that a monk should live in a monastery and by study and meditation cast off the suffering of the round of existence and gain the joy of liberation. Further, he should not mix his Dharma practice with worldly activities. If much effort is given to the latter, one's mental distortions grow stronger; and the purpose of becoming a monk will not be fulfilled. The reason for the patches is to show the difference between Buddhist monks and those of other religions, who wear plain robes with no such patches.


The way it is worn also symbolizes the four truths of superior beings. On the right side are two folds facing outwards, symbolizing the two truths to be abandoned; on the left two folds face inwards, and represent the two truths to be attained. The harmonious practice and uni­fication of method and wisdom is needed in order to abandon the first two truths and to attain the other two; and this is symbolized by the two folds facing each other in front. Thus, this robe not only reminds the monk of his ordination; but also of the need to turn away from the first two truths, to follow the latter two, and to practice the method and wisdom aspects of the Dharma together.


One of the upper garments is the vest. Although not very attractive, it is important symbolically. For the success of one's Dharma practice, joyful effort is essential, and this is gained by developing an understanding of impermanence. In some of the scriptures, this effort is compared to a horse and understanding to the rider's whip. The vest symbolizes impermanence. On each side are two pointed streaks crossing each other by the armpit. These represent the fangs of the Lord of Death, and the middle of the vest his mouth. Thus we live between his jaws, liable to die at any moment.


Joyful effort by itself is not enough. We need to hear and contemplate the teachings, and then to

meditate. The hat symbolizes the practice and results of these three activities. The subject to be heard is


the teachings of the Buddha, the entire body of which may be classified in twelve groups. To

symbolize these, there are twelve stitches sewn in the handle of the hat. These twelve groups are more

simply known as the three vessels of teaching. They are represented by three blue tassels hanging down

from the handle. Thus, when one picks up the hat, one is re­minded of the subjects that are to be learned.

When wearing it, the handle is folded inside, and when carrying it, is left outside. The outside is yellow, the

inside white and the rest of the lining is blue. The yellow, white and blue colors symbolize wisdom,

compassion and power. When seeing them, one recalls three qualities and meditates on them.



They also stand for Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, who embody by the Buddha's wisdom, compas­sion and power. By relying on these three divine beings, we receive a special power to develop their three virtues. The thousands of threads streaming out from the top of the hat represent the full development of wisdom, com­passion and power - the attainment of buddhahood. They also serve to remind us of the thousand Buddhas of this fortunate aeon. Because these are symbols of the ulti­mate refuge to which we entrust ourselves, they are worn on the highest part of the body - the top of the head. When the monk has the proper motivation and under­standing of the significance of his garments, they con­stantly remind him, and act as his teachers.



The hat and a special cloak are always worn at monastic assemblies. The cloak must be made of two parts

sewn together. A band of lotus markings is sewn beneath the collar; below this many folds run down the

length of the cape. As the process of becoming a Buddha is neither easy nor quick, we patiently continue

our Dharma practice during the era of Buddha Shakyamuni. When this comes to an end, if we have still not

completed our path of en­lightenment, we shall have to carry on during the era of Buddha Maitreya. The

upper part of the cape, symboliz­ing Shakyamuni's teaching, is closely connected to the lower part,

representing that of Buddha Maitreya. The meaning here is that it is important that there be no great gap in

time, between the destruction of the first and the rising of the second, for those who continue their practice

from one era to the next. Our intention to bring all sentient beings to the bliss of enlightenment is

symbolized by all the folds leading to the lotus petals on top. This band of petals represents the pure

lands of the Bud­dhas. There are specific Dharma practices that are causes for future rebirth in such pure




It is not essential for a monk always to wear this cloak and hat; but at all monastic assemblies he must


do so. Some people may think that a monk's spiritual practice primarily concerns the proper use of


these articles of clothing. But this is not so. What is most important is that his attitude, mindfulness


and way of life be in accor­dance with the meaning of the symbols. When a monk takes notice of these


clothes, he is reminded of his monk-hood and the teachings of the Buddha. For example, the two


overlapping pieces of material that make the cloak signify the hope that the teaching of Buddha


Shakyamu­ni will be immediately followed by that of Buddha Maitreya and a monk who is aware of this


meaning might pray for this to come true. In books many illustrations are given to aid understanding; but


they will appear to be meaningless if their significance is not known. The same is true for a monk's garments.



The yellow lining covering the inside of the cloak sym­bolizes the wide propagation and long

preservation of the teachings on ethics (Vinaya). These refer, on the one hand, to the words of the Buddha

as recorded in the scriptures. The entire path to enlightenment is classified under the three practices of

wisdom, concentration and morality. The yellow lining also represents the practice of ethics, which is

morality. It is upon this basis that virtues are attained through the practice of Dharma.



As with the yellow colour of the cloak-lining, one not knowing the meaning of the yellow hat probably thinks

that it refers to the Gelug Tradition. But this is wrong. It is not only a misunderstanding by Westerners, but

even by some Tibetans who think of this tradition whenever they see the colour yellow. This is a great

mistake arising from ignorance; yet many people still hold to it and teach it to others. To explain the true

meaning in terms of an example, take the earth, the foundation of all animate and inanimate things

in the world. The earth element is symbolized by the colour yellow, and morality by the earth as well as

this colour. Just as the earth is the foun­dation of all animate and inanimate things, so is morality the basis of

all knowledge, from learning the alphabet to the final attainment of enlightenment. Thus, wearing the yellow

hat is an ancient tradition of the masters of ethics, who recognized morality as being the root of all virtues.



This custom existed during the time of Lama Lachen Gongpa Rabsal, who was the greatest of all

masters of ethics. After the Tibetan King Langdharma annihilated all signs of Buddhadharma in central

Tibet, this Lama fled from the cave where he had been meditating and es­caped to the extreme eastern

region of Tibet. Here there were many monks, and he received the full monastic ordi­nation. He then

became a great master of ethics by mak­ing a broad and profound study of the scriptures. Even­tually ten

men from central Tibet came to him; and he gave them the full ordination and instructions on ethics. As

they were about to return to central Tibet, he gave his yellow hat to his chief disciple, Lume, as a sign that

he should widely propagate this teaching and practice. This was of course long before the term Gelug was




The great Indian master of ethics Shakyaprabha states:

"In this (world) just as the root of a tree Is vital for its growth and sustenance, So is ethics the foundation

And the root of all the sublime Dbarmas.



It should be clear now that the meaning of the yellow hat is not the Gelug Tradition. Likewise, all those who wear black hats are not Kagyiipa Lamas. For instance, Jamchen Ch6je, the founder of Sera Monastery, also wore a black hat, offered to him by the emperor of China. The emperor requested Je Tsongkhapa to come to his country and be his spiritual guide; but as he was not able to go himself, Je Tsongkhapa sent his disciple Jamchen Choje.



But now let us return to a monk's apparel, for there are still a few things worth mentioning. When monks go to a monastic assembly at which tea is to be served, they each bring a small bag, about the size of a large drinking mug, full of barley meal. From bottom to top, the colours of the bag are blue, red, yellow and white. The inside is white and there is a leather drawstring. It is a rule of the monastery that if a monk brings barley meal to an assem­bly, it must be in this pouch. The colours are not simply a decoration, but have great symbolic meaning. When the monk reaches for the bag to take his midday meal, he First touches the leather string and he may remember that this was once the skin of a living animal, and that in turn death will come to us. Consciousness depends on the four elements air, fire, earth and water, that make up the body. If the connection between these and conscious­ness is broken, death results.



By seeing the four colours of this bag - blue, red, yel­low and white - representing air, fire, earth and water, one might recall how the mind depends on these ele­ments, and meditate upon death by considering that this dependent relationship disintegrates by a mere imbal­ance among these physical elements. It is as simple as that. Awareness of death gives greater impetus to study?

ing and devoting oneself to Dharma. This is not the only meaning of these colours. One who has reached a high degree of realization through following the path of Dhar­ma is able to practise a variety of meditations related to these elements. These meditations, too, are symbolized by the colours of the bag. Thus, there are different ways to reflect on them which help to develop the mind.



When a monk first comes to the monastery, he does not know what these symbols mean; so every few weeks at the beginning of a debating session, the disciplinarian of the college explains them, so that all know their meaning. Most of a monk's belongings are designed to aid him in dispelling his faults, and in cultivating noble qualities. For example, soldiers wear strange camouflaged clothing and are trained to use many types of weapons. Their clothing and gear are not meant to be attractive, but are designed for fighting and destroying the enemy. Like­wise, in a monastery monks are taught to fight and de­stroy their mental distortions. The main object is to elim­inate all their delusions, and to acquire noble qualities and proper understanding. There are two main obstacles to this - pride and disrespectfulness. So, from the begin­ning, monks are taught humility, and to show special re­spect for their elders. The latter do not develop pride in this; but show compassion for the young monks, quietly giving them helpful advice. Without any discrimination, they must correct the actions of the young monks when necessary; however, it is against monastic rules to strike them out of anger.