The Monks’ Robes came to be because of the wishes of those who were followers of the Buddha. As ascetics, they were nude or nearly nude. As monks, their clothing was more modest since they traveled and encountered many people. Also, they had decided that they wanted to look alike, as that would signify that they were followers of the Buddha. Since it seemed to be so important to the monks, the Buddha told them to utilize rags to make their robes. They would find rags on decayed corpses and in rag heaps. Because the cloth, itself, was neither good nor bad, it was usable and available.
Firstly, the rags were boiled and then dyed with a readily available root dye. They were then a muddy orange/brown color. Since needle and thread was already part of peoples’ lives, it was not hard for the monks to locate such and sew the pieces of rags together.
The Buddha showed how they were sewn together. He pointed to a rice paddy and said that the pieces of cloth, all different sizes, could be assembled into a workable piece of material by placing the pieces in the manner of a rice paddy.
As time passed, townspeople and rich people donated robes already sewn. Some were sewn in the finest fabrics from used clothing of kinds and such. The Buddha had to work with the monks, some of whom were greedy, to see that fabric did not become a status symbol.
And, there is a wonderful lesson in the story of the 500 sets of robes given to one of the Buddha’s monks. It was a trick. If the monk took the robes, then the concept of lack of attachment to materialism (intended) things was false.
After the giver criticized the monk, the monk explained why he had taken the robes when they were presented. He said that each monk was permitted two sets of robes only. But, as time passed, some became beyond repair and new ones were given as replacements.
Again the giver criticized the monk. The monk simple smiled and continued: When the robes become too tattered to wear, they were used as bedding and covers. When they became too small for this, they became pillow covers. When they became too small for this they became wash clothes. When they became too small for wash clothes, they became bandages. When they became too small for bandages, they were used to patch holes in walls of the rainy-season monasteries. Thus, nothing was wasted at all.
Yet … after centuries … the robes did, indeed change into spectacular garments. The first changes happened due to weather conditions. As Buddhism spread, robes were placed over the wearer’s clothes so as to keep warm. Robes, alone, would not sustain the monk in the snowy mountains.
Later, since they were worn over regular clothing they became smaller and more manageable. How they became so ornate and grand is due to the political and greedy minds of many people. Wanting favor, beautiful and rare materials were made into robes for certain monks and certain monks would bestow upon the giver some benefit or merit.
The father away we are from the time of the Buddha, the more things like this happen. There is no Buddha standing before us saying that we should wear rags. We could not wear rags and function in this society.
The circle of greed, anger [Don’t tell me what I can have or wear!!!] and ignorance creates that old “Catch 22” of you can’t do it and you can’t not do it. When were wear our most formal robes, we are told how beautiful the robes are and how pleasing to look at. If we wore rags sewn together, it would be unacceptable. Time has done this.
Given enough time, we will no longer wear robes at all, said Bhante Madawala Seelawimala Mahathera, my friend, when speaking of some of the Mahayana sects, such as ours. He said that the Okesa would be all that we would wear to signify we are priests. Laughingly, and in teasing us, he said that eventually we would just wear a string around our necks.
Time does, indeed, create change. Time does, indeed, create modifications, and varied styles of Buddhist monks and priests. What we priests can do, and this is only what we can do, is live the life of a good and respectable priest who truly does his or her best to understand the circle of impermanent, ever-changing, interdependent life.