What are the rules on how to wear a robe?

@Brahmali @Pasanna @sujato

Hello Venerable monastics and other forum users,

Are there many rules in the vinaya on how to wear a robe? If I recall correctly there are rules about covering the knees, covering the chest completely in public and for women to cover the chest with some kind of robe version of a bra. But what I’m wondering is if there are more specific rules about how to wrap it. This came up for me in this thread. Particularly I’d like to know whether a monk or nun is free, according to vinaya at least, to where the robe to free the left hand and whether a monastic can experiment with robe wearing styles to free both hands? Could a bhikkhu(ni) where a robe toga style etc?



From Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “Buddhist Monastic Code”:

One is also not allowed to wear householder’s upper or lower garments. This refers both to garments tailored in styles worn by householders—such as shirts and trousers—as well as folding or wrapping one’s robes around oneself in styles typical of householders in countries where the basic householder’s garments are, like the bhikkhu’s upper and lower robes, simply rectangular pieces of cloth.

Householder’s ways of wearing the lower garment mentioned in the Canon are the “elephant’s trunk” [C: a roll of cloth hanging down from the navel], the “fish’s tail” [C: the upper corners tied in a knot with two “tails” to either side], the four corners hanging down, the “palmyra-leaf fan” arrangement, the “100 pleats” arrangement. According to the Commentary, one or two pleats in the lower robe when worn in the normal way are acceptable.
The Canon does not mention specific householder ways of wearing an upper garment, but the Commentary lists the following:

  1. “like a wanderer” with the chest exposed and the robe thrown back over both shoulders
  2. as a cape, covering the back and bringing the two corners over the shoulders to the front;
  3. “like drinkers” as a scarf, with the robe wrapped around neck with two ends hanging down in front over the stomach or thrown over the back;
  4. “like a palace lady” covering the head and exposing only the area around the eyes;
  5. “like wealthy householders” with the robe cut long so that one end can wrap around the whole body;
  6. “like plowmen in a hut” with the robe tucked under one armpit and the rest thrown over the body like a blanket;
  7. “like brahmans” with the robe worn as a sash around the back, brought around front under the armpits, with the ends thrown over shoulders;
  8. “like text-copying bhikkhus” with the right shoulder exposed, and the robe draped over the left shoulder, exposing the left arm.

To wear the robe in any of these ways out of disrespect, in a monastery or out, it says, entails a dukkaṭa. However, if one has a practical reason to wear the robe in any of these ways—say, as a scarf while sweeping the monastery grounds in cool weather, or “like a palace lady” in a dust storm or under blisteringly hot sun—there should be no offense. The wilderness protocol (Chapter 9) indicates that bhikkhus in the Buddha’s time, while going through the wilderness, wore their upper robe and outer robe folded on or over their heads, and that they did not necessarily have their navels or kneecaps covered with the lower robe.


This is, oddly enough, how the monks of the Ajahn Chah tradition wear it.


The main criteria found in the Vinaya as to what is allowable for monastics are indulgence, extravagance, and luxury. A typical criticism of monastics is that they indulged in sensory pleasures just like lay people.

These criteria also apply to robes. In the Vinaya there is no absolute distinction between a householder’s robes and those of a monastic. At the time of the Buddha both monastics and householders wore sarongs and upper robes called uttarasaṅgas. The difference between the two was one of style and sometimes cloth. For a monastic the style should be plain and the cloth ordinary.

It follows from this that a whole range of styles of robes would be acceptable from a Vinaya point of view. For instance, I believe the trousers and jackets worn by Mahayāna monastics are allowable. These garments are normally simple and unindulgent, and thus they meet the main criteria for allowable robes.


This makes me wonder if the present-time “vernacular” clothing of a society would be acceptable?


Technically it might be acceptable, but practically it may not work. You are recognised as a monastic in large part by your outfit. If you were to wear jeans and a t-shirt :roll_eyes:, most Buddhists would probably no longer support you, even if you were properly ordained, kept the Vinaya impeccably, etc. Our robes advertise us as Buddhist monastics. They are a powerful symbol of all things Buddhist. I think we would be foolish to exchange them for contemporary clothing.


So if I were a monk and left my left shoulder free instead of my right that would be fine according to vinaya?

Are there any rules restricting the use of the left hand in the vinaya?

Are you left handed? There are lots of left-handed monastics, as you would expect (myself included!), and the robes are not really a problem. I still do everything I used to do with my left hand. The robes are not particularly restricting.

But would it be ok? From a Vinaya point of view it would not be a problem. From a cultural point of view, you would run into a few raised eyebrows, at best. At worst, you might not be allowed to stay in certain monasteries.


Thanks for the info Bhante. Yes, I’m left handed. This thread is my long winded way of wondering whether my handed-ness would give me difficulties if I ever wore the robes. I guess it’s nice to know left-handers are well represented in the Sangha, and now I know a fun fact about you that we share in common! Although it’s perhaps funnier that the defilement of conceit in my mind has taken this as an opportunity to delight and grow a bit, lol.

Thanks again Bhante for sharing your Vinaya knowledge, now my concern is laid to rest.



That’s actually kind of sad, to me, even though I understand and respect the symbolism of the robes. My question came from my ongoing sorting of my views and expectations of such symbols. Thanks for your answer. :slight_smile:


It’s gradations of realisation within the Buddha’s dispensation.


I thought that too, until one day I saw a monk from that tradition wearing a standard sized lower robe rolled in the way they do, but because it was much too long (top to bottom) that when he went to cinch it with his belt, it left about an 8 inch roll above the belt. That flopped over and as you can imagine looked quite like an elephant’s trunk. Or, yeah, that. :man_facepalming: So then I came to believe that the way that the Ajahn Chah folks wear it when it is properly sized does not constitute “the Elephant Trunk.” I also made that monk a properly sized robe. :flushed:


Hey :slight_smile:
Interesting subject.

I’m wondering, are monks robes actaully comfortable to sit in meditation?
I’ve met only one time in my life a buddhist monk (Ajahn Khemasiri). We were at meditation retreat during summer. It was very warm, we (participants) were all just in the t-shirts etc. it was very warm in meditation hall and I was feeling compassion towards the Ajahn that he has to wear robe all the time so tightly.

I was wondering if going out in robe all the time doesn’t add difficulty in terms of temperature? Are there some kind of “summer mode” and “winter mode” ways of wearing robes? :slight_smile: Can robes be sew out of material that is very “breathing” like linen/flax? Are there “summer” and “winter” robes sew out of different materials?

It seems quite difficult to wear same outfit the entire year, especially in countries that has very different temperatures during summer and winter (in my country summer is sometimes 40 celcius in shadow, while winters have sometimes -30 celcius).

I know that monks probably have minds so developed that they don’t mind difficulties that much as regular people, but it is still interesting how it feels.

I don’t have the robes so I cannot check that :wink:

Thank you for this interesting input.

With metta

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Hi @Invo,

:grinning: We are still human though, and sometimes it can get a little uncomfortable wearing robes, especially in the heat. We get sweaty, especially the left arm which is wrapped in the robes ‘sleeve’ and some people get heat rash. It is hard, sometimes, in a hot meditation hall, wearing robes in a formal way, because the can constrict the left shoulder and neck a little if you wear it too tightly, but you can loosen them without looking too sloppy. Certainly, in less formal contexts and in the privacy of our own huts we don’t need to wear the robes to meditate and can be more comfortable and cool.

We only have one set of robes, so we don’t have a winter or summer ensemble, but in winter we can wear layers underneath. Our set of robes also includes a double layered outer robe that can be worn individually, or wrapped together with our upper robe for 3 layers in total.

Robes are a very practical garment! They can be used as clothing, shawls, sheets, shade cloth and even tents. They last a long time (my current robes are almost 4 years old) and can be easily patched, as well as being relatively easy to wash and quick to dry. After they are worn out they can be recycled into curtains, patches for robes, rags or whatever. However, robes are a bit less practical when it comes to doing more physical things, especially one shouldered, there’s not much structural integrity there at all.

Another interesting point in regards to @Polarbear’s original post, is that the sekkhiya rules tell us to go well covered in inhabited areas and the commentary defines that as you noted above. Mostly this is interpreted as both shoulders being covered but some schools such as the Siam nikkaya of Sri Lanka do not follow this and wear only one shoulder covered in public. I think in Thailand some novices will wear only one shoulder covered in public. I wonder if that is to distinguish them (and their behaviour) from the bhikkhus. I also recall some controversy about the shoulder issue in Myanmar.

In Sri Lanka, monks and nuns simply drape the robe over the left shoulder, without the rolled sleeve of the other Asian traditions, which seems more comfortable and practical. Thus looks more like the images of the Buddha depicted in sculpture. The Burmese monks sometimes roll their robes in the most fascinating way, including creating what my friend called the “throat lock”, which is almost like a collar. I imagine that there would have been countless ways to wear robes in the past when robes were all the rage in the general population, and that’s why there are the style prohibitions noted above.

For a fascinating masterclass in robe tying styles, see this video by Sayadaw U Nandasiddhi, which has a breathtaking variety!

[In the following videos you might want to turn the volume off. ] This first one is the style of robes usually worn by monastics in the south East Asian tradition (and international forest tradition):

This is an example of city monk style, a more practical arms-free one shoulder, fastened by a belt:

This is the Burmese style:

Antique photos show that the way robes have been worn remain remarkably consistent in the modern period at least. This beautiful old photograph shows Thai tudong/carika monks with robes fastened by a belt and the sleeves rolled up for more freedom of movement

But this is the style people have recommend for me!


Though I can’t vouch for the veracity of the story, I was once told by an English bhikkhu who’d trained in Sri Lanka that some senior theras of the Siyama Nikaya had once travelled around the perimeter of Sri Lanka establishing sīmā markers at various coastal locations. At each location they would recite the kammavācā for establishing a sīmā. Having circled the entire island in this way they announced that the whole of Sri Lanka was now a gigantic sīmā and so there was no longer any need for bhikkhus to cover both shoulders when going out of their monasteries, for so long as they are in Sri Lanka they are always dwelling within a sīmā, so to speak.

The bhikkhus of the other nikayas, however, deny the legitimacy of this saṅghakamma on the grounds that the Vinaya doesn’t allow a new sīmā to be established that overlaps even partially with an existing sīmā, let alone a new sīmā that overlays every existing sīmā in the land. And so on entering inhabited areas they continue to cover both shoulders as the sekhiya requires.


:joy: That’s hilarious. Wouldn’t that make ordinations, etc effectively impossible??


It would make them difficult, though you could do it by sailing out to sea on a ship and carrying out the ordination on the ship’s deck. This is similar what the Sri Lankan monks at the Chiswick Vihara in London used to do before their vihara had a proper sīmā. During the late Dr. Saddhātissa’s incumbency ordinations would be carried out on the deck of a hired boat sailing up and down the River Thames.



For clarification… I didn’t think the rule about covering shoulders had anything to do with a sima. That is was about being covered in inhabited areas. I’m not doubting the story, just the way it would relate to this rule where it true.

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Thanks for great and interesting replies Bhantes :slight_smile:
Especially Bhante Akaliko, thanks for that detailed and illuminating answer :slight_smile: I was very curious because I’m considering ordaining.
I’m wondering when Buddha said (Mahaparinibbana sutta) that some “less importaint rules can be omitted”, but keep the big ones (not exact quote but meaning), maybe this could be some minor rule, to make robes a little bit more breathing while still covering the body?
It seems quite “hard-core” to have skin rash because of clothing and to me personally it feels a little bit ascetic, and as we know Buddha refused unecessary suffering for the body. :frowning: But that’s just my feelings and some idea to consider.
For example linen cloth is very breathing by nature. If body would be covered in dyed linen cloth, it would make the arm for sure breath more and avoid the rash. If Bhikkhu had one robe (out of three) from such material, he could use that in hot summer to avoid skin rash and overheating :slight_smile:

Can someone please tell what exactly sima means? I got some meaning from the context, but proper definition would be helpful in precise understanding :slight_smile:

As to the story it seems plausible and in line with stories presented in Bhante Dhammika book “The Broken Buddha”, where he says about darker aspects of some buddhist communities (in Sri Lanka as well), where they use vinaya just “literally” for convinience.

With metta

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I’m rather in two minds about it myself.

On the one hand, my informant, Bhikkhu Bodhidhamma, seemed confident that the story was true and one can certainly imagine nationalistic monks making some silly gesture like this, perhaps to cock a snook at the Tamils and Muslims.

On the other hand, the story does seem suspiciously redolent of the kind of jokes that Dhammayuttika and Mahanikaya monks tell about each other here in Thailand. So perhaps some Amarapura or Ramañña monk was just pulling Bodhidhamma’s leg.