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.