Dharma Robe

There is a trend of lay people wearing strange costumes during Buddhist religious ceremonies and I am referring to Dharma Robe. While it is understandable for monks and nuns to wear religious outfit, what is causing people to don foreign costumes during a religious function?

I have to confess that I own a set of Chinese Dharma robes. In the Chinese Mahayana system, we wear a black robe to indicate that we had taken refuge in the Triple Gem; and if you vow to observe the 5 precepts, you can top it with an additional “Precept clothes”

In a Buddhist ritual, you will stand directly behind the monks if you have taken the precepts, followed by those who only took refuge, followed by the “normal” laity who wears normal modern clothing. It can be an inspiring sight for the general public because you will see the “serious practitioners” all wearing black robes. During the 80s, there was even a “rumour” that said, “If you break the precept and continue to don the precept clothes, bad karma will befall you”

At the age of 16, donning the Dharma Robe made me feel special and important. It was an acknowledgment of my hard-earned “recognition” as a respectable good person. I used the word hard-earned because I had to save really hard to afford the purchase of my “Ego” costume.

Of course, not everyone dons the Dharma robe for an egoistic purpose and I have to admit that it does help the wearer become more aware and mindful. Tripping over the long robes is a constant hazard, especially when the Chinese Buddhist ritual involves a lot of prostration,

But in all seriousness, the original intent of the Dharma robe was meant to represent simplicity and detachment from material possessions. For example, lay disciples don white course fabric during the Buddha’s time because it was the cheapest and considered “lowly”. When the rich and upper class of the society removed their rich adornments and don such a “lowly” costume, it was to discard their status before entering the Dharma hall. That way, nobody knows how important or rich you are.

Fast forward to our modern day, wearing a fancy Dharma robe no longer screams “simplicity”. The rich people had managed to weave expensive silver threads and embroidery into their white outfits. In that manner, Dharma Robes can be expensive and they can be pretentious because we only wear them on specific occasions. In the original spirit of Dharma Robes, shouldn’t I be wearing my most tattered jeans and T-shirt? Why should I pay a higher price to wear a costume fashioned after what my ancestors wore in the ancient past?

Without the right understanding, donning the Dharma robe can seem pretentious and even make someone feel egotistic or create a sense of hierarchy within the community. For example, you get to stand closer to the monks and Buddha statue because you wear the Dharma Robe. But I am sure that was not the original purpose.

As mentioned earlier, the sight of “serious” Buddhists wearing a standard “uniform” can be awe-inspiring for some people. And if we bother to study the history of our spiritual lineage, the challenges encountered by our great founding masters, etc. The Dharma robe can remind us of loftier ideals such as our vows and commitment to our Dharma path.

Wearing the Dharma robe may not be necessary for spiritual growth, but wearing it is a personal choice and should be approached with mindfulness and humility. After all, not everyone wears the Dharma robe to feel good about themselves.

May all be well and happy.

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