April 20, 2009

291206 wat fashion?

04. monk fashion vs. novice fashion

During this trip & subsequent trips to Laos, the cat encountered many questions about monks' robes. On discovering that it was Buddhist, Western tourists usually quizzed it about the Theravada tradition - stuff like why Burmese monks wear maroon but Lao monks wear orange & some Thai monks wear ขนุน (khanun aka. jackfruit - dull brown dye from the wood of the jackfruit tree). The most popular question from Laotians - on discovering that Mahayana is the dominant tradition in Singapore - was (& still is), how the heck do Mahayana monks practise kungfu in their robes?? Thanks to the Hong Kong film industry & TVB drama serials, in the minds of many Laotians & Thais, Mahayana = Shaolin...!

During the discussion on clot, clots & clotting, ex-novice Reebok cap jumped up, grabbed an outer robe lying near us, & started folding away as all of us stared in shock...laymen aren't supposed to fool around with robes like that...'NOVICE FASHION!' he proudly declared as he draped his handiwork around his T-shirt & bermudas...& then unravelled everything & started wrapping, twisting & rolling...You know how? an incredulous Monk TYF asked, knowing that his village-mate had never been a full monk before...'I see monk do before many time...MONK FASHION!' he declared, as the rest fell over laughing at his half-baked efforts & the cat fell over laughing at his use of the word 'fashion' :P The final verdict on Reebok cap's attempt...

cat: What do you think? Pass or fail?

Anyway, the cat learnt something new - that in Laos, monks & novices wear their outer robes differently i.e. 'style' depends on 'status'. This makes it easy to distinguish between them, unlike in Thailand, where 'style' depends on the occasion & one's role in it, & things can be more confusing.

In both countries, Theravada monks dress in what Reebok cap termed 'monk fashion' for chanting sessions within the temple, & also when leaving the temple to go on alms round. But during ordination ceremonies, while all other monks turn up in 'monk fashion', the person being ordained is robed in what Reebok cap described as 'novice fashion', even if he is being ordained as a 227-precept monk rather than a 10-precept novice. 'Novice fashion' is also more practical for monks practising vipassana meditation, as it is less likely to unravel.

In other situations, while monks & novices in Laos have to stick to their respective 'fashions', their Thai counterparts can wear their outer robes either way, depending on personal preference or individual temple/school protocol. Monk TYF had to get used to dressing in the 'novice fashion' of his younger days again when he moved to Thailand & was instructed to turn up for all university exams in that 'style'.

For some reason, quite a few Westerners get the impression that the various shades of saffron/maroon/orange robe cloth correspond with seniority...in actual fact it's a matter of tradition in some situations (in Thailand, Dhammayut monks stick to khanun), while in most instances, it's simply a matter of personal choice (from whatever laymen have donated). Two years later when Monk V pointed at his entire wardrobe in his kuti & commented that having a set each of contrasting shades makes it more obvious that he is a 'hygienic monk' who changes his robes daily, the cat laughed out loud as all the questions on colour that Westerners had asked it before came to mind.

Other 'wat fashion' questions the cat has been asked to answer/translate for monks to answer include:

Why do they carry umbrellas when it isn't raining?
Tropical sun burns shaven scalps.

Why are they allowed to carry only black or brown umbrellas?
Just the two most common colours that laymen donate to them. Black is preferred - transmits less sunlight from above & reflects less heat & glare from the ground. But they have to accept whatever is given, which can result in situations like this. Once the cat had to suppress a laughing fit when a monk friend carried an umbrella with the large logo of the skincare product brand OLAY emblazoned on it.

& probably the most hilarious...

Do novices end up with darker/sunburnt right shoulders?
Most are already quite tan to begin with, & don't burn as easily as fair-skinned Caucasians, but it does happen to a few. Beneath all the colours & robes, everyone is just human :)