Sunday, July 25, 2010

What Lies Within the Robe

“He who wishes to put on the yellow dress without having cleansed himself from sin, who disregards temperance and truth, is unworthy of the yellow dress.
But he who has cleansed himself from sin, is well grounded in all virtues, and regards also temperance and truth, he is indeed worthy of the yellow dress.” ……..
Dhammapada Chapter 1:9-10

When the ancient Indians looked into the jungle, they could always tell which leaves were about to drop from the tree because they were yellow, orange or brown. Consequently, in India, yellow became the colour of renunciation. Monks and nuns robes are yellow so they can act as a constant reminder of the importance of not clinging, of letting go, of giving up.

As Max Müller and Max Fausböll point out in their translation of the Pali canon “The dark yellow dress, the Kâsâva or Kâshâya, is the distinctive garment of the Buddhist priests. See Vishnu-sûtra LXIII, 36. The play on the words anikkasâvo kâsâvam, or in Sanskrit anishkashâyah kâshâyam, cannot be rendered in English. Kashâya means ‘impurity’, nish-kashâya, ‘free from impurity’ and anish-kashâya, ‘not free from impurity’ while kâshâya is the name of the yellowish Buddhist garment.
The pun is evidently a favourite one, for, as Fausböll shows, it occurs also in the Mahâbhârata, XII, 568:
“Anishkashâye kâshâyam îhârtham iti viddhi tam, Dharmadhvagânâm mundânâm vrittyartham iti me matih.”
The meaning of which is “Know that this yellow-coloured garment on a man who is not free from impurity, serves only for the purpose or cupidity; my opinion is, that it is meant to supply the means of living to those shavelings, who carry their virtue or the dharma like a flag.”

However, a cautionary story about the robes, appearances and reality comes to us from the founder of Rinzai Zen, Master Lin-chi I-hsuan, who lived in the 9th century CE, who said,
“… I put on various different robes…The student concentrates on the robe I'm wearing, noting whether it is blue, yellow, red, or white. Don't get so taken up with the robe! The robe can't move of itself; the person is the one who can put on the robe. There is a clean pure robe; there is a no birth robe, a bodhi robe, a nirvana robe, a patriarch robe, a Buddha robe. Fellow believers, these sounds, names, words, phrases are all nothing but changes of robe … Because of mental processes thoughts are formed, but all of these are just robes. If you take the robe that a person is wearing to be the person's true identity, then though endless kalpas may pass, you will become proficient in robes only and will remain forever circling round in the threefold world, transmigrating in the realm of birth and death.”

This sounds very familiar, as in many spiritual traditions, the spiritual masters have warned of people who conduct their lives with a deceptive mask of piety and external signs to emphasise their state of spirituality. Jesus warned of the Pharisees and Sadducees “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? .....
Luke 11:39-40

It is time that we move away from attaching importance to what we wear or what rituals we perform but focus on the process of internal purification, a purification of the mind and the resultant thoughts, words and deeds.

Love to you all


  1. When I visited Thailand a few years ago many people were wearing yellow dress, yellow shirts etc and Ifound out that these people are praying for the welfare of their king. Yellow may be carrying the significance of penance. But as put in your blog unless the mind is pure the colours don't mean anything.

  2. EMPTY,As I have written yellow signifies the colour of the falling leaves and hence detachment. Penance being a form of detachment from all that gives pleasure also can be symbolically represented by wearing yellow garment. But as you say inner purity is more relevant than all the colours we may wear. thanks for your sharing.

  3. Dear Tib,

    Enjoyed this post. Those who wear the yellow robe should be able to say with conviction, like Mansur al Hallaj, Ma fi jubbati ilallah - there is nothing in my robe except Allah. I,who understands what he says but still have to internalise this, wrote the following lines:('Aidhan' means 'also' in Arabic)

    Aidhan, Ma Fi Jubbati illa-Allah

    In deep sleep
    I shall peep
    At my true self, and thine
    Both equally divine

    And newly born
    In the morn
    I'll be the knower, and the known
    The painter and the sign

    Best wishes,
    Kishore Asthana

  4. Thank you Kishore, for the lovely sharing. We are enriched by your input.