I was thinking the other day about the Dalai Lama. This simple monk has been the famed Dalai Lama of my 60’s-70’s childhood and youth, and the leader of the Tibetan people since before I was born. He has come to stand for peace and compassion in a world where there is precious little of either. While I’m not Buddhist, I have the utmost respect and admiration for the Dalai Lama as both a leader and spiritual teacher.
Since I wear religiously observant dress, I was curious about what the Dalai Lama wears. He always basically looks the same with minor variations in headgear—though he favors the visor to preserve his unadorned head which is also symbolic. If you can’t think of what he (and many, many other Buddhist monks) looks like, here he is:
The robes are dyed from all natural materials and the fabric made from six kinds of natural fibers. There are three parts: a waistcloth, upper robe and outer robe. The robes can be worn in different ways depending on the occasion and depending on the sect. When seeking alms, for instance, the waist cloth is worn alone or the outer robe is worn around both shoulders. For doing work, the monk would wear the simple configuration of the bare right arm. The outer robe would be more draped over the wearer during ceremonial or traditional occasions.
I was also curious about the colors*, which seem fairly consistent across Buddhism. I had naively guessed that the gold colored upper robe was meant to represent the divine (with gold’s associations with wealth, nobility and prestige) and the maroon outer robe was indicative an earth color. I romantically presumed that the dress was conveying a message about the inner divinity covered by the outward Earth reality. Actually, I had it exactly backward.
Not like my native clay soils here in the Mid-Atlantic, U.S., Asian soils are yellowish in color. However the color is also both associated with death and dying and also, obviously, great wealth. It can also be related to discipline. The dye for this color is made from onion skins. The gold or actually saffron color of the upper robe connects with the earthly existence or experience. The maroon, made from lac and madder root, conveys a fire and victory. The saffron is only a small part of the uniform and almost completely covered by the victorious Reality of the Divine. In other words, the maroon speaks of our true essential spiritual nature being more than this physical existence.
The robes themselves are practical for protection, for a ground cloth for sleeping or praying, and for decency. They are easy to clean and simple to repair. They are objects of reflection—reminding the wearer both of his connection to the Buddha and a long past heritage and also his vibrant Buddhist community, but also that he or she has committed him/herself to higher spiritual ideals.
The simplicity of wearing a basic robe partly symbolizes the vow they have taken to live a simple life. It is like their “uniform” in a way. A symbol of their non-status that they are no longer partake in the material aspects of society. from The Buddhist Blog
Except for the robe reference, that could be said of Plain people, as well. The clothing we wear matters (ask any teenager!) because it’s individual and it “makes a statement” no matter what you’re wearing. How does your wardrobe convey what you want to be said?
*The tiny blue armhole edging on the Tibetan robe is thought to indicate royalty as in a prince or it could be an addition to signify ultimate triumph over Chinese occupation of Tibet.