Archive for July, 2010

Vows of Individual Liberation in Red

July 20, 2010

One of the things that struck me the most, when I stayed in Dharamsala, was the abundance of color all around that somehow seemed to be in perfect harmony with the projected minimalism of life.

In reality, the color of a monk’s robe is not just plain red but varies in many shades of red, ranging from maroon to crimson to deep wine.

The color “red” had become the traditional monk robe color in Tibet mainly because it was the most common and cheapest dye at one point of time. Also, red is considered a ”poor” color in Tibet so the idea of wearing red symbolizes deflecting attention from oneself and focusing on compassion & kindness towards other beings – one of the main principles of Buddhism.The Buddhist robe is said to be more colorful than other sects. Interestingly it is also one of the oldest styles of fashion that is still in existence despite 2500 years having passed by since this type of attire came to be.

The simplicity of wearing such robes also symbolizes the vow taken to lead simple lives. A monk’s robe is like his uniform in a way – a symbol of his non-status that he no longer partakes in a material world. It is interesting to see that a symbol of such self imposed insignificance has become so significant with time.

Tibetan monks wear a shirt and a skirt instead of a one-piece robe. A shawl-type robe may be worn as an outer layer.
The basic robe consists of these:
The dhonka, a wrap shirt with cap sleeves. The dhonka usually is maroon or maroon and yellow with blue piping.
The shemdap, a maroon skirt made with patched cloth and a varying number of pleats.
The chogu is something like a sanghati(the outer robe), a wrap made in patches and worn on the upper body, although sometimes it is draped over one shoulder like a kashaya robe(the upper robe). The chögu is yellow and worn for certain ceremonies and teachings.
The zhen is similar to the chogu, but maroon, and is for ordinary day-to-day wear.

There are a number of stories explaining the blue piping. The most common one is that it commemorates a connection to China.

The shaved heads symbolize the renunciation of worldly things. It helps the monks overcome vanity on the path to a simple enlightened life.

They talk about global warming, space shuttles, and Bollywood. Many have nothing and want nothing except their homeland back. Most of them renounced everything they had to embrace the simplicity of  a life dedicated to a religion that preaches selflessness. Everyone else including local Indians & many travelers around them complete their large circle of family, love, friendship, and support.

The controversial 17th Karamapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most revered leaders and a probable successor to the Dalai Lama.

Conversation classes are hugely popular in Mcleod Ganj. A typical description of a conversation class is English-speaking travelers converse with monks/tibetans  in English in order to improve their spoken English. These conversation classes are held every day for an hour or two, 5 days a week. Teaching and learning at these classes work both ways. Volunteering travelers talk about their city life & day-to-day experiences, and learn about the tibetan way of life, their struggles, their dangerous journey over the Himalayas, the sacrifices they made, and their rehabilitation in a foreign land.

Poster for a *Conversation Class* held at one of the NGOs I was volunteering at.

The monastic life feels like a big alternative spiritual get-together.

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