The history behind the habit

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

The history behind the habit

Venerable Sunim Jung Haeng, a high-ranking administrator in the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, still remembers learning the meticulous basics of monkhood 23 years ago. One of the first steps was to hand-dye his hanbok with India ink until it turned gray, then starch it three times until it was so crisp it didn’t need ironing.
A monk, or sunim, wore humble gray clothing for the same reason he shaved his head: to free himself from self-absorption and the temptations of the world. All monks were allowed to own was a single set of clothes, and a single wooden bowl from which to eat.
So the sight of senior monks at his temple wearing expensive, combed-wool robes ― and sneakers for comfort ― made him angry. He even thought they were “bogus monks.”
“It took me eight years for me to realize that what I thought about them was wrong,” he said. “Judging a person by appearance means putting him in a frame or prejudice you created for yourself, which is the exact opposite of Buddha’s teaching. What’s important, in every person’s life, is where his heart is.”
Times have changed since he was a young monk, says Jung Haeng, the principal sunim at the historic Unjusa temple in South Jeolla province. “If I tell other monks they should wear this kind of shoes, or teach them how to starch their clothes, they will run away,” he says. “People have changed so much over the years.”
So has the attire worn by Buddhist monks. These days, of course, they’re recognizable on the streets for their subdued gray clothing (and their shaved heads, of course). But it wasn’t always that way.

The origin of Korean monks’ attire dates back to the sixth century, when the young Prince Siddhartha, who would become the Buddha, left the palace of his birth to become an ascetic, abandoning his luxurious royal garb for rags.
Early in Buddhism, both ascetics and fully ordained members of Buddhist monasteries wore humble patchwork robes made from leftover cloth. The cut pattern was styled after rice paddy fields; they were generally in subdued, neutral earth tones, eschewing the primary colors that represented the mundane world.
The basics of the Buddhist habit have remained almost the same for generations, yet many aspects of it are not clearly understood, according to Ko Myoung-suk, the manager of the Bureau of Education in the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
“There are just too many variations out there. Monks have had no rules in how to dress. Everyone wore his or her outfit differently, even if it was the same gray color,” said Mr. Ko, leafing through various shades and materials of gray in a thick fabric sample book in his office near Jogyesa temple in Insa-dong. A recent report on monks’ habits produced within the order remarked wryly that there were “three thousand monks, nine thousand outfits.”
Lee Bong-chun, a professor of Buddhist studies at Dongguk University, is one of a few scholars who have researched the subject of Korean Buddhists’ kasaya, or ceremonial robes.
According to Mr. Lee, as Buddhism spread across Asia in its early days, Buddhist attire evolved along with it, adapting to different cultures and climates.
In ancient China, for instance, wearing kasaya over the naked body was not only culturally unacceptable, but unsuitable for the climate. So kasaya was worn over traditional Chinese clothing.
Similarly, when the religion came to Korea from China during Korea’s Silla Dynasty, Koreans adopted the Chinese style, which meant wearing kasaya over hanbok.
One of the few ways to examine the history of Korean Buddhist monk’s habits has been through ancient portraits of highly revered monks in Korean history. Such portraits, showing monks in mostly brightly colored gear, were visible to the public two years ago in a special exhibition at the 1,600-year-old Jikjisa temple in North Gyeongsang province.
But while these paintings offer glimpses of high-ranking monks’ culture and lifestyle, they say little about the habits of ordinary monks in local temples at the time.
The idea of a “high-ranking monk” might be confusing to an outsider who thinks of monks only as humble, quiet people. But some monks, such as Won Hyo, Eui Sang, Jin Gam and Eui Cheon, became well-known figures in Korean history, collaborating closely with top-level statesmen. Won Hyo and Eui Sang played major roles in national defense as warriors during foreign invasions.
Many temples held elaborate ceremonies for high-ranking monks. When Zen Buddhism became the leading order in Korean Buddhism, some long-deceased monks were regarded almost as saints. In that regard, these portraits of Korean monks functioned more as imaginative portraits of deities than as realistic portraits of actual people, wrote Jung Woo-taek of the Institute of Korean Art.
Some of these portraits were made while the subjects were alive, others long after their deaths. The paintings tended to depict the monks in colorful, complex garb, partly to glorify them as leaders and teachers; still, it’s believed that at least some of them did in fact dress that way in reality.
During the Goryeo Dynasty, habits bore elaborate designs; some of the surviving portraits of monks date from this period. In the late Joseon Dynasty, the habits became simpler, with the jangsam ― a long hanbok overcoat ― and the kasaya, which was worn over it, in constrasting colors. By the 19th century, they were being accessorized with various prayer beads, or jujangja, bulja and yeomju.
Historically, kasaya have been worn in such colors as bright red or brown, with a gold, yellow or blue macrame closure over a white, blue or brown jangsam. Some habits bore elaborate embroidery, to signify the monk’s dignity and position.
But at some point ― no one seems to know when ― the hanbok that monks wore under their ceremonial robes began to be dyed gray, to distinguish it from the hanbok worn by other Koreans. This remains the basic template for monk’s garb, whether in ceremonies or on the subway.
On a daily basis, for instance, Venerable Sunim Jung Haeng wears pale gray jeoksam baji, or hanbok jacket and pants. When he holds ceremonies, sermons or attends official functions, he dons the official habit, which must include an earth-toned kasaya over a pale gray jangsam.
But since there has been little in the way of a fixed dress code in temples, there is a wide range of hues, styles and materials commercially available in present-day retail stores for Buddhists in Korea. Even within gray, a multitude of options exist.
Kim Soung-gyu, the owner of Busan Monk’s Habit in Insa-dong, says there are many fabrics and styles to choose from, for ordained monks and worshippers alike. He points out a hat and shoes that were specifically designed to give a monk “the rag look.”
“Monks used to wear patchwork clothes made from leftover cloth, but not anymore,” he said. “A very luxurious, hand-quilted silk overcoat can cost as much as 700,000 won ($600).”
Two years ago, when gray was “in,” the store sold plenty of gray hanbok to non-Buddhist customers who were simply looking for fashionable attire. Stores like Busan Monk’s Habit also sell Buddhist gear to tourists who visit temples on weekends and want to get into the spirit.
Five years ago, when Venerable Sunim Jung Haeng was placed in charge of training monks for the Jogye order, he saw a need to establish some rules when it came to habits. He decided that monks would be provided with uniforms by the order itself, which would manufacture the uniforms. But commercial retailers across the country, who had serviced the order’s monks (who now number 12,000) for years, rose up in protest. This stalled the idea.
Last year, the order was able to at least take a first step toward uniformity, formally establishing an exact shade and fabric for all monks’ kasaya.
Venerable Sunim Jung Haeng’s habit couldn’t be more orthodox ― and, of course, stylish.

Seoul’s Buddha’s Birthday festivities start today and continue through Wednesday. For details, see Page W3.


The lifestyle of the 21st-century monk

The JoongAng Daily spoke with Venerable Sunim Jung Haeng about monks and modern living.

Q.What do you think of monks who use mobile phones, chat online and drive SUVs?
A.When people think of monks, they imagine hermits meditating alone in the deep mountains, completely devoid of modern civilization. This image is what people want to see in monks. Even if they themselves are living in the modern world, they want to experience, vicariously, the hardships of traditional monks. One misconception about monks is that they are hermits. In the old days, monks lived on donated rice, and got free rides to travel. Nowadays, monks do not beg for food in the street, and have to pay for taxi rides. The world has changed, and so monks’ way of life changed. Most monks use modern technology. I know people are dismayed when they see monks using computers. But if you consider Korea’s ancient society, in which the majority of the population was illiterate, famous monks, like Won Hyo and Seo San, had studied and traveled to China, knew how to read and write, mingled with aristocrats and high-level statesmen. Monks in those days were quite advanced people.

How many outfits do you own, and how long have you had them?
When it comes to material goods, the lesser, the simpler, the better. Monks should pursue maximal simplicity in thoughts and appearance. In principle, a monk is to own only one outfit. But because of washing, they usually have more than a few. I have four, which include a quilted winter coat called durumagi. The long coat was purchased about 20 years ago with money that was donated to the temple. It’s very old now, and so holes have been patched. This outfit I’m wearing today is about four years old. I don’t need many clothes, really, because it is I who will have to wear it, and there is no need because I wear the same thing all year long. In the wintertime, over the same outfit, I just put on the coat. White rubber shoes are too cold, so I changed to fur shoes and a knit cap.

Do you wear the newly designated kasaya?
Certainly. Kasaya was originally worn over a monk’s naked body in southern Buddhist countries, below Sri Lanka. But in northern Buddhist countries, China, Japan and Korea, culturally and climatically, wearing the kasaya alone was not possible. Because the core principle of Buddhism is to embrace and harmonize, kasaya, too, was embraced by different cultures and countries.

by Ines Cho
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)