It is quite common in Myanmar to offer robes at the end of the Rainy Season (vassa) in a ceremony called Kaṭhina. How long do monk’s robes last?
A monk normally has a set of three robes; a lower robe, an upper robe and a double robe sometimes referred to as the outer robe. During Kaṭhina, a set of robes are offered, but usually just the lower and upper robes since the double robe or outer robe lasts a long time. I’m not sure how old my double robe is, but I think it may be seven years old. It is faded, but still quite strong. During this Kaṭhina, 2021, the monks at Pa-Auk got a whopping eight sets of robes and one set robes were offered at the end of vassa a week ago, totaling nine sets of robes! Various other items were offered too, like slippers, a blanket, a pair of socks, tissues, soap, sponges, a bowl bag, rope, etc. I was also offered various requisite slips. This year someone was collecting the slips for a Myanmar Tipitaka (set of Buddhist Scriptures). Now my 60,000 myk office requisite slips are gone. Easy come, easy go. Last year, I collected 27-28 slips (1,250,000 myk) to sponsor a meal arranged by the office. These days, I’m more joyful to give my slips for the set of scripture books rather than a meal arranged by the office.
The robes will last various lengths of time and it depends on the quality of the cloth. When I first became a monk in 2001, it was difficult to find natural fiber robes. During those times, most robes were called “CYC” in Myanmar Lanugage, which translates to “nylon” or “polyester” (I’m not sure which). Na-Uyana does not accept this material as “robe cloth” according to the ancient rules which specify a small list of woven materials that can be used for robes. According to modern standards, it is considered “okay”, just like rubber slippers and stainless steel bowls which are also used by Na-Uyana. To get natural fiber robes in Pa-Auk in the olden days, monks would put the word out to various monks who would tell other various monks (Social networking by actually speaking) that such and such monk was looking for natural fiber robes. Eventually the robes would appear within a day or two. During these times (2001-2003) the only natural fiber robes were often made by the government and the cloth was very thin to the point that you could see through them if your skin color was white. However, we usually wore both the upper and lower robes together (2 layers) when we walked in public. The thin cloth was good for the hot climate, but not very durable. These robes might last 4-6 months if worn daily. The hotter the climate, the less time the robes will last. This is because the body sweat wears away the robe cloth. In the cooler climates of Pyin Oo Lwin, the robes will last longer.
As time has gone by and Pa-Auk has grown in popularity in size, robe manufacturing companies have arisen to meet Pa-Auk vinaya standards. The cloth used from Myanmar can be very good quality and impressed the ladies at the USA fabric stores when I showed them. I think it is the same type of cloth that cotton button-down dress shirts are made from. The first company was good, but some other companies seem to cut corners in the manufacturing process and fold the cloth over to make the 5″ borders on the edges instead of cutting the cloth and sewing a separate strip of cloth on top. This separate piece is required for the monk rules. One company cuts all stitching lines and there is no doubt about anything with this extreme practice. Taking a robe out of the package to see the size and vinaya standards is like unfolding a map and then trying to fold it back again (remember those days?). So with so many robes to choose from, I stick with a company I know and trust, or I stitch the robes myself.
The robes we get today can last several years if one stays in Pyin Oo Lwin with a meditation center lifestyle. When I was in Hawai’i, I would need to go out in the hot sun everyday to collect my food. You could literally see that my robes were sun-bleached. The color of the robes were different shades according to the sunlight they received. The outside of the robes were a lighter color than the inner part of the robes. To bring life back to the robes without the need for new robes, one can dye the robes.
Various chemical dyes exist. Rit dyes are quite famous in the USA, but I have not had great success with them or other companies as well. Natural dyes for monks are often made from tree bark or tree hardwood, and a large pot is needed to cook these natural dyes. However, I suspect the Pa-Auk and Na-Uyana have missed a few steps in making these dyes since the majority of the dye gets washed out the moment you use modern washing detergent How do we wash the robes if we have natural dye? In Sri Lanka, we use boiling water with certain types of leaves to help bring out the oils out from the robes which came from the body. We have special elongated monk-robe-washing-sinks to do this too.
A monk is encouraged to sew his robes if they become damaged. We have rules that a monk must repair his robe immediately that day to avoid minor penalties. A monk is required to carry a needle and thread if he travels more than 4 miles. If 10 dawns pass, then we need to forfeit our robes to a fellow monk, tell him that we were lazy to fix our robes, confess, and then the monk will give the robes back to us. Because of this tedious process, it can be tiresome to make a robe last for years through repeated repair. When I get a hole in one of my robes, I test the cloth by stretching it lightly, if it tears in a new spot, I usually opt for a new robe from the storeroom or start thinking about making new ones. If the cloth looks like it is in good condition, then I will repair it. Below is a robe that I made last for 4 years as a little experiment. The center section has gone through two generations of patches while the outer sections are the original. Because this was covered by my upper robe, this experiment was not obvious to others. After some time, I gave up. It was just too tiresome to keep repairing while there was an abundance of robes available for donation.
In summary, the Vinaya robes we get from Pa-Auk last about one to three years depending on the conditions we live in. The robes we make in Sri Lanka last about 1 year without repairing because of the different type of cloth and climate. All of the robes I have received in the past week will end up in the sangha storeroom. When I need some robes, I can always ask for some there or by asking a donor outside. Despite an abundance of robes, the robes get distributed and used.