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In Session: “Blown Together” on the Winds of Trade: Japanese Presence in Southeast Asia Before and After World War II
4: Patching Together Modernity and Notions of ‘Authentic’ Tradition: Reforming Monastic Robes from Japan to Southeast Asia
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Columbia University, United States
Although Buddhist monks’ robes represent one everyday facet of monastic life, as one of the few belongings monks can possess, monastic robes simultaneously remain multivalent symbols which can signify or embody Buddhist teachings, the monastic community, a lineage, and even a temple’s architecture or the layout of the cosmos in miniature. As potent symbols, monastic robes became frequent objects of debate during the spread of Buddhism. Reforms dictated how to dye, wash, and don monastic robes and which materials, from tattered rags to the most elaborate of brocade, could be utilized to make the patchwork.
Reforms targeting monastic robes in recent times, specifically in Japan and Southeast Asia, have addressed creating not only a patchwork of cloth scraps, but also a patchwork of conceptions of modernity and ‘authentic’ Buddhist tradition. This paper seeks to examine how recent reform movements engaged with conceptions of an authentic tradition while simultaneously making claims to modernity. Ultimately, Japanese and Southeast Asian movements to reform monastic robes created an innovative patchwork of materials and ideas through, firstly, a physical re-formation of monastic attire—for instance, advocating the wearing of rag-robes, ‘authentic’ black robes, or Western-style suits—alongside a re-configuration of the meanings embodied in monastic robes to engage with notions of modernity and authentic tradition. Campaigns to reform monastic robes mutually impacted one another, informing how Japanese and Southeast Asian actors might have interacted to influence monastic attire—a dimension largely overlooked by those who generally focus on influences from China on Japanese monks’ robes.