Gasa: Monastic Robes Moktak: Fish-Shaped Wooden Handbells __ Chun Ock-bae

Gasa: Monastic Robes


Gasa is a transliteration of the Sanskrit term “kaṣāya,” meaning monk’s robes, which were traditionally made from scraps of cloth or discarded clothing. A gasa is an official robe that monks wear like a mantle on top of their jangsam (outer garment). It is patchwork clothing and dyed with various colors, but not the socially-respectable five primary colors of blue, yellow, red, white and black. It is supposed to be made out of several pieces of material sewn together. In particular, the gasa worn by the Buddha was called the “golden robe” because it was woven with golden thread, a custom still observed in temples when crafting a Buddha statue today.

Korean monks cut a distinctive figure with their shaved heads, baggy gray clothes, and gray cloth knapsacks. They wear a traditional outer jacket with wide sleeves and baggy gray pants. If you go to the countryside, you can find common Korean people who also wear this traditional clothing. The only distinctive monastic version of this ensemble is the gray color, a mark of asceticism. The gray robes worn by a monastic declare that one is a practitioner, and it represents the spirit of “having no belongings” and letting go of all worldly desires.

Another tradition of Seon monks was, and still is, to wear old worn clothes covered with layers of patches. These patchwork garments are supposed to show detachment from material possessions, the humble frugality of their owner, and his many years of diligent solitary meditation, far from the comforts of civilization. However, these days, torn and patched clothing, especially blue jeans, is considered fashionable among college students all over the world, and they often serve as a kind of status symbol.

Gasa originally referred to the clothes of the Buddha himself, but later came to refer to a monastic’s three-piece ceremonial robes: an antarvāsa (under robe), an uttarâsaṅga (upper robe), and a saṃghāṭī (full dress robe). Among these, the saṃghāṭī is the most important.

There are nine different kinds of saṃghāṭī, depending on the number of pieces it has; this can vary from nine to 25, according to a monk’s status in the community. Fancy 25-piece gasa are worn by senior monks, and simpler nine-piece ones by newly-ordained monks.

In Korea, dyed robes are for ceremonial and formal occasions. They come in different colors and shapes according to the rank of the monk. Buddhist monks in India were originally supposed to wear robes made from discarded cloth that was stained or naturally dirty. The procedure was to cut out usable pieces, wash them, sew them together, and dye the resulting garment with ochre.

From that uniform color, Buddhist patchwork robes in general came to be called kaṣāya. As the monastic institution evolved, new cloth for robes came to be provided by lay donors, but the practice of cutting the cloth into small pieces and sewing them together to make robes was retained.

In the colder climates of Central Asia, China and Korea, however, the Indian mode of dress was often insufficient, so monks in those regions wore their native clothing underneath and draped the Indian upper robe or full dress robe on top of that. In this way gasa retained its meaning as an emblem of membership in a monastic order.

As for the gasa’s colors in Korea, chestnut brown is used for the Jogye Order and red for the Taego Order and most other orders. A few orders wear yellow. It really depends upon the order and country in question. Yellow is used in China and yellowish-brown or yellowish-red is used in Thailand.

In addition to belief in the robe itself, the Buddhist laity began a tradition of robe offering whereby the donor could attain merit by donating a robe to a monk. Hence, the custom arose of organizing a gye (financial cooperative system) to purchase robes for monks and donating them on special holidays.

Traditionally, gasa robes were sent by the great patriarchs to their dharma successors as a symbol of the continuation of their lineage. Those worn by Seon masters became prized in their school when handed-down to their best disciples as evidence of the transmission of enlightenment, along with their alms-bowls. To receive and possess the robe and bowl of your master meant that you were now qualified to teach your own disciples and continue his lineage. In the 7th century, a Korean master returned from China bearing one of Sakyamuni Buddha’s original gasa robes and a piece of his bowl, and enshrined them in a special monument at Tongdosa called the Diamond Precepts Altar. This marked a significant event in the history of Korean Buddhism.

In the time of the Buddha, the daily necessities for monks were three pieces of clothing and one alms bowl. For monks leading a simple, frugal life of practice, those were good enough, and they could sleep under a tree or on a rock. However, as people gathered and formed Buddhist communities, more necessities were added to the list, and Buddhist clothing increased in sophistication and complexity.


Moktak: Fish-Shaped Wooden Handbells


Anyone who has turned an attentive eye to the diverse decor of Korean temples will discover painted and/or sculpted fish all around the main Buddha halls, on the pillars, brackets, ceiling and walls. It is also easy to find the fish motif in wooden handbells and wind chimes.

The origin of the fish motif in Buddhism is unknown. One version says that because a fish always has its eyes open day and night, it is a reminder to always be awake and aware. Another version comes from this story:

A long time ago, there was a monk who committed many unwholesome deeds. Eventually, he died and was reborn as a fish with a tree on its back. One day when the monk’s old master was crossing the river, the fish came to him with a sad look. The master looked into its past life and held a karma-cleansing ceremony to save the fish. That night, the fish appeared in the master’s dream, appreciative of his master’s kindness. He asked his master to please cut the tree from his back, make a fish-shaped instrument from it, and tell this story as a lesson to practitioners.

The fish motif is used in large wooden drums, small wooden handbells, and metal windcatchers on wind chimes as well. These numerous examples underscore its significance; all these instruments can be used for non-verbal signals to minimize talk during meditation and other solemn rituals. The sounding of bells and drums also helps to calm the mind and prepare for spiritual practice.

The wind chime’s windcatcher, moktak and fish-shaped wooden handbells are symbols to inspire constant diligence and alertness. A moktak is a hollow, wooden percussion instrument used to mark the rhythm of chanting. It resembles a wooden fish but is smaller and round and used in Buddhist ceremonies when reciting sutras and chanting.

It is the most representative instrument among the ceremonial instruments used by Buddhist priests. To make a moktak, a piece of wood is carved into a large ball, about the size of a grapefruit. It is then cut in half, hollowed out, and glued back together. It is played by hitting it with a wooden stick. Originally, it used to actually resemble a fish, but today’s moktak is a smaller, more stylized version of the large wooden fish which is one of the Four Buddhist Instruments.

The best material for making a moktak is the jujube tree, but wood from birch, ginkgo, or Zelkova is also popular. There are two types of moktak: a large moktak, which sits on a small cushion and is usually used to call together temple residents; and a small handheld one used in chanting, services, and reciting sutras inside a Dharma hall.

It is also a necessity in conducting the daily predawn “temple ground chanting” in which a monk or nun walks around the temple grounds striking the moktak and chanting, also waking up the other practitioners. In the ritual of Beompae (Buddhist music and dance), it is struck in tune with the music. Historically, people made both fish shaped and circular moktak, but after successive generations, the circular design prevailed.

The fish motif is not restricted to the ground level; they are also suspended in the air. Fish-motif wind chimes are found on the eaves of Buddhist halls and pagodas. The wind rings the chimes, awakening the monks and nuns. Practitioners, like fish who are always aware, practice to continuously cultivate themselves, even in their dreams. The wind moving the chimes is likened to the state of complete freedom from hindrance and obstruction.

The fish motif is not only a metaphysical symbol of tranquility and unrestricted freedom; it is also a character in Buddhist fables. An example of this can be found in the Jatakas, stories of the Buddha’s previous lives. One goes as follows:

In one of his former lives, Sakyamuni Buddha pursued bodhisattva practices while dwelling in the sea. There he witnessed large fish preying on smaller ones, which in turn ate still smaller ones. So Sakyamuni caught and ate the biggest fish, sparing the life of the smaller fish. He then was reborn as king of the makaras (a mythical animal with the trunk of an elephant, the front legs of a lion, and the body of a crocodile) who had a massive body measuring over one kilometer long. At that time, a famine struck the villages by the sea, and people turned to cannibalism. In the form of a huge makara, Sakyamuni beached himself on the shore and offered himself up as food, thereby saving the people from starvation.

On a related note, traditional keys in Korea were usually shaped like fish. The primary purpose of a lock and key is to bar thieves from entry, so the fish is a cautionary sign for its owner to remain alert day and night.


Chun Ock-bae Photo | Jang Myeong-hwoak

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