The robes for monastics of all Buddhist traditions are sewn in a “rice paddy field” pattern. The different robe colors we see in different Buddhist traditions are somewhat arbitrary, in that they come from the natural dyes of their respective countries. For example, in ancient Tibet they used red earth, juniper berries and saffron. In Sri Lanka the robes were dyed with mahogany wood. In many forest monasteries in Thailand, the heartwood of the jackfruit tree is still used as dye. Though the colors of the robes are diverse among the different countries Buddhism has migrated to, and the styles of wearing the robes differ, all are united by this pattern. The origin story of why the robes are sewn in a paddy field pattern is found in the Mahā Vagga of the Vinaya Piṭaka:
Then the Blessed One, having stayed in Rājagaha for as long as he found suitable, set out on tour for Dakkhiṇāgiri. The Blessed One saw the fields of Magadha laid out in strips, laid out in lines, laid out in embankments, laid out in squares, and seeing this, he addressed the venerable Ānanda, saying, “Ānanda, do you see those fields of Magadha laid out in strips, laid out in lines, laid out in embankments, laid out in squares?”
“Are you able, Ānanda, to provide robes like this for the bhikkhus?”
“I am able, Bhante.”
Then the Blessed One, having stayed at Dakkhiṇāgiri for as long as he found suitable, went back again to Rājagaha. Then the venerable Ānanda, having provided robes for several bhikkhus, approached the Blessed One and said, “Bhante, let the Blessed One see the robes provided by me.”
Then the Blessed One, on that occasion, having given a discourse, addressed the bhikkhus, saying, “Bhikkhus, Ānanda is clever. Ānanda is very intelligent, as he can understand in detail the meaning of that which was spoken by me in brief and can make a cross-seam, a short cross-seam, a circular seam, a short circular seam. He can make a central piece along with borders and sections for the upper and lower parts of the body. He knows that what is cut up should be roughly sewn together, as is suitable for recluses and not coveted by others.” - Mahā Vagga VIII.12.2
If someone wants to take bhikkhu ordination at Abhayagiri, they are required to sew and dye the basic set of the bhikkhu’s three robes from scratch. The antaravāsaka, or lower robe, we call by its Thai name, sabong. It is rolled up around the legs and held on with a belt tied around the roll. Next is the uttarāsaṅga, or upper robe. We call it, again from the Thai, jiworn. Theravāda bhikkhus wear this robe during formal occasions, such as the meal, or when leaving the monastery, such as when collecting food on alms round. Finally, the saṅghāṭī, or outer robe is a double layer robe which you normally see folded into a long rectangle and draped over the left shoulders of bhikkhus during morning and evening pūja. It doubles as a blanket, a pillow, or a spare robe if needed.
Sāmaṇera Dhammavāro is currently well into sewing a sabong for his upcoming bhikkhu ordination and is at the stage of joining borders onto the robe. As a beginning sewer, he is gaining the experience of sewing a border on the wrong side and having to pick the stitching out and redo it. Over the next month, he still needs to draw the pattern for his jiworn and saṅghāṭī, sew them, and then dye all the robes using bark from the madrone tree which he collected over the past few months. I remember one novice several years ago had to entirely re-sew his sabong three times before it was correct.
Not everyone is naturally talented at sewing, and making your first triple robe set can be frustrating. However, this kind of frustration can teach us how to start truly letting go. The qualities needed for a life of meditation and renunciation - resourcefulness, steadfastness and a willingness to not give up when things get difficult - are all introduced through sewing robes. Then, when the robes are finished, we look after them well because we understand the effort that went into them.
The “paddy field” pattern of the robes is also kāyāgatāsati, or recollection of the true nature of the body. Our body is built up from rice and other types of food. Our life is sustained through gifts which came about through the hard work of people on farms who harvested the things we eat. The robes are a helpful tool for “wearing” this reflection and keeping it close. They remind us of what the body is and where it comes from.
Making dye from natural materials is a labor-intensive yet satisfying process. A 30-gallon trash bin full of madrone or manzanita bark is just enough to dye a triple robe set. Just like making dye from the heartwood of the jackfruit tree in Thailand, the American arbutus tree bark is boiled down in one pot and concentrated in another. As the pot of concentrate boils and water evaporates off, the mix becomes stronger. The other pot is the fresh bark, which is boiled for about 30 minutes and then strained into the concentrate. 25 loads of bark or more will be boiled and dumped into the pot of concentrate before you have real dye with a solid color and an astringent, almost medicinal scent. This process takes 3-5 days. Also, this type of bark is a renewable resource which naturally peels off the tree every summer in the hot weather. Collection involves simply walking around with a bag and gently rubbing the tree so the bark falls in.
Once sewing is finished, the robes are then thoroughly washed to remove any hand oils before placing them in the dye pot. They will be soaked in the dye for a few hours or a few days, depending on the cloth and the time available. After the first dyeing, the cloth will still be light - it will take a few dye baths to make it darker. As the robes are worn and age, the color will become more saturated and even. With robes blending in with the trees of the surrounding environment, a forest monk is well prepared to “plunge into a forest grove”, as the suttas say, and use the qualities developed while sewing and dyeing to engage in further mental cultivation through sitting and walking meditation.