The White Scarf and Burmese Meditation
Marie Byles records that at exactly 1:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, something curious happened at the Maha Bodhi meditation center in Mandalay. “U Thein placed a white scarf over my shoulders, saying that I was now a Yogi and should always wear the scarf when meditating.” Her description almost seems to imply that the presentation and donning of the white scarf was symbolic of a formal, spiritual transformation, not dissimilar to a monk’s taking of saffron robes during an ordination ceremony.
Looking through the lens of Buddhist history, U Sarana notes that references to white garb are found frequently throughout the Pāḷi scriptures, occurring in all five nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka (including thirty-nine times alone in the Majjhima Nikaya). In the scriptures, white is associated with purity in general, and specifically can mean that one is following eight or ten precepts. Interestingly, Saya U Than recalls how Ledi Sayadaw had instructed Saya Thet Gyi to wear a white scarf once he began teaching meditation. Sayadaw U Vajirapani, one of the most senior students of the famous Tipiṭakadhara Yaw Sayadaw, noted that Ledi was adhering to the scriptural reference of seta paribajaka, or “white recluse,” (Also written as setavattha paribbājaka. More information is available in the Khuddakavatthukkhandhakaṃ, from the Vinaya Pitaka.) as well as odata vasana gihi, meaning “person clothed in white.” U Vajirapani suggests that Ledi reduced the practice of wearing entire white garments down to a plain white scarf, asking lay yogis to wear it when they came to the forest to learn Dhamma from him, and then the custom was carried over when meditation-oriented monasteries came to be established in later years. Photos of white scarves from the early 20th century show them as being much larger than merely covering the neck or acting as a kind of sash, as it is worn today, suggesting that it has since been reduced further in size.
Then, U Ko Lay describes that when U Ba Khin was learning under Saya Thet Gyi, Saya Thet became pleased with his student’s meditation progress, and advised him “to sit in mental culture for seven days, and to wear a white cloth around his shoulders.” Later, when Webu Sayadaw encouraged U Ba Khin to spread the Dhamma, he is reported to have said, “Give [the lay practitioners] a method. Give him the teaching as a layman after having changed to wearing a white cloth.” Later on, many yogis at the International Meditation Center took up the practice of wearing a white shawl. The practice of the white scarf is not very common in meditation centers and monasteries in Myanmar today. However, in other Buddhist countries (such as Sri Lanka and Thailand), some monasteries continue to require a fully white garb for meditation courses and other ceremonies, as do some organized pilgrimages.