While in Thailand, our novices were told not to wear outer robes, that it was wrong and that they would get in real trouble, since it meant they would be pretending to be fully ordained monks. The idea, I guess, is that the outer robe is understood to be some sort of badge of office, rather than simply a blanket. So, first I ranted and raved about Thai Buddhist views for a while, then I began to research the issue. But first, a story about the outer robe:
(The Buddha addresses the bhikkhus:) 'As I was traveling on the road from Rājagaha to Vesālī, I saw many bhikkhus coming along loaded down with robe-cloth, having made a mattress of robe-cloth on their heads and a mattress of robe-cloth on their backs/shoulders and a mattress of robe-cloth on their hips. Seeing them, I thought, "All too quickly have these worthless men been spun around into abundance in terms of robe-cloth. What if I were to tie off a boundary, to set a limit on robe-cloth for the bhikkhus?
'Now at that time, during the cold winter middle-eight nights (the four nights on either side of the full moon in February, the coldest time of the year in northern India) when snow was falling, I sat in the open air wearing one robe and was not cold. Toward the end of the first watch I became cold. I put on a second robe and was not cold. Toward the end of the middle watch I became cold. I put on a third robe and was not cold. Toward the end of the final watch, as dawn rose and the night smiled, I became cold. I put on a fourth robe and was not cold. The thought occurred to me, "Those in this doctrine and discipline who are sons of respectable families — sensitive to cold and afraid of the cold — even they are able to get by with three robes. Suppose I were to tie off a boundary, to set a limit on robe-cloth for the bhikkhus and were to allow three robes." Bhikkhus, I allow you three robes: a double-layer outer robe, a single-thickness upper robe, and a single-thickness lower robe (thus, four layers of cloth).'
-- Mv VIII
So, the outer robe is clearly meant simply to ward off cold; making a prohibition against novices wearing a third robe would be clearly against the intention, not to mention making the young monastics suffer needlessly. Or, this was my thought going into the issue.
The first place to look, of course, was the excellent (but often contentious) Buddhist Monastic Code, by Ven. Thanissaro. In his discussion of the ordination, he gives his analysis of the problem in brief:
The tradition in Thailand and Sri Lanka is that a novice wear only the upper and under robes. The Commentary to Mv.I.12.4 mentions the outer robe as part of a novice's set of robes as well. However, Mv.VIII.27.3 mentions a novices "robe," whereas a parallel passage in Mv.VIII.27.2 mentions a bhikkhu's "triple robe," which suggests that novices in the time of the Canon did not wear the outer robe, either.
Here are the parallel passages he uses to justify the suggestion:
“bhikkhussa, bhikkhave, kālaṅkate saṅgho sāmī pattacīvare, apica gilānupaṭṭhākā bahūpakārā. anujānāmi, bhikkhave, saṅghena ticīvarañca pattañca gilānupaṭṭhākānaṃ dātuṃ. evañca pana, bhikkhave, dātabbaṃ. tena gilānupaṭṭhākena bhikkhunā saṅghaṃ upasaṅkamitvā evamassa vacanīyo — ‘itthannāmo, bhante, bhikkhu kālaṅkato. idaṃ tassa ticīvarañca patto cā’”ti. byattena bhikkhunā paṭibalena saṅgho ñāpetabbo —
“suṇātu me, bhante, saṅgho. itthannāmo bhikkhu kālaṅkato. idaṃ tassa ticīvarañca patto ca. yadi saṅghassa pattakallaṃ, saṅgho imaṃ ticīvarañca pattañca gilānupaṭṭhākānaṃ dadeyya. esā ñatti.
for a bhikkhu, and
tena kho pana samayena aññataro sāmaṇero kālaṅkato hoti. bhagavato etamatthaṃ ārocesuṃ. sāmaṇerassa, bhikkhave, kālaṅkate saṅgho sāmī pattacīvare, api ca gilānupaṭṭhākā bahūpakārā. anujānāmi, bhikkhave, saṅghena cīvarañca pattañca gilānupaṭṭhākānaṃ dātuṃ. evañca pana, bhikkhave, dātabbaṃ. tena gilānupaṭṭhākena bhikkhunā saṅghaṃ upasaṅkamitvā evamassa vacanīyo — “itthannāmo, bhante, sāmaṇero kālaṅkato, idaṃ tassa cīvarañca patto cā”ti. byattena bhikkhunā paṭibalena saṅgho ñāpetabbo —
“suṇātu me, bhante, saṅgho. itthannāmo sāmaṇero kālaṅkato. idaṃ tassa cīvarañca patto ca. yadi saṅghassa pattakallaṃ, saṅgho imaṃ cīvarañca pattañca gilānupaṭṭhākānaṃ dadeyya. esā ñatti.
for a samanera.
The difference is quite striking; a bhikkhu who passes away is assumed to have a "triple-robe" (ticīvara), while a samanera is said to just have "a robe" (cīvara). The problem with Thanissaro's logic is that if this were to be used as an argument that samaneras didn't have outer robes, it would in fact imply that they only had one robe, which is obviously not a proper conclusion. There is simply no way this can be used as evidence against the use of the outer robe specifically; for it to even imply that, it would have to have "dviciivara" - i.e., a double robe.
The true meaning of the passage become clear when we look at the commentary:
sāmaṇere kālaṅkate sace cīvaraṃ atthi, gilānupaṭṭhākānaṃ dātabbaṃ. no ce atthi yaṃ atthi, taṃ dātabbaṃ. aññasmiṃ parikkhāre sati cīvarabhāgaṃ katvā dātabbaṃ.
Translation: if the deceased samanera had a robe, it should be given to the one who cared for him while sick. If there is not, whatever there is, that should be given. In the case that there is any other requisite, it should be given, having been made out to be the portion considered a robe.
So, the commentary understands the canonical passage to mean not that the samanera has only one robe, but that it is uncertain how many robes the samanera has, or if he has a robe at all; hence the omission of the number of robes. This makes perfect sense, given that the samanera has no rules against hording robes or even against going completely without robes (e.g. one might assume that a deathly ill samanera might go without robes if he were urinating and defecating on a bed, etc.). For the bhikkhu, however, it is assumed that in ordinary circumstances, he must still be in possession of three and only three robes, according to the rules of the vinaya.
So, so much for that argument.
My counterargument was to pull up a passage from the fourth Parajika, regarding Ven. Moggallāna's spiritual visions on Vulture's Peak:
“idhāhaṃ, āvuso, gijjhakūṭā pabbatā orohanto addasaṃ sikkhamānaṃ. addasaṃ sāmaṇeraṃ. addasaṃ sāmaṇeriṃ vehāsaṃ gacchantiṃ. tassā saṅghāṭipi ādittā sampajjalitā sajotibhūtā, pattopi āditto sampajjalito sajotibhūto, kāyabandhanampi ādittaṃ sampajjalitaṃ sajotibhūtaṃ, kāyopi āditto sampajjalito sajotibhūto. sā sudaṃ aṭṭassaraṃ karoti.
The gist of this is that Ven. Moggallana saw a female trainee (in six precepts), a male novice and a female novice (at different times) flying through the air with their outer robes (saṅghāṭi) on fire, blazing, flaming (along with their bowl, their other robes, and their whole body on fire as well).
The Buddha confirms that what Ven. Moggallana said he saw was really there, and that these beings had been evil monastics in the time of a previous Buddha. The point is, they all had outer robes, even the six-precept sikkhamana.
So, there you have it. Silly argument, probably not of interest to very many people. May be useful in court one day, though, if I ever have to get one of my students out a Thai jail :)