Buddhism and Miroku
Buddhism is a religion and school of thought originating in India around 500 BC which spread rapidly throughout southeast Asia. Buddhism served as a vehicle of art and culture into Japan, and the importation of these concepts have had great influence on the formation of Japanese written language, philosophy, and culture.
Buddhist thought has been created in and transliterated to many different languages. The lexicon of Japanese Buddhsim, for example, incorporates many transliterations of Chinese Buddhist words, which in turn are transliterations of Sanskrit and Pali.
Buddhism began as a following of the oral teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian nobleman whose spiritual journey brought him to a state of awakening – a deep and fundamental understanding of the world, and a means to transcend though that understanding. This state was thenceforth called Enlightenment, and from then on he is referred to by the name Buddha - “one who is awakened.”
The teachings of Buddha were eventually written down in a number of holy books called sutras (“things that are sewn” – the same word is used for Hindu texts). The canonical text is the Tripitaka (“three baskets,” called Sanzo in Japan), named as such because it consists of three different classes of documents, with each type traditionally (or apocraphylly) carried in its own basket.
The first is the Vinaya Pitaka, the code of ethics for the monks and nuns who studied Buddhism.
The second is the Sutra Pitaka, a collection of many thousands of sutras which account Buddha’s life and teachings.
The third is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, a sort of explanatory detail of the Sutra Pitakas.
Buddhism has three major sects, referred to as “vehicles,” with many traditions in each vehicle, and many schools within those traditions.
Theravada is arguably the most “pure” form of Buddhism, as it bases its teachings on the oldest forms of canon scripture. It can be thought of as the original teaching, and is highly ritualized. No Theravada schools ever took root in Japan.
Mahayana is a second class of school, which includes in its teachings a number of writings that Theravada considers apocryphal. The major schools in feudal Japan are Pure Land (focused on the grace of Amida Buddha), Tendai, Nichiren (also called the Lotus Sect), and Zen.
Vajrayana is a third class of school, which may be considered a combination of the previous two schools, or in some cases, Mahayana teaching combined with esoteric arts. Its teachings are closely associated with the tantra. Shingon, a Japanese school, is considered Vajrayana. Some followings of the Tendai school are also considered Vajrayanadue to its use of esoterica.
Miroku’s dress is that of a Sôtô priest, which is a school of Zen established in the 13th Century; today it is by far the largest Zen school in Japan. Its priests typically wear a black or brown robe called a koromo with a large kesa draped over the left shoulder and tucked into the front of the koromo. The toga-like appearance is drawn from that of the Tibetan Buddhist schools from which Sôtô came, and there are numerous sculptures and portraits of Dôgen, the Zen master who brought Sôtô to Japan, dressed in this manner.
The kesa would be given to Miroku in a ordination ceremony called shukke tokudo. This ceremony gives a monk official sanction to study in a monastery, or in Miroku's case, the right to leave his school to instruct and serve others.
Traditionally, the kesa is sewn together from fragments of cloth gathered by the young monk by begging. However, this is not always the case; in some sects a monk may be given his kesa as a gift. Miroku’s kesa, which is purple and made of a single piece of cloth, is the sort of kesa a monk would be given at shukke tokudo, to wear before he is ready to sew a proper kesa. The process of gathering rags and sewing them together is a meditative process that usually takes many years, and Miroku clearly has more important priorities at this time. Additionally, not every Sôtô school thinks this process is neccessary.
The one-piece bold-colored kesa is currently worn by students of Sanshin Zen, a 20th century school of Soto Zen Buddhism taught by Kodo Sawaki Roshi. Sanshin is one of the Zen schools which has seen a very large following in Western nations, and for this reason most web searches for "kesa" will give you information particular to Sanshin Zen. In this school, the kesa is heavily ritualized and respected. It is only worn when meditating or teaching, and never worn when eating or doing anything that might get it dirty. It is sort of similar to the colored belt of certain martial arts schools in this respect. In Sashin Zen, recently ordained monks wear purple kesa while master monks wear yellow-orange. Note that Miroku's teacher Mushin wears a kesa of an orange shade.
Miroku used his kesa to transport the remains of Sango's father and fellow taijiya to a proper resting place. This is a really moving moment in the series, I think, and tells a lot about the character. His kesa is probably his most precious possession, and despite the fact he will continue to wear it every day until the end of his life, he does not hesitate to use this to carry the earthly remains of men who had died only recently. You might imagine yourself doing something similar with your favorite article of clothing, but would you wear that piece of clothing again? It is difficult to imagine Miroku's feeling afterward, just before he put his kesa on again. How thoroughly did he wash it? Or did he wash it at all? What does this tell us about his empathy and self-sacrifice, or his comfort with death and the dead?
A final note, with marriage: many schools of Zen advocate celibacy for its monks; Sôtô Zen is not one of them, and its temples are often passed down from father to son. Miroku's intention to raise a family does not conflict with his status as a monk.