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Often in the suttas one finds Bhikkhus who approach the Buddha reverentially uncover their right shoulder as a mark of respect. What is the significance of this practice? Is it cultural or is there a deeper significance?

One example from the Ratnakuta sutra

At that time, Venerable Mahāmaudgalyāyana then arose from his seat, bared his right shoulder, and bowed with his head at the Buddha’s feet.

Elsewhere in the sutra,

Perceiving Sumati Bodhisattva’s extraordinary intention, good roots, and sovereign authority, each bhikṣu uncovered his upper robe. They gave an offering to the Tathāgata by developing a great vow, saying...

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In Pāḷi texts, the right shoulder is not specified. The standard description of a monk meeting the Buddha says

ekaṃsaṃ uttarāsaṅgaṃ karoti (Vin 1.46)

he arranged his robe over one shoulder.

However the right side of the body is generally emphasised, e.g.

Atha kho so, bhikkhave, mahābrahmā ekaṃsaṃ uttarāsaṅgaṃ karitvā dakkhiṇaṃ jāṇumaṇḍalaṃ pathaviyaṃ nihantvā... (DN ii.36; cf. MN i.168, i.177 etc.)

Then indeed, monks, the Great God, having arranged his robe over one shoulder, placing his right (dakkhiṇaṃ) knee-cap on the earth...

and

Atha kho rājā māgadho ajātasattu vedehiputto ... uṭṭhāyāsanā bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā padakkhiṇaṃ katvā pakkāmi.

Then indeed Ajātasattu Son of Vedehi, King of Māgadha... rose from his seat, saluted the Bhagavan, and keeping to the right (padakkhiṇaṃ katvā), he left.

The verb many of these is √kṛ - "doing, making". So ekaṃsaṃ uttarāsaṅgaṃ karoti literally means "he makes his upper-robe one-shouldered" and padakkhiṇaṃ katvā means something like "making right-handed".

The connotation of auspiciousness with the right side of the body is something shared with the Romans from whom we get words like "dextrous" from dexter "right, right hand side, south (facing the the rising sun)"; and it's opposite "sinister" (literally "left). In fact the Pāḷi word dakkhina is cognate with Latin "dexterous" (they both come from the same Proto-Indo-European root). And just like it, it can mean "skilful, clever, and quick to learn", but also "lucky, auspicious, etc".

One explanation might be deduced from the modern day Indian practice of using the left hand to wash the backside after defecating. If this is an ancient practice, which it may well be, then the left hand was ritually (and factually) polluted and the right hand ritual pure.

However, I cannot find a single reference to the robe going over the right shoulder in either the Nikāyas or the Vinaya. It is always simply ekaṃsa "one shoulder". So this is apparently a later tradition.

NOTE Apparently Stack Exchange doesn't allow me to post Chinese characters! So I'm having to give Romanji instead which is much less satisfactory!

I tried to check the Lapis Lazuli citation, but he doesn't give enough information to locate the particular sūtra in the massive “Dàbǎojī jīng” or Mahāratnakuṭa - it runs to 120 fascicles in the CBETA version of the Chinese Tripiṭaka. But plenty of other Mahāyāna texts use this kind of phrase.

eg.

Ěr shí ānán cóng zuò ér qǐ, piān tǎn yòu jiān, yòu xī zhuó dì, (T232 729.b17)
Then Ānanda rose from his seat, bared his right shoulder (yòu jiān), and knelt on his right knee.

Now we can search for the phrase "yòu jiān" and see when it started appearing in Chinese translations. It turns up in some early translations, e.g. T156 which is an Avadāna Sūtra translated during the Wei Dynasty (220-265 CE); in T1428 and T1432 some of the Chinese Vinaya Texts. It also turns up in the Āgama texts. So this suggests that the introduction of specifying the right shoulder occurred after the closing of the Pāḷi Canon (which occurred quite early), but still fairly early.

  • Th non-support for Chinese is a deliberate anti-spam measure. We could if we wanted to (and were willing to delete Chinese-language spam) ask that restriction be removed from this site, or we can believe them when they say the restriction is temporary. – ChrisW Aug 24 '15 at 12:17
  • I prefer to use characters when citing Chinese texts which I do from time to time - after all Chinese is one of the major Canonical languages for Buddhism. But I have no idea of the scale of the spam problem, so will leave it to those who do. – Jayarava Aug 24 '15 at 12:24
  • This comment suggests a work-around, i.e. use this site with the dropdown set to "HTML Code" to convert the unicode to HTML entities. – ChrisW Aug 24 '15 at 13:03
  • Thanks. This works well for small numbers of characters which is all I need. – Jayarava Aug 24 '15 at 13:08
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    There's not mention of the robe going over either shoulder, but, yes the question was about uncovering the right shoulder and thus the robe would go over the left shoulder. – Jayarava Aug 25 '15 at 16:34

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