I get asked this question a lot when I’m in public and at my job. I started to wear a white robe November 2018 after I spent a deal of time working on holding the five precepts. It was at that point that I felt confident enough to not egregiously break them. I still had a period where I resumed cannabis use and I acknowledge this as breaking the fifth precept. Yet I have been able to confess lies and by and large not recommit them, not steal and not kill. I was abstaining then from sexual misconduct and now from all sexual behavior. I am no paragon that I’ll acknowledge, I make mistakes yet I felt confident enough at that point to commit to the five precepts.
That is my first reason: commitment to my religious practice. It is the most important and in wearing the robe I become socially reinforced to do it service. I quit using nicotine shortly after in no small part due to the idea that it’s unseemly to dress as I do and stand on the street corner chucking clouds. Nicotine is a devious intoxicant in the way it controls your behavior through withdrawal and craving.
This action has grounding in scripture, multiple suttas talk about “lay people clad in white.” (DN 11, AN 10.94). Perhaps most particular: “To the extent that the Blessed One has white-clad householder female disciples who act fully in accordance with the precepts, I am one of them.” (AN 6.16)
At the time, laypeople often would put on the white robe upon conversion & commitment. However, these days this is far less common, usually only done for special occasions, for novices and anagarikas. Which leads to my second motivation: prohibition from ordination.
As a trans person I am prohibited from ordaining as a monastic. Given this I am in the slow process of trying to live a more monastic lifestyle, given how much harder maintaining discipline is when largely alone. Part of that is the minimization of my wardrobe. I have little more than the three robes I wear. There are a lot of tiny benefits around that, small closet, less choices to be made, an inevitable non attachment to stains, a willingness to use and repair old clothing. I get less sun burns and it’s harder for bugs to bite me.
I think when I started doing this I had more feelings about it. Now when people ask I usually say it’s part of my religious practice of renunciation, having very little. I’ve met a few people I wouldn’t have otherwise, helped some people I wouldn’t have otherwise. We’ll see how it goes when I start traveling.