Forms and Sounds: The Living Practice of Liturgy


In ceremony there are forms and there are sounds, there is understanding and there is believing. In liturgy there is only intimacy.

—Zen Master Eihei Dogen

The Zen school takes its name from the practice of zazen, or seated meditation. But even in a monastery it’s not possible to sit all the time. Meals need to be prepared, bathrooms need to be cleaned, the garden needs to be tended. The world needs to be cared for. And it is in the transition from the profound stillness of meditation to wholehearted activity for the benefit of all beings that liturgy arises.

Liturgy has always has been an essential part of Buddhist practice. In the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, for example, the daily practice of begging for alms (takuhatsu in Japanese) was both a source of livelihood and a form of liturgy. Today, nearly every aspect of monastic life is punctuated with some form of liturgy: eating a meal, concluding a period of zazen, beginning a period of work, even using the bathroom. At the end of each day, the liturgist, or ino, reminds the community that

Life and death are of supreme importance.

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.

Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!

Take heed. Do not squander your life.

It may seem that a daily routine steeped in and shaped by liturgy is unique to the monastery, but it is not so. Indeed, from one point of view, daily life is nothing but liturgy. We may not have the eyes to see it, but it’s there: The alarm clock sounds and you stumble into the bathroom to brush your teeth and shower. The birds begin to stir at the first sign of dawn. The crowd stands for the national anthem at the start of the ball game. The examples are endless. In Zen practice, we harness the liturgy of daily life, which is often only half-conscious, to help ourselves and others awaken.

Here at Zen Mountain Monastery, the formal liturgy begins each morning at the end of zazen. The officiant enters the meditation hall then offers incense to the Buddha, and to the awakened nature of all beings. The community makes three prostrations together, then chants the Heart Sutra and the Sho Sai Myo Kichijo Dharani. We dedicate the merit of the liturgy to the lineage of Buddhist teachers and to the health and well-being of friends of the Monastery who are sick, then conclude the service with three more prostrations and a formal exit by the officiant.

Each service is accompanied and enlivened by an assortment of traditional temple instruments. These are the mokugyo, a wooden drum carved to resemble a fish holding a pearl in its mouth; the kesu (also keisu or kin), a large bronze gong cast in the shape of a begging bowl; and the inkin, a small hand-held brass bell.

The mokugyo is used to mark time during chanting services. It is struck gently but firmly at a steady pace with a padded or rubber mallet, usually with a downbeat on each syllable. The mallet is grasped with both hands. The lower (and less-dominant) hand cradles the base of the handle, while the upper (dominant) hand encircles the middle, providing a fulcrum. The mokugyo’s muted, earthy thud keeps the chanting solid and grounded.

The bright, clear tone of the inkin is used to accompany the entry of the officiant into the zendo and to initiate prostrations. It is also used to signal the beginning (three bells) or end (two bells) of a meditation period. The inkin is held upright and perpendicular to the ground in one’s less-dominant hand, fairly close to the torso. It is sounded by sweeping the attached metal striker in a gentle anticlockwise curve (for those who are right-handed) from the back of the instrument forward, until it contacts the rim of the bell at its most forward point. The striker is then withdrawn along the same curve, so that the sound emerges from the midst of a single, graceful motion.

When used to signal prostrations, the inkin is struck repeatedly in a slowly accelerating crescendo. (The crescendo usually builds for about 15 seconds, depending on the pace of the officiant, from whom the inkin takes its cue.) The first prostration begins with a single ching! on the bell just after the crescendo reaches its peak; the beginning of the second prostration is also marked be a single strike on the bell. The onset of the third and final prostration is signaled by two bells in quick succession.

The deep, resounding peal of the kesu initiates each chant and punctuates it at key moments as it unfolds. There are two methods for sounding the kesu. In the first, which produces a characteristic mellow gong, the flat surface of a padded wand is used to strike the outer surface of the kesu just below the rim. The wand is grasped gently with both hands and swung upward and outward in a circular motion, such that the point of contact with the kesu coincides with the outermost point of the circular arc. As with the inkin, the sound emerges from the midst of a single motion. The second method of sounding the kesu produces a sharp, percussive tap. In this method, the bottom unpadded end of the striker is brought sharply and quickly against the edge of the kesu, just below the rim. As the instrument is struck, the non-dominant hand mutes the sound by grasping the instrument’s rim.

Sounding the liturgical instruments is a practice unto itself, much like sitting zazen or taking a formal meal or any of the other traditional aspects of Zen training. There are numerous technical aspects to be mastered, and these are important; but most important of all is to take up each instrument in a spirit of whole-hearted sincerity and willingness to study one’s mind.

Patrick Yunen Kelly took up Zen practice in 1994. He has been an MRO student since 2001.

For more information on zendo instruments, watch the following video: