An Example of Rinzai Buddhist Liturgy, part 1

In April readers will no doubt recall my trip to Japan and in particular Kyoto/Nara which I hadn’t seen in five years. Among the many sites there we saw the Silver Pavilion, which is technically a temple of the Rinzai Zen sect. Rinzai Zen, founded by Eisai, for historical reasons has often been the most “urban” of the Zen sects in Japan. Anyway, while there I picked a small book of Buddhist liturgy:

Zen Liturgical Book

And the interior folds out like many Buddhist liturgy books in Japan:

Zen Liturgical Book 2

That is a picture of Kannon Bodhisattva on the right.

Originally, I thought this was a book of the Heart Sutra only based on the title. Nearly every Buddhist temple sells a copy of the Heart Sutra for home chanting, with the usual exception of Pure Land and Nichiren temples, so they are nearly ubiquitous. I found Heart Sutra prayer books at Kofukuji and Todaiji among other places but the one at the Silver Pavilion turned out to be a more complete book and I wanted share its contents in particular.

Rinzai, like most sects in Japan, derived from the Tendai sect which at one point was the de facto religious power in Japan for a time. As such, the liturgy in the book reflects Tendai influence, not unlike the prayer book I picked up years ago at Tokyo’s Sensoji Temple. It also reflects a kind of medieval Buddhist liturgy that was widely prevalent in Japan, again with certain notable exceptions. I suspect many Buddhist communities sort of “drew from the same pool”, hence there were some commonalities across the board.

The contents of the book look like so up close:

Buddhist Liturgy

On the left is how Japanese Buddhist liturgy is usually expressed: using Sino-Japanese, not vernacular Japanese. Japanese furigana is written by each character to aid in pronunciation. On the right-hand side is a native Japanese explanation of the meaning, which is often included in other prayer books I’ve brought back, but not always.

When Buddhism first imported to Japan from China and Korea, the texts were preserved in Classical Chinese language at the time, but read with a more Japanese pronunciation. Well-educated men of the ancient aristocracy usually read and composed documents in this style, even though it probably sounded somewhat artificial, and is entirely unreadable to modern Japanese now. It is not unlike Catholic liturgy which preserves prayers and such in Latin that isn’t entirely pronounced right anymore (sounds more like Italian than true Latin), but is preserved for tradition and because it’s often the earliest instance of that liturgy.

Although the book contains the Heart Sutra, in keeping with Buddhist tradition, there are other, smaller bits of liturgy recited before and after, and it goes in the following order in this book (like others I have seen):

  • Sangemon (懴悔文) – Reflection and repentance of one’s past actions.
  • Kaikyōge (開経偈) – Giving thanks for encountering the Buddha-Dharma.
  • The Heart Sutra
  • Ekō (回向) – Dedicating the good merit to benefit all beings.
  • Inori (祈り) – a prayer
  • Jūsanbutsu, Kōmyō Shingon (十三仏、光明真言) – Esoteric mantras including the Thirteen Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and the Mantra of Light.
  • Hōwa (法話) – a Dharma-talk, a sermon.
  • Shigu Seigan (四弘誓願) – The Four Bodhisattva Vows.
  • Shokuji Gokanmon (食事五観文) – The Five Reflections at meal-time.

In part 2, I will try to go over some of these detail. Stay tuned!

P.S. Photos taken with a real camera this time, not my iPhone, hence they look a little better. Lighting is still poor in the den, so I did what I could to fix it.

Be the first to like this post.

Leave a Reply

Gravatar Logo
Twitter picture

You are commenting using your
Twitter account. (Log Out)

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your
Facebook account. (Log Out)

Connecting to %s