Fish out of water as a companion for mindfulness practice

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Mokugyo, or the “wooden fish”, is a bell-shaped instrument used by Buddhist priests during funeral and memorial services to accompany their chanting. To those who are not familiar with this instrument, the reason why it is called the “wooden fish” can be perplexing, for a typical mokugyo used today, despite its name, does not resemble any fish that swims in rivers, or oceans. There are mokugyos, however, which retain the original shape of a fish such as the one at Manpuku-temple in Uji, opened by Zen master Ingen Ryuki (1592-1673) of Rinzai lineage in 1661. Suspended in the air by wires, the mokugyo at Manpuku-ji does look as if it is swimming.

The largest mokugyo in Japan, and arguably in the world, is the bell-shaped mokugyo at Hase-temple in Kamakura, whose diameter is well over 2.5 meters. Most mokugyos used today, including ones sold for lay practitioners at Buddhist shops and online, are much smaller than the one at Hase-temple and do not resemble a fish like the one at Manpuku-temple. The price of the mokugyo varies, depending on the type of wood used and how elaborate the decoration is.

If a typical mokugyo used today does not look like a fish, why is it still called the “wooden fish”? Although it does not look like a fish, the name, “wooden fish”, comes from the fact that a typical mokugyo has fish scales carved on it, with two fish embracing a ball. Two fish eyes carved on the mokugyo are said to be the symbolic reminder for practitioners of the need to be awake, to maintain the state of wakeful attention, during meditation, just like fish that never sleep, with their eyes always open.

To maintain the state of wakeful attention is an important aspect of Zen training. Hence, the mokugyo is struck not just during meditation but also during other daily activities to remind training monks and nuns of the importance of maintaining that state of wakeful attention, or mindfulness, at all times. Is there any reason why the mokugyo is used today other than its symbolic reference to the state of wakeful attention with the fish-like eyes carved on it?

As a matter of fact, some practitioners may find the sharp wooden sound of the mokugyo to be rather distracting and prefer the deep soothing sound of the bell, especially during meditation for serenity and insight. However, as a percussion instrument that could be struck continuously, the mokugyo can be an effective instrument to accompany the reciting of the Prajnaparamita (the Heart Sutra) and other sutras, and it is often used for that purpose.

As a percussion instrument, the mokugyo can also be used in the playing of all kinds of music, including classical music. Thus, the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) includes the mokugyo as one of the percussion instruments in his The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946). Though struck only three times during this 17-minutes piece of classical music, it does prove that Britten was aware of the mokugyo as a percussion instrument that can be effectively employed in classical music as well.

How the mokugyo is used is, of course, not important. What is important is that it serves a useful purpose for us Buddhist practitioners as a companion that aids our practice in chanting and/or meditation. As long as it serves a useful purpose, the mokugyo has its place in our life, although it is apparently a fish out of water. Considering that we humans, too, are out of water now, having crawled out of the sea in our evolutionary past, there is something to be said about the role of the mokugyo in our existence as a species as it serves as a reminder of where we are in the tree of life and, hence, of the Buddha-nature we share with fish and all other sentient beings.