Buddhist liturgy

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A liturgy is a set form of ceremony or pattern of worship. The Buddhist liturgy refers to a formalized service performed by the four-fold sangha and by nearly every denomination and sect in the Buddhist world. It is often done once or more times a day and can vary amongst the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana sects. The liturgy mainly consists of reciting a sutra or passages from a sutras, a mantra (especially in Vajrayana), and several gathas. Depending on what practice the practitioner wishes to undertake, it can be done at a temple or at home. The liturgy is almost always performed in front of an object or objects of veneration and accompanied by offerings of light, incense, and food.

Chinese Buddhist liturgy[edit]

The traditional Chinese Buddhist liturgy for morning chanting (simplified Chinese: 早课; traditional Chinese: 早課), evening chanting (simplified Chinese: 晚课; traditional Chinese: 晚課), and regularly scheduled Dharma services (simplified Chinese: 共修法会; traditional Chinese: 共修法會) in the Chan and Pure Land schools combine mantras, recitation of the Buddha's name and physical and spiritual practices, such as bowing and walking meditation and vow making.[1][2][3] Sitting meditation often occurs before or after the liturgy. A typical order for chanting at these services is:[4]

  1. Refuge in the Buddha (three times)
  2. Sutra Opening Verse
  3. Sutra Reading
  4. Sapta Jina Bhasitam Papa Vinas ana Dharani (simplified Chinese: 七佛灭罪真言; traditional Chinese: 七佛滅罪真言)
  5. Refuge in the Triple Gem
  6. Transfer of Merits
  7. Dhanya Dharani (simplified Chinese: 供养咒; traditional Chinese: 供養咒)
  8. Closing Verse (simplified Chinese: 结斋偈; traditional Chinese: 結齋偈)

Japanese Buddhist liturgy (gongyō)[edit]

In Japan, gongyo is also sometimes called o-tsutome (お勤め) or shōjin (精進). All three terms are common Japanese words and none is specific to any particular sect or school.

Origin of gongyo[edit]

The word was first originated from ancient China; although nowadays it is more often used in Buddhism, in fact it first appeared in the Taoism classic - Zhuang Zi.[5] Its original meaning is "very hard and frequent walking/practice".

Philosopher Zhuangzi abstracted and modified this word from an earlier classic of Taoism - Laozi's Tao Te Ching, in which it states:“上士闻道,之。”, which means taking effort and practicing.

Later during especially Sui and Tang Dynasties, the buddhist philosophy developed dramatically in central China, and was influenced by Taoism. Chinese Buddhist philosophers borrowed this word from Taoism classics, and it spread to Korean, Japan, Vietnam with Buddhism.

Gongyo in Japanese Pure Land Buddhism[edit]

The concept of gongyō is also common in Japanese Pure Land Buddhist schools such as Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. The central practice of these schools is the recitation of the name of Amida, also called the nembutsu, but in daily practice a Pure Land practitioner will also chant excerpts of the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, particular the sections titled the Sanbutsuge or the Juseige, and in some temples chanting the entire Smaller Sutra of Immeasurable Life may occur once daily or alternatively only on more formal occasions.

In larger Pure Land temples, the daily service is performed by priests or ministers, and lay people can optionally attend and recite along if they wish. The times for these services will vary depending on the individual branch, and individual temple.

In traditional Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, lay practitioners may also chant a hymn written by Shinran called the Shoshinge, which is not a sutra per se, but expounds the lineage with which Jodo Shinshu owes its beliefs. A shorter hymn called the Junirai, the Twelve Praises of Amida, can be used as well.

In Jodo Shu, the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) is often recited is specific styles:

  • Junen: The nembutsu is recited 8 times in one breath, without the final 'tsu' sound, then recited fully in one breath, and recited a final time without the 'tsu' sound again. This is 10 recitations total
  • Nembutsu Ichie: The nembutsu is repeated as many times as the practitioners choose to.
  • Sanshorai: The nembutsu is recited 3 times in a long, drawn-out fashion, after which the practitioner bows. This process is repeated twice more for a total of 9 recitations.

Gongyo in Shingon Buddhism[edit]

The gongyo of Shingon Buddhism differs amongst various sub-sects, but all of them mainly recite the Hannya Shingyo, the mantras of the Thirteen Buddhas and other mantras, the Light Mantra, and the gohogo; the saintly name of Kukai.[6] Gongyo is important for lay Shingon Buddhists to follow since the practice emphasizes meditation of the body, speech and mind of a buddha.

Gongyo in Nichiren Buddhism[edit]

Nichiren Buddhists perform a form of gongyo that consists of reciting certain passages of the Lotus Sutra and chanting daimoku. As described to some degree below, the format of gongyo varies by denomination and sect. Sometimes these variations are even sources of interschool contention, much as some Christian churches quarrel (and deny the salvation of one another's believers) over the significance of certain practices of their worship.

Sōka Gakkai/SGI[edit]

In Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism, gongyo means to recite the "Expedient Means" or "Hoben" (2nd) chapter and "The Life Span of the Thus Come One" or "Juryo" (16th) chapter of the Lotus Sutra in front of the Gohonzon. This is the supporting practice of all Nichiren Buddhists and is performed together with the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, every morning and evening.

The SGI gongyo format is different from that followed by Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists. Though they were previously the same, on April 30, 2002, during the first day of the Spring Training Course in Japan, an SGI Representatives Meeting was held with 205 SGI leaders representing 50 countries, together with members of the SGI Board of Directors, a shortened version of Gongyo was proposed and agreed. Somewhere between the end of 2002 and early 2004, SGI had standardized its prayer format until 2007, when it again changed the format.

Format for Practicing Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism:[7] Sitting in front of the Gohonzon, so that it is in perfect view, one rings a bell and chants prolonged daimoku followed by Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo three times to commence gongyo. The recommended tempo of the recitation is likened to the "sonorous and vigorous rhythm of a galloping horse."

If it is morning, one chants daimoku three more times and then offers the first silent prayer Appreciation for Life's Protective Forces (shoten zenjin). In certain countries, all four silent prayers are recited at the end of gongyo.

One then rings the bell and recites the Expedient Means chapter. Another fact to note, is that if one is chanting with a group, only the leader of the prayer will recite the title of the chapter.

Next, one rings the bell again and recites the Life Span chapter. Upon finishing the recitation, one rings the bell while commencing the repetitive chanting of daimoku for as long as one wishes. There is no rule as to how long one must chant daimoku during gongyo. Some chant for a few moments, some for up to an hour or even longer. One can usually tell when the level of satisfaction is reached in their daimoku as each individual is different.

When one feels enough daimoku has been chanted, one rings the bell and chants daimoku three more times.

One then offers the second prayer, "Appreciation for the Gohonzon", which also incorporates appreciation for Nichiren Daishonin, Nikko Shonin, and Nichimoku Shonin; the third prayer, "For the Attainment of Kosen-rufu"; and the fourth prayer, "Personal Prayers and Prayer for the Deceased" (while ringing the bell continuously), before closing with a prayer "for peace throughout the world and the happiness of all humanity."

One chants three daimoku at the end of each silent prayer. The first prayer is offered only at the beginning of morning gongyo; evening gongyo follows daimoku directly with the second, third and fourth prayers.

Nichiren Shu[edit]

Nichiren Shu has many types of gongyo a person can perform.[8][9] One example of family service procedure is as follows (This is the same basic format that may be used for regular services at your local Temple):

  1. Invocation (Invitation to the Buddha, Dharma and Samgha to be present at this service)
  2. Kaikyo-ge (Opening Canon)
  3. Lotus Sutra Ch. 2 Hoben-pon
  4. Lotus Sutra Ch. 16 Juryo-hon (Jiga-ge)
  5. Chanting Odaimoku Namu Myoho Renge Kyo
  6. Lotus Sutra last part of Ch. 11 Hoto-ge (The difficulty in keeping this Sutra)
  7. Prayer
  8. Four Great Vows:
Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to save them all.
Our evil desires are inexhaustible; I vow to quench them all.
The Buddha's teachings are immeasurable; I vow to study them all.
The way of the Buddha is unexcelled; I vow to attain the path sublime.

Chapter 2 (Hoben-pon) and Chapter 16 (Juryo-hon) are recited the most frequently; however, you may recite Chapter 12 Daibadatta-hon, whole Chapter 16, Chapter 21 Jinriki-hon (whole or from "Shobukkusesha") or Chapter 25 Kannon-gyo. Furthermore, it is a great practice to recite the whole Lotus Sutra from the beginning little by little everyday. You may choose which chapter to read by yourself.

In Nichiren Shu, recitation of the Lotus Sutra can be performed in Japanese or your own language.

Nichiren Shoshu[edit]

In Nichiren Shoshu, gongyo is in principle performed twice daily, upon rising ("morning gongyo") and before retiring ("evening gongyo").[10] It is the act of offering the sutra, daimoku (the invocation Nam-myoho-renge-kyo), and silent prayers to the Gohonzon, the object of veneration. Offering the sutra entails reciting the Expedient Means (second) and the Life Span of the Tathagata (sixteenth) chapters of the Lotus Sutra; the silent prayers are five formal meditations expressing gratitude for the Three Treasures as defined in Nichiren Shoshu, and the merit accrued through Buddhist practices.

The sutra recitation is done in the Japanese pronunciation of Myōhō-Renge-Kyō, the Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra by Kumarajiva. The number of recitations depends on which silent prayer is to be offered. The established format consist of five in the morning and three in the evening, with the Expedient Means and Life Span of the Tathagata chapters recited once for each silent prayer offered. The full Life Span of the Tathagata Chapter is recited only for the second prayer (an expression of appreciation to the Dai-Gohonzon); for all others, only the "verse" portion is recited. Each recitation of the sutra passages is followed three "prolonged daimoku" (hiki-daimoku, wherein each syllable pronounced distinctly and drawn out: "Na-Mu, Myō-Hō–Ren-Ge–Kyō–") and the corresponding silent prayer, except for the final recitation of the service, which is followed by the chanting of 100 or more daimoku and the final silent prayer. Note that the number of or the length of time daimoku is chanted between the final sutra recitation and silent prayer, is discretionary.[11]

Variations on this basic gongyo format, consisting of different combinations of the Expedient Means Chapter and parts of the Life Span of the Tathagata Chapter, are also offered on certain occasions, such as at mid-day meetings, before chanting daimoku for extended periods, and at funerals and celebrations.

The most important gongyo service in Nichiren Shoshu is the Ushitora Gongyo performed daily by the high priest or his proxy (when he is unable to officiate). Ushitora Gongyo takes place in the Grand Reception Hall of Head Temple Taisekiji and follows the format of the five-prayer morning gongyo service. It is done between the eponymous hours of the ox (ushi, 02:00) and the tiger (tora, 04:00), usually starting at 02:30 and taking about 50 minutes. Its purpose is to pray for the worldwide propagation of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism and—by extension—the peace and prosperity of all the world's peoples.[12]

The significance of performing Ushitora Gongyo at this time of day derives from earlier Buddhist teachings that describe the hour of the ox as "the end of darkness" and the hour of the tiger as "the beginning of light," and ones that describe all Buddhas as having attained enlightenment at this time. The passage from the hour of the ox to the hour of the tiger therefore symbolizes the transition from the unenlightened condition of a common mortal to the enlightened condition of a Buddha, so the performance of gongyo at this hour serves as a reminder of the true purpose of Buddhist practice: to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime.

Though in principle Nichiren Shoshu clergy and lay practitioners alike perform gongyo following the three-prayer–five-prayer format passed down through the ages at Head Temple Taisekiji, sometimes people under schedule pressure perform shorter variations while increasing the amount of daimoku they offer. This is because chanting as much daimoku as possible is the main practice of the Nichiren Shoshu faithful, whereas the sutra recitations are an auxiliary practice. Further, when circumstances prevent someone from performing gongyo according to established convention, it is better to do a shortened version and chant lots of daimoku than to lose daily contact with the Gohonzon.


  1. ^ Buddhist Text Translation Society (2013). Daily Recitation Handbook, bilingual Chinese/English edition
  2. ^ International Buddhist Association of Australia. The Buddhist Liturgy. Berkeley, Australia: IBAA. 
  3. ^ Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada (1993). The Buddhist Liturgy, Taiwan: Buddha Educational Foundation.
  4. ^ Amies, Alex. "English and Chinese text for the Buddhist Liturgy". chinesenotes.com. Retrieved 2013. 
  5. ^ Zhuang Zi: “以德为循者,言其与有足者至于丘也;而人真以为勤行者也。”
  6. ^ Shingonji Temple (2011). The Shingon School's Layperson's Morning Service Order, Lomita, California
  7. ^ Soka Gakkai International - USA (2008). The Liturgy of Nichiren Buddhism, ISBN 978-1-932911-55-8
  8. ^ Nichiren-Shu Service Book: Dharma, Nichiren Buddhist International Center, ISBN 0-9719645-3-X
  9. ^ Lexington Nichiren Buddhist Community (2005). Jogyo-Shindoku, Traditional Auxiliary Practice, Lexington Kentucky
  10. ^ Nichiren Shoshu Temple West Hollywood, California (2003). Nichiren Shoshu Basics of Practice
  11. ^ Nichiren Shoshu liturgy[dead link]
  12. ^ Nichiren Shoshu Temple West Hollywood, California (2003). Nichiren Shoshu Basics of Practice, pp. 94-96.

Further reading[edit]