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A wooden fish — also known as a Chinese temple block or wooden bell — is a wooden percussion instrument that originated from East Asia. It is used by monks and lay people in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It is often used during rituals usually involving the recitation of sutras, mantras, or other Buddhist texts. The wooden fish is mainly used by Buddhist disciples in China, Japan, Korea, and other East Asian countries use it in religious ceremonies. It may also be referred to as a Chinese block, Korean block or, rarely, as a skull. In most Zen/Ch'an Buddhist traditions, the wooden fish serves to keep the rhythm during sutra chanting. In Pure Land Buddhism, it is used when chanting the name of Amitabha.
Types of wooden fish
There are two kinds of wooden fish. Today the most commonly used one is the traditional instrument that is round in shape and often made out of wood, but sometimes other materials are used as well; this form is actually a later development from the original. The fish is hollow with a ridge outside of the wooden fish to help provide the genuine hollow sound when striking the fish; the instrument is similarly shaped like a jingle bell. The sound can differ among wooden fish depending on the size, type of wood used, and how hollow the wooden fish is. The instrument is carved with fish scales on its top, and a carving of two fish heads embracing a pearl on the handle (to symbolize unity), hence the instrument is called a wooden fish for that reason. In Buddhism the fish, which never sleeps, symbolizes wakefulness. Therefore, it is to remind the chanting monks to concentrate on their sutra. Often the mallet used to strike the fish has a rubber coated tip to provide a muffled, but clear sound when struck. A simplified form is given in the temple block.
Wooden fish come in many sizes and shapes, ranging from 150 millimetres (5.9 in), for laity use or sole daily practice, or to 1.2 metres (3.9 ft) for usage in temples. Wooden fish are often (in Chinese temples) placed on the left of the altar, alongside a bell bowl, its metal percussion counterpart. Wooden fish often rest on a small embroidered cushion to prevent damage and unpleasant knocking sounds caused from the fish lying on the surface of a hard table or ground, as well as to avoid damage to the instrument.
In Korean Buddhism, wooden fish have seen broader use. Two separate words are used in Korean to distinguish different types of wooden fish. Moktak (목탁, 木鐸) refers to a smaller-sized, handheld variant, whereas Mogeo (목어, 木魚) means a full-sized piece that resembles a fish or dragon, with a hollow core. Moktak, a small version of ``mogeo`` (wooden fish), can come with ornaments, or not, and is more oblong in shape. It has a handle for easy carrying during portable uses. Mogeo is usually hung from the ceiling and played with two sticks drummed from the hollowed-out bottom.
An updated version of traditional wooden fish are so-called granite blocks. Despite the name, they are not made of stone, but of plastic.
The original type of wooden fish is literally in the shape of a fish. Along with a large temple bell and drum, It is found suspended in front of Buddhist monasteries. When proceeding with various duties (such as eating, lectures, or chores), a monk and a supervisor utilize the instrument to call all monastics to go to their tasks. Historically, this was the first wooden fish developed, which gradually evolved into the round wooden fish used by Buddhists today. The wooden fish is commonly found at Buddhist temples in East Asia.
Legends & nomenclature
Many legends describe the origin of the wooden fish, which take place in China. One legend says that a monk went to India to acquire sutras. On his way to India, he found the way blocked by a wide, flooding river. There appeared neither bridge nor boat.
Suddenly, a big fish swam up. It offered to carry the monk across the river. The fish told the monk that it wanted to atone for a crime committed when it was a human. The fish made a simple request, that on the monk's way to obtain sutras, to ask the Buddha to guide the fish on a method to attain Bodhisattvahood.
The monk agreed to the fish's request and continued his quest for seventeen years. After getting the scriptures, he returned to China via the river, which was flooding again. As the monk worried about how to cross, the fish came back to help. It asked if the monk had made the request to the Buddha. To the monk's dismay, he had forgotten. The fish became furious and splashed the monk, washing him into the river. A passing fisherman saved him from drowning, but unfortunately the sutras had been ruined by the water.
The monk went home full of anger. Filled with anger at the fish, he made a wooden effigy of a fish head. When he recalled his adversity, he beat the fish head with a wooden hammer. To his surprise, each time he beat the wooden fish, the fish opened its mouth and vomited a character. He became so happy that, when he had time, he always beat the fish. A few years later, he had got back from the wooden fish's mouth what he had lost to the flood.
The wooden fish is often used for rites where recitation of texts is necessary. In funerals, people may walk in processions while sounding wooden fishes in a slow and unison rhythm. Other purposes may include prayers for rain. In Confucianism, the wooden fish is struck at specific intervals to signify certain stages of ceremonies at temple. In Buddhism, it is struck during chants of Buddha's name.
Temple blocks can be heard in Leroy Anderson's The Syncopated Clock. Olivier Messiaen used them in his only symphony, Turangalîla, and his only opera, Saint-François d'Assise. Harrison Birtwistle calls for four temple blocks in his 2008 opera The Minotaur, Magnus Lindberg calls for five in Seht die Sonne, and Pierre Boulez for one in Notations I-IV. Leonard Bernstein, George Benjamin and David Horne also used it in their compositions. Pink Floyd's Nick Mason used temple blocks on the songs "The Gnome" and "The Scarecrow" from their debut album "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and on the single "Julia Dream". The rock band Rush featured temple blocks in their songs "Xanadu" and "The Trees," played by drummer Neil Peart.
Mogeo on the bell tower at Buseoksa, Yeongju, South Korea
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