Zen Instruments

The Sound Instruments in the Zen Monastery
source: http://terebess.hu/zen/szoto/hangszersz.html


In the Zendo life, the movements of the monks on various occasions are directed by the use of different kinds of sound-producing instruments. No oral orders are given; but when a certain instrument is sounded, the monks know what it means at that particular time. The accompanying pictures illustrate such instruments.

The Ōgane (1) is the largest bell used in the monastery, it hangs underneath a specially-designed structure. The heavy swinging beam (2, shumoku) is used to strike the bell. It is this bell which reflects the spirit of the Buddhist temple. The ring has a peculiarly soul-pacifying effect. Lafcadio Hearn in his Unfamiliar Japan , Vol. I refers to the “big bell of Engakuji” and most beautifully describes its “sweet billowing of tone” when it is struck and the “eddying of waves of echoes” which rolls over the surrounding hills. As a work of art the bell occupies an important position, and there are many old bells now in Japan which are classed as “national treasures” of the country.

Denshō or Hanshō (3) is a much smaller one and generally found hanging under the eaves. It is struck with a mallet (4). When a gathering takes place in the Buddha-hall, this calls out the monks from the Zendo.

雲版 Umpan (5) is “cloud-plate” made of bronze. When this rings, it means that the dining room is open.

Han (7) is a heavy solid board of wood hung by the front door of the Zendo. When this is struck, the monks know that the time is come for them to get up or to retire to bed or that a teishō is to take place, etc. The characters read:

“Birth-and-death is the grave event ,
Transiency will soon be here,
Let each wake up [to this fact],
And, being ever reverend, do not give
yourselves up to dissipation.”

The last two lines sometimes read differently in different Zendos. The board is taken hold of, when struck, by means of the strings hanging below in a loop.

Kin or 磬子 Keisu (9) is a high, somewhat large, metal gong in the Buddha-hall. Its rim is struck with a stick (10) to punctuate the sutra-reading. The smaller one, Rin or Shōkei (16), is also used in this connection.

Two kinds of bells ( suzu or rei ) used by Rōshi are shown in (11). The choice is individual. Other kinds are also used, one of which is given in (15).

引磬 Inkin (12) is always carried in the hand and struck with a metal stick attached to it with a string. When the head-monk strikes it in the Zendo, it means the beginning or the end of the meditation hours. When he does so at the head of a procession it means that all the monks joining it are to stand still and then sit, or that they have to rise from the sitting position and walk back to the Zendo.

喚鐘 Kanshō (13) is used when the monks want to interview the Rōshi on Zen. When the sanzen hour comes, the Rōshi’s attendant strikes this bell with the hammer (14). The monks come out of the Zendo, one by one if it is a dokusan , and in file if it is a sōsan ; they sit before the bell in the order of arrival. The master interviews one monk at a time. Being ready, he rings his hand-bell (11) to which the monk responds by striking his bell (13), once for sōsan and twice for dokusan .

Rei (15), also called Rin , is a hand-bell which rings by shaking. It is used by Rōshi, and also by a monk when he reads the sutras while standing, for instance, before Idaten, the kitchen god, at meal-time.

The big drum, 法鼓 Hokku (18), is generally set up on a high stand in a corner of the Buddha-hall. When a general gathering takes place, it is beaten with two sticks (19) alternately with a peculiar rhythm.

The big wooden fish (20) called is used principally in the Sōtō monastery and not in the Rinzai. The inside is hollowed out. It is used to announce the midday meal. How the fish came to function in the Buddhist temple is unknown. Some think the fish is a symbol of immortality, and for this reason it is frequently found in Christian symbolism. But Buddhism is the teaching in which rebirth and not individual immortality is emphasised.

Mokugyo (24), literally “a wooden fish” is said to be the modification of the (20). It is a peculiarly-shaped roundish solid block of wood with the inside hollowed out, and obtainable in all sizes, the smallest being as small as one inch on its longer side while the larger ones may measure even more than three feet. It has a fish-scale pattern on its body and where it tapers off into the form of a handle, a pair of eyes is carved. It is beaten with a stick, the top part of which is stuffed and wrapped with leather (25). The sound thus emitted has a strange hypnotic effect on the hearer. When it accompanies the sutra-reading, for example, before a teishō , it makes the minds of the audience properly receptive for what is to come.

There are two kinds of clappers, Hyōshigi (22 and 23) in use in the monastery. They are solid pieces of hard wood: the larger ones may be somewhat longer than one foot in length and the smaller ones about half a foot. The latter are used in the Zendo while the former are used outside, for instance, when the monks are about to eat, when the bath is ready, and on other occasions.

1. ōgane (nagyharang, kötélen hintázó fagerendával szólaltatják meg)
2. shumoku (ütőrönk)
3. denshō / hanshō (harang)
4. fakalapács
5. umpan (bronz felhő-gong)
6. fakalapács
7. han (deszkagong, függő fatábla)
8. fakalapács
9. kin / keisu (üstgong, talpas állóharang)
10. verő
11. suzu / rei (csengő)
12. inkin (kézi vagy csészegong)
13. kanshō (ütős harang)
14. fakalapács
15. rei / rin (kézi csengettyű)
16. rin / shōkei (kis állóharang)
18. hokku (nagy hordódob)

19. ütőpár
20. hō (nagy fahal-gong)
21. fakalapács
22-23. 柝 hyōshigi (csapó-pár, fa csattogtató)
24. 木魚 mokugyo (fahal, kámforfából kivájt dob)
25. bőrfejű ütő

The Eastern Buddhist Society, Kyoto, 1934

Musical Instruments

1) Bells. The largest of the monastery bells is the daishō, or ogane, which is generally made from cast bronze and hangs in a separate structure, the shōrō. Smaller versions of the same style of bell include the denshō, which hangs outside the Buddha hall, and the kanshō, which sits outside the master’s quarters.

2) Drums. Taiko drums, called hokku and saku in a Zen context, are found in the Buddha hall. These large instruments rest horizontally on wooden platforms and may be played at both ends using wooden sticks. Another drum-like instrument found in monasteries is the wooden mokugyo, carved in the shape of a fish.

3) Gongs. One style of Buddhist gong is shaped like a bowl, typically made from cast bronze. Gongs rest on pillows, supported by a wooden stand, and are sounded by striking the rim with a padded stick. In Zen monasteries, the larger version is called keisu and the smaller shōkei. There are also large wooden gongs, known as hō, which are carved in the shape of a fish with a pearl in its mouth.

4) Sounding Boards. There are basically two styles of sounding boards, the metal umpan and the wooden han. These boards are found throughout monastery grounds, hanging outside nearly every structure.

5) Small Hand Instruments. A variety of hand-held instruments that resemble tiny bells or gongs include the suzu, the rei, and the inkin. There are also wooden clappers called hyōshigi.

Source: Helen J. Baroni. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism


Percussion Instruments at Buddhist Temples

A large bell called daike i inside the Main Hall is struck to signal the start and finish of sutra chanting and to indicate to monks the timing for shifts from one movement to another. During ceremonies monks carry in one hand a small bell with a wooden handle called shukei . The sound of the shukei is a guide to monks performing ceremonies in the Main Hall, signaling times to stand or to sit ( seiza ) during sutra chanting.

The largest bell in a Buddhist temple is the oneb called bonsho. Once these bells were rung to mark the hours for people living in the neighborhood. But today they are rarely heard anywhere except in certain regions. They always ring out, however, on New Year’s Eve. Then, known as joya no kane , or bells to mark the changing year, they have a special place in the hearts of the Japanese people. They are sounded 108 times to purify the 108 delusions human beings are said to be subject to and to cleanse and freshen minds for the coming year. Formally, they should ring 107 times on the night of December 31 and once after midnight on January 1. Most Japanese visit Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines to hear the bells ring out regrets for the past year and ring in hopes for happiness in the new one.

http ://www.sotozen-net.or.jp/kokusai/friends/zf14_1/qanda.htm




引磬 inkin
12 cm in diameter, grip painted red, 1 or 2 cushions, metal fittings and metal sticker




木魚 mokugyo
wooden fish
serves to keep the rhythm during sutra chanting
(kínai: muyu; koreai: moktak; tibeti: shingnya)

Ode to the Wooden Fish and Drum
by 趙州從諗 Zhaozhou Congshen (778–897)

The four great elements come from he who built them,
It has a voice born from the emptiness inside.
They are averse to speaking to ordinary people
Only because the notes of the scale are different.

The general chanting in the sutra hall is accompanied by a wooden instrument called mokugyo. Its opening in the front resembles the mouth of a fish with two round openings on either corner of the mouth. The mokugyo rests on a handle that traditionally is carved in a way that two dragonheads hold a sphere in their mouth. The skin of the dragons extends into the mainbody of the instrument. The mokugyo is struck with a wooden mallet that has a leather covered spherical head on its end. Often a dedication of the donating individual or organization can be found on the fringe of the fishmouth.
There are different patterns of drumming; starting slow, speeding up, and slowing down in the end. Some texts are accompanied by a constant beat. However, there is one character per beat – this mostly means one syllable, sometimes two per beat. The mokugyo is played by the Densu or his/her helper.

In the zendo there is a small handheld mokugyo that is played by the Jikijitsu’s helper or the Shoji.

Made from camphor wood / Cushion : gold-brocaded satin damask




梵鐘 bonshō (ōgane, wakane)
large temple bell
templomi nagyharang

鐘樓 kane rō
bell tower, harangláb

撞木 shumoku
wooden bell hammer, ütőrönk




磬子 keisu
bronze bowl bell
üstgong, talpas állóharang
The keisu and its smaller rendition (shokei) are gongs in bowl shape. The rim is thicker on the inside, which allows for a lower sound. The keisu is struck from the outside at the rim. The striker is wooden, half of it is covered with a thin layer of leather, the handle is usually covered with red lacquer. The large gong is struck before the chanting starts, the smaller gong is struck during the chanting. It demarks parts and especially important places in the chanted text. The Ino, who leads the chanting, strikes the keisu.

In the zendo the chanting is led by the Jikijitsu. Instead of the Keisu the Inkin, a handheld bell, is used.






柝 taku (hyōshigi)
wooden clappers, sounding sticks

csapó-pár, fa csattogtató

Length: 24 cm , 15 cm .
Material: red sandalwood.



板 han, 木版 moppan
wooden gong
deszkagong, függő fatábla, a zazen kezdetét fakalapáccsal dobolják ki rajta

A wooden sounding board (han) which is struck to announce various daily activities in the monastery. The inscription on it reads, “No one knows when death will occur; it may be much sooner than one expects. Therefore we should practice Buddhism without wasting even a moment of time in order that we may discover the true meaning of life.”

The han is wooden board, that is hung outside the meditation hall. Many of the traditional han are inscribed with the Chinese characters inserted here into the picture.

The meaning of those characters is – roughly translated:

Birth and death are important things.
Make use of every moment.
Everything changes quickly.
Time does not wait for humans.


Listen well everyone
Great is the problem of Life and Death
No forever gone gone
Awake awake each one
Don’t waste your life!*

•Sunryu Suzuki~roslu”s translation is: “Don’t goof off!”

The han is struck three times a day. The first time at daybreak, secondly in the evening, and finally during the closing ceremony. A wooden mallet is used to strike the familiar 7-5-3 pattern with the accelerating rolls in between. The sound is harsh and somewhat unsetteling, trying to remind us of the very reasons we came to study Zen.

In Japan monks hit the han with all their strength, just like they try with their whole being to get through all the delusions and attachments. Traditionally when the han finally shows a hole in the middle the monks have the day off, until a new board is hung.




魚板 / 魚版 gyoban
魚鼓 gyoku, hō

fish drum
nagy fahal-gong

Gyoban is a wooden fish-shaped drum, which serves as a signal to start and end rituals, meditation sessions and meals. The fish-shaped drums are common in Zen temples in Japan. Gyoban is also called Gyoko, Mokugyoku, or Hō . In Buddhism, the fish, which never sleeps, symbolizes wakefulness and devotion to training.




雲版 unpan, umpan
磬 kei

flat bronze panel-gong
bronz felhő-gong
An umpan is a flat gong, usually bronze, which is rung at mealtime in a Zen monastery. Literally translated as “cloud plate,” the umpan is also sounded to “signal other events,” such as a call to the conclusion of zazen. Typically one will find an umpan outside the kitchen (J. kuri) or dining hall area. According to Helen J. Baroni, “Wooden boards (han) hanging on various buildings throughout the temple grounds are sounded simultaneously to alert the members of the community beyond the range of the umpan.”




喚鐘 kanshō
small bells of various sizes (usually struck with a small mallet while chanting sutras, or used in a temple to signal the time for convocation)