Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice
(Sôtôshû nikka gongyô seiten)


T. Griffith Foulk

Soto Zen Liturgy

The texts that are regularly chanted in Soto Zen practice are many in number, varied in literary form and derivation, and extremely rich and diverse in philosophical, ethical, and spiritual content. When these texts are used liturgically in formal ritual settings, however, they have a limited number of functions that can be clearly distinguished.

One of the most common settings in which texts are chanted in Soto monasteries and temples are the daily, monthly, and annual sutra chanting services (fugin). These are rites in which spiritual merit (kudoku) is first generated by chanting Buddhist sutras or dharanis and then ritually dedicated (ekô) to various recipients who are named in a formal verse for transferring merit (ekômon). In Soto Zen, sutra chanting services are used to make offerings of merit to a wide range of beings: the Buddha Shakyamuni; his immediate disciples, the arhats; the lineage of ancestral teachers through whom the Zen dharma has been transmitted; the two leading founders of the Soto Zen tradition in Japan, Dogen and Keizan; the founding abbot and other former abbots of particular monasteries; various dharma-protecting and monastery-protecting deities, including Indian devas, Chinese spirits, and Japanese kami; the ancestors of lay patrons of Soto temples; and hungry ghosts, denizens of hell, and various other benighted and suffering spirits. Particular sutra chanting services are distinguished by (and sometimes named after) the main figures to whom merit is transferred, but it is common for a single service to include offerings to a number of ancillary or minor figures at the same time.

Other settings in which texts are chanted to produce and dedicate merit include: monthly memorial services (gakki) for Dogen, Keizan, and the founding abbot of each monastery; annual memorial services (nenki) for them, other ancestors in the Zen lineage, and lay patrons; funerals (sôgi) for monks and lay followers; and various routine and occasional recitation services (nenjû) and prayer services (kitô).

All sutra chanting, memorial, and funeral services are held before altars on which images or name tablets of the major recipients of the offerings are enshrined. The chanting that produces the merit is generally done in unison by all the monks (and sometimes laity) present at a service, whereas the verse for transferring the merit is recited by a single person, a monastic officer known as the rector (ino). The oral performance in which merit is generated and transferred is often accompanied by other, more physical offerings at an altar, such as the burning of incense or the presentation of food and drink. Recitation and prayer services are somewhat different in that the merit produced is dedicated not to individuals, but rather in support of specific benefits that are prayed for, such as recovery from illness, harmony in the community, or the success of a monastic retreat. There being no named recipients of offerings, such services need not be performed before an altar, but may be held in other places, such as an infirmary or meditation hall.

The production and dedication of merit are two of the most important ritual functions of the Soto Zen liturgy, but other puposes are also served by the chanting of verses. There are verses that are used mainly to sanctify and give meaning to otherwise mundane activities of monastic life, such as meals, face washing, and entering the bath or toilet. Those are always chanted when and where the activity in question takes place, either by a group (as in the case of meals) or by individuals (as when entering the bath). The recitation of certain other verses, such as the Three Refuges Verse (Sankiemon), the Four Vows (Shigusei ganmon), and the Repentance Verse (Sangemon), are acts of religious practice in and of themselves. Such verses are chanted by groups in conjunction with sutra chanting and other services, but in essence their recitation is an individual act of devotion.

Finally, it should be noted that regardless of how they are used in ritual settings, most of the texts that are chanted in Soto Zen can also be read for their meaning, as works of philosophy, ethics, and/or inspirational religious literature. Far from being mutually exclusive, the various functions that the texts have are mutually supportive and enriching.

About this Handbook

This handbook contains sutras (kyô), dharanis (darani), verses (ge, mon), eko (verses for transferring merit - ekômon), and other texts that are chanted on a daily basis in Soto Zen monasteries and temples.

Part One contains all the texts -- sutras and dharanis -- that are used to generate merit in daily sutra chanting services. Sutras are texts revered as sermonsof the Buddha Shakyamuni. Dharanis are strings of sounds which, although they may have little semantic value, are deemed sacred and powerful. Although sutras can be read for their meaning and dharanis often cannot, in the context of services the chanting of both is similar insofar as it serves to generate merit.

Part Two lists the various sutra chanting services that are performed daily. For each service, the texts to be chanted to generate merit are named, and the eko (verse for transferring merit) is given in its entirety. The eko themselves generally have two parts. The first states how the merit was generated, who it is to be transferred to, and for what specific purpose. The second part is a prayer that asks for something in exchange for the merit just given.

Part Three contains: (A) numerous verses that are chanted on various ritual occasions, (B) three eko that are used in rituals other than sutra chanting services, and (C) two long texts that express the ideals of Soto Zen practice.

About the Translation

In order to ensure the broadest possible consensus on the English version of the liturgy, the translations have been developed as a cooperative effort of the American Soto Zen centers, through a series of workshops at Green Gulch Farm, in California, that brought together representatives of American Sôtô groups to work with the translators. A printed version of the translations is scheduled for publication by the Sotoshu Shumucho.