Saturday, September 6, 2008

Wooden fish

A wooden fish , , , sometimes known as a Chinese block, is a wooden percussion instrument similar to the Western wood block. The wooden fish is used by monks and laity 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 where the practice of Mahayana, such as the ceremonious reciting of sutras, is prevalent. In some Zen/Ch'an Buddhist traditions, the wooden fish serves as a signal to start and end a meditation session, and in Pure Land Buddhism, it is used to chant the name of Amitabha.

The Taoist clergy has also adapted the wooden fish into their rituals.

Types of wooden fish

There are two kinds of wooden fish. One is the well known wooden fish that is round in shape with scales carved on its top. In Buddhism the fish, which never sleeps, symbolizes wakefulness. Therefore, it is to remind the chanting monks to be concentrate on their sutra. The round wooden fish comes in many sizes, ranging from to .

The other is literally in the shape of a fish. It is found suspended in front of the dining hall of a Buddhist monastery. When having breakfast and lunch, the monks beat it to call all monastics and laity to eat.


Many legends describe the origin of the wooden fish - most take place in China. One says that a Chinese Buddhist 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 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. Seventeen years of effort wasted! 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 . 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.

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Use in the Chinese Orchestra

When used in the Chinese Orchestra, the wooden fish is often in sets of 5. It is commonly used to convey a solemn and religious feel to a piece. However, it has also been used in fast and lively pieces. An indefinite number of instruments may be used in a piece.

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