Ritual Objects

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The vinaya relates that the historical Buddha permitted his ordained mendicants only four possessions—three robes and a begging bowl. These simple, functional objects served as the first Buddhist ritual implements since they were the primary material means to clearly distinguish the members of the monastic community from the laity. Initiates could not be ordained until they had properly received them. Over the succeeding centuries, as Buddhism was transmitted throughout Asia, the number of permissible possessions increased to six—three robes, a begging bowl, a stool, and a water strainer—and then to eighteen, including a censer and staff. Moreover, as the rituals of the religion became increasingly elaborate, greater numbers of implements were required. Although different regions frequently interpreted the forms of these objects in culturally specific ways, implements often had their origins in secular Indian modes of veneration and ornamentation.

Implements of ornamentation

Indian Buddhists correlated sacred adornment with the manifestation of the supernatural. In decorating the interior of halls that housed the object of worship, they hoped to realize the appearance of the paradises in which the deities were believed to dwell, as described in the sūtras. Thus, elaborate decoration and exquisite craftsmanship came to characterize the implements that adorned the halls.

As images of the Buddha and other members of the Buddhist pantheon became the focus of worship, implements were employed to demarcate the sacred space in which they were enshrined. For example, canopies, which derived from the parasols used by the ancient Indian elite, were suspended over the deity. Garlands of flowers that likewise had been used by the South Asian nobility for personal adornment were draped over images. In northern climates the festoons were reinterpreted in openwork plaques of fabric, leather, or metal, and ornamented with semiprecious stones. Today in Japan these symbolic floral offerings, which are known as keman, continue to be hung from the beams of the interiors of image halls. In addition banners known as ban, which had been adapted in luxurious textiles or gilt bronze from ancient battle standards signifying victory over one's enemies, fly from dragon-headed poles both in the interior and exterior of the halls.

Vessels for offerings

In India the primary offerings made to the Buddha and stūpas were incense, flowers, and candles. The Japanese Darani jikkyō (Sūtra of Collected Dhāraṇī) explains that incense and perfumed water were used to purify, flowers to pay homage, and light to illuminate the darkness of ignorance. Offerings of food symbolized the giving of alms. In East Asia a set of three metal vessels for these offerings—a candlestick, incense burner, and flower vase—were placed on the main altar in front of an image. In some Buddhist sects the set of three was replaced by a more elaborate set of five, including two candlesticks, two flower vases, and an incense burner.

Ritual implements in the Japanese liturgical context

The great diversity in the practice of Buddhism in Asia has resulted in a great variety of rituals and of ritual implements. Study of contemporary Buddhist ritual practice in Japan, which closely follows that on the continent in earlier centuries, reveals that most sectarian differences ultimately are outweighed by fundamental similarities. The ceremonies begin with a call to worship, marked by the striking of a large bronze bell. During the procession of monks into the hall, the chief officiant holds a long-handled censer—an emblem of his authority. In the Chan school (Zen) the chief officiant may alternatively wield an animal-hair wisk or a scepter with a foliate end. After making obeisance to the deity, he seats himself on a raised, square ritual platform (raiban). To his left and right are two small tables, generally crafted from lacquer, which hold ritual implements and texts.

During the introductory section of the service, stylized chanting is accompanied by the shaking of a monk's staff (shakujō) and the strewing of flower petals from openwork baskets (kekō) in order to purify the ritual space. During the main part of the ceremony the deity is summoned, praised, and hosted, after which prayers are made. Expressions of appreciation are then communicated to the deity and the celebrant then promises that the benefits accrued from the ritual will be shared with others. During the service the celebrant frequently strikes a metal chime (kei), which is suspended from a lacquer stand to the right of the raiban, to punctuate the different sections of the liturgy. This percussion instrument generally takes the form of an inverted chevron with a raised lotus boss.

Esoteric ritual implements

Implements are essential to the performance of esoteric Buddhist rituals. Derived in form from ancient Indian weapons, esoteric ritual implements are believed to imbue the officiant with extraordinary powers and thus assist the individual in the quest to join Buddhist deities in the quest for enlightenment.

As in MahĀyĀna ritual, the practitioner sits on a ritual dais, but esoteric ritual employs a ritual platform, on which are placed a great variety of implements and which in turn is placed in front of the painting or sculpture that is the focus of the rite. In India this platform would have been formed from earth over a seven-day period and then later destroyed. In China and Japan it took a more permanent form in wood. The implements used in esoteric rituals can generally be divided into four categories: those for protecting the practitioner, those for purifying the deity and officiant, those for holding offerings, and those for providing musical accompaniment. The most

important are those that protect and empower the practitioner and the ritual space. These are placed on the ritual altar and include the various forms of vajra, the vajra spikes placed at the four corners to support a five-colored rope, the cakra placed in the center, and crossed vajra at the four corners.

Most frequently composed of clawlike opposed outer prongs and a sharply notched profile, vajra resemble stylized thunderbolts. The most common form is one with three prongs on each end, said to symbolize the three mysteries of body, speech, and mind. Other vajra include the five-prong form, symbolizing the five wisdoms of the five buddhas, and the single-prong form, symbolizing the universal truth. The implements are usually fashioned from gilt bronze, but esoteric texts specify that they may also be made from gold, silver, copper, iron stone, rock crystal, acacia, sandalwood, and purple sandalwood.

The cakra was believed to be one of the seven treasures of a cakravartin or universal monarch. Said to miraculously precede him into battle, conquering foes in the four directions, the cakra resembles a wheel. Different texts mention cakra with a varying number of spokes. Those with four spokes symbolize the four noble truths and those with six symbolize the realms of existence. In Japan, where it is called a rimpō, the wheel most often takes an eight-spoked form that was thought to symbolize the eightfold path. The crossed vajra (known in Japanese as katsuma) resembles two intersecting three-pronged vajra. Based upon an Indian weapon that was hurled, this metal implement is believed to provide protection in the four directions.

The second category of implements used in esoteric rituals are those that hold various materials used in the ritual to purify the deity and the officiant. Most often they consist of a set of covered containers for water and powdered incense, which are placed near the ritual dais. A third category includes vessels for holding the offerings to be made to the deity. These consist of a censer for burnt incense offerings and the six vessels, which hold offerings of sacred water, floral garlands, powdered incense, and light. Generally made from gilt bronze, they are placed in sets along the four sides of the ritual dais. Vases for offerings of flowers

and vessels for offerings of food are positioned in the four corners.

The final group includes various musical implements such as bells and cymbals used to gain the attention of the deity, entertain it with sound, and then to provide it with melodious accompaniment upon its departure. Bells are also used to awaken the enlightened mind of the practitioner. Although single examples are frequently used in rituals, handheld bells also occur in sets of five, consisting of a single-pronged vajra-handled bell, a three-pronged vajra-handled bell, a five-pronged vajra-handled bell, a jewel-handled bell, and a pagoda-handled bell. The five bells are placed on the ritual altar, along with vajra of similar forms. The five vajra represent the samaya form of the five wisdom buddhas and their secret wisdom, while the five bells represent their outwardly directed teachings.

A metal ritual tray, frequently raised, is placed on the ritual altar in front of the practitioner. On it is placed a set of implements to be utilized during the ceremony. Usually a single-pronged vajra, a three-pronged vajra, and a five-pronged vajra surround a vajra-handled bell, but the arrangement of the implements and the placement of the tray itself vary according to sect and to school.


Morse, Anne Nishimura, and Morse, Samuel Crowell. Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual. Katonah, NY: Katonah Museum of Art, 1995.

Reynolds, Valrae. From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art from the Newark Museum. New York and Munich, Germany: Prestel, 1999.

Yamasaki Taikō. Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, translated and adapted by Richard Peterson and Cynthia Peterson. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1988.

Anne Nishimura Morse