An Example of Rinzai Buddhist Liturgy, part 2

Hi all,

A long time ago, I wrote a post about a Rinzai Zen liturgy book I bought in Japan, but I never did finish part 2. ;p

Recently, since I started visiting a Rinzai temple here in Seattle regularly, I learned a lot more about liturgy in a Rinzai Zen context, and wanted to share with others. This may help with home services, or people who just want to get a “feel” for Rinzai.


The basic service, as I have observed, includes a format similar to this one:

  • Veneration of the Buddha
  • Recite the Heart Sutra
  • Recite the Dharani for Cancelling Calamities
  • Recite a summarized lineage, veneration of past zen teachers
  • Dedication of Merit

Let’s look at each one individually:

Veneration of the Buddha

This is a pretty universal practice in Buddhism and can take a variety of forms. The most common I’ve seen is to prostrate before the Buddha 3 times, per ancient custom.

Prostration here can take on few forms:

  • A “half” prostration where you kneel on the ground (I’ve seen in Shingon Buddhist tradition)
  • A “full” prostration where you fully lay yourself on the floor, face down. This seems common in Tibetan tradition.
  • A variant where you kneel on the ground face-down, palms held upward (prop yourself on your elbows).

Zen seems to do the third-type the most. However, check with your local community or teacher for recommended best-practices.

In any case, the point is to pay homage to the Buddha for teaching that Dharma which we all put into practice now, and for showing the way to peace.

Reciting the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is probably the most popular Buddhist sutra

Recite the Dharani for Cancelling Out Calamities

In Japanese Zen, this is usually the shōsaishu (消災呪), which is short for shōsaimyōkichijōdarani (消災妙吉祥陀羅尼) (しょうさいみょうきちじょうだらに). My amateur translation is the Dharani for Cancelling Out Calamities:

  • – to cancel, extinguish
  • – a calamity or natural disaster (e.g. earthquake, tsunami, etc)
  • – spell, mantra, dharani

But what is it? A dharani is a small chant used in Buddhism as a kind of supportive tool optionally used to generate good karma and avoid potential calamities. This link provides a good overview. In the context of Buddhism, this is intended to allow one to practice the Buddhist path more easily and without obstruction. However, as stated above, it’s pretty optional. Unlike mantras, which are a core feature in some Buddhist sects for awakening to the truth, dharanis are considered purely as supplementary.

The dharani is recited 3 times, follow this page for the full dharani text.

An example of this in practice is on this Youtube video:

Recite a summarized lineage, veneration of past zen teachers

The next important thing is to recite a basic Zen lineage from the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. The reason for this is that it reiterates the connection between teacher and student all the way from the Buddha down to the current disciples. Many, though not all, sects take this teacher-disciple relationship pretty seriously, but it also helps reaffirm the student as a disciple of the Buddha, even if removed by a few generations.

Because reciting 2,500 years worth of teachers is impractical, Rinzai liturgy will recite an abridged lineage to mention the more notable teachers. A typical lineage in Rinzai looks like this one:

  • Shakyamuni Buddha (naturally)
  • Bodhidharma
  • Rinzai Gigen (d. 866 臨済義玄) Zenji
  • Kanzan Egen Zenshi (1277–1360 關山慧玄)
  • Hakuin Ekaku Zenshi (1686-1769 白隠慧鶴
  • Contemporary Zen masters in the lineage, etc.

The phrase zenji (禅師) just means “Zen master”.

Recite the Four Bodhisattva Vows

The point of Zen meditation or Buddhism in general isn’t just for one’s own benefit, but for the benefit of all people: people you interact with and even people you don’t directly interact with.

So, to encapsulate this sentiment, in Rinzai Zen people sometimes recite the Four Vows of a Bodhisattva and/or a dedication of merit to all beings. I haven’t seen this at the temple I go to, but it is in the Rinzai liturgy book I previously posted about, plus other sources I’ve seen.


This is a brief look at the typical liturgy used in Rinzai Zen communities, but it’s important to know that there is a lot of local variation. If unsure, always consult your local teacher if you can.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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