WHAT IS RYAKU FUSATSU?
by Nonin Chowaney
At Nebraska Zen Center / Heartland Temple, we perform an ancient chanting and bowing ceremony called Ryaku Fusatsu (Jap.) once a month. We also refer to this ceremony as our Precept Ceremony, for in it we re-affirm our commitments to live according to the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, our Ethical Guidelines for everyday life. I’d like to explain what this ceremony is and how we perform it here.
Ryaku Fusatsu is indeed ancient. Its roots go back to Pre-Buddhist India, to ancient Vedic lunar sacrifices performed on the nights of the new and full moon. By Shakyamuni Buddha's time 2600 years ago, these sacrifices were no longer performed, but the new and full moon occurrences were still observed by Hindus as holy days of purification and fasting, days when the Gods came to dwell in the house. They became known as Upavastha (from the Sanskrit upa, near and vas, dwell).
Legend has it that Shakyamuni Buddha's followers also gathered on those days, perhaps because they didn't want to be left out. They would sit down and meditate together. Later, lay disciples – in whose homes the monks and nuns would sometimes gather – wanted some teaching, so the monks began to recite the 227 rules of the Patimokkha discipline, the rules governing everyday conduct for monks and nuns (257 for nuns). This recitation developed into a confession and repentance ceremony, during which the monks and nuns would speak up if they had violated any of the rules and vow to do better in the future.
This ceremony is still performed today, at the same time and in the ancient way, by Theravadin monks and is called Uposatha in the Pali language, a variation of the old Upavastha, the, "near-dwelling" of the Gods on the ancient Hindu holy days. In Mahayana Buddhism, the spirit of the ceremony is preserved, but the 227 rules are not recited, because Mahayana sects have abandoned them. Instead of the confession being made to other monks, it is made directly to Buddha.
The ceremony was transmitted, with lots of changes and developments, from India through China to Japan and now has been transmitted to America as Ryaku Fusatsu, as it is known in Soto Zen Buddhism.
"Ryaku" means, "abbreviated," or "simple." This distinguishes the ceremony from a "full fusatsu," a complicated, elaborate event still performed in Japan once or twice a year in some large temples. It takes two to three hours to complete. The simple ceremony we do here takes about forty-five minutes. "Fusatsu" means, "to continue good practice," or, "to stop unwholesome action (karma)." The name conveys the spirit of repentance and confession present in the Theravadin Uposatha Ceremony. Ryaku Fusatsu today, as performed in Soto Zen temples, includes the reading/transmission of Buddha's precepts, lots of bowing, and some of the elaborate, beautiful chanting common to Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan but rarely heard in America.
The ceremony has a series of parts. It begins with an incense offering to all Buddhas throughout space and time. We then chant the Formless Repentance: "All my past and harmful karma, Born from beginningless greed hate and delusion, through body, speech, and mind, I now fully avow.” After our repentance, we invoke the presence of all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Ancestors and call up their wisdom and compassion by chanting the names of a series of representatives, Shakyamuni Buddha, Maitreya Buddha, Manjusri Bodhisattva, Zen Master Dogen, and others. Then, we chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows: "Beings are numberless; I vow to free them, Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them, Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them, Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to realize it."
After the Four Vows, the Ino (chanting leader) receives Wisdom Water from the Doshi (service leader) and purifies the room by sprinkling it around the perimeter. Then, the Doshi, acting as Preceptor, reads Zen Master Dogen's "Essay On Receiving and Conferring the Precepts." In the middle of this reading at Heartland Temple, we have instituted the practice of taking the Precepts together. The Doshi reads each precept and asks the sangha if they will “receive and maintain this precept.” The sangha replies, “Yes, I will” after each one. These are the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts we use during the ceremony:
I take refuge in Buddha
I take refuge in Dharma
I take refuge in Sangha
Three Pure Precepts
A follower of the Way does no harm.
A follower of the Way does good.
A follower of the Way lives to benefit all beings
Ten Prohibitory Precepts
I am reverential and mindful with all life; I am not violent; I do not willfully kill.
I respect the property of others; I do not steal.
I am conscious and loving in my relationships; I do not misuse sexuality.
I honor honesty and truth; I do not deceive.
I exercise proper care of my body/mind; I am not gluttonous; I do not abuse drugs
or encourage others to do so.
I recognize that words can hurt others; I do not slander.
I am humble; I do not praise myself or judge others.
I cultivate letting go; I do not attach to anything, even the teaching.
I cultivate inner peace; I do not harbor ill-will.
I esteem the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; I do not defame them.
We then take refuge in the Three Treasures by reciting the following:
I take refuge in Buddha.
May all beings
embody the great Way,
resolving to awaken.
I take refuge in Dharma.
May all beings
deeply enter the sutras,
wisdom like and ocean.
I take refuge in Sangha.
May all beings
support harmony in the community,
free from hindrance.
Ryaku Fusatsu ends with the Doshi reciting an Eko (merit transfer), which reads, “On this full moon night, we offer the merit of the Bodhisattva’s way throughout every world system to the unconditioned nature of all being.” The Sangha then chants the closing verse, "All Buddhas, throughout space and time; all honored one, bodhisattvas, mahasattvas [great beings]; wisdom beyond wisdom, maha prajna paramita [great perfect wisdom].
Ryaku Fusatsu offers us an opportunity to acknowledge all past action (karma), to receive the precepts, and to rededicate ourselves to the practice of the Bodhisattva's Way. We perform this ceremony at Nebraska Zen Center / Heartland Temple every month, as close to the evening of the full moon as possible to conform to the ancient tradition.
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