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Fusatsu: A Zen Buddhist Ceremony

Atonement, Purification, and Renewal of Vows



Outside most Japanese temples one finds a tsukubai, or fountain. Visitors purify themselves by washing their hands and mouths before entering.

© Radu Razvan | Dreamstime.com

Fusatu is one of the most beautiful ceremonies of Zen Buddhism. It is a ritual of atonement, purification, and renewal of vows.

The name fusatsu is derived distantly from the Sanksrit uposatha, or observance. The exact form of the ceremony varies somewhat from one temple to another, but it usually begins with an offering of incense and proceeds through the chanting of liturgy, accompanied by bows, bells, drums, and other instruments.

The Gatha of Atonement

The liturgy begins with the Gatha of Atonement (Gatha is another word for sutra) --

All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,
Because of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all.

Zen teachers say this gatha is not a mere confession of personal flaws. Understanding the interconnection of all things, we take full responsibility for all all that is akusala and declare atonement -- at-one-ment -- with the truth of suffering, the Four Noble Truths. This is not about feeling shame or guilt, but rather is an open-hearted recognition of our part in everyone's journey of Samsara.


The next part of the ceremony usually is a veneration of the buddhas and bodhisattvas (namu means "praise" or "veneration.") --

Namu Past Seven Buddhas
Namu Shakyamuni Buddha
Namu Manjusri Bodhisattva
Namu Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
Namu Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
Namu Maitreya Buddha

The "past seven Buddhas" are the buddhas named in the Pali Canon who lived before the historical Buddha. Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha. Manjusri, Samantabhadra and Avalokiteshvara represent wisdom (prajna), beneficence or truth, and compassion (karuna). Maitreya Buddha is named in the Pali Canon as the Buddha of a future age. These being are not separate from ourselves.

Renewal of Vows: The Three Refuges

The most basic vows taken by Buddhists, monastics and laypersons, of all schools, is Ti Samana Gamana (Pali), "taking the three refuges."

The commitment to the Buddhist path begins by reciting these lines:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha together are called the Three Jewels or Three Treasures. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is the primary vow of dedication to the Buddhist path.

Renewal of Vows: The Three Pure Precepts

The Three Pure Precepts are simple. We vow --

To do no evil,
To do good,
To save all beings.

Renewal of Vows: The Ten Major Precepts

The Three Pure Precepts are followed by the Ten Major Precepts, which are --

  1. Not killing
  2. Not stealing
  3. Not misusing sex
  4. Not lying
  5. Not abusing intoxicants
  6. Not discussing faults of others
  7. Not praising yourself while abusing others
  8. Not sparing the Dharma assets
  9. Not indulging in anger
  10. Not defaming the Three Treasures

To observe the precepts doesn't mean to approach them as rules to be obeyed. Instead, Buddhists vow to train themselves in the precepts. This training is sometimes called by the Pali word sila, which is often translated into English as "morality." But the Theravadin teacher Sunthorn Plamintr said "The word sila denotes a state of normalcy, a condition which is basically unqualified and unadulterated. When one practices sila, one returns to one's own basic goodness, the original state of normalcy, unperturbed and unmodified."

Renewal of Vows: The Bodhisattva Vows

The Bodhisattva Vows also are renewed in the fusatsu ceremony. These vows are among the most common liturgy in Mahayana Buddhism. There are many translations; here is one used by some Soto Zen sanghas:

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.
The Awakened Way is unsurpassable;
I vow to embody it.

Zen teachers point to the impossibility of the vows -- if beings are numberless, how can we free them? If delusions are inexhaustible how can they be exhausted? Yet this is our path.

Being One With All Buddhas

The fusatsu ceremony usually ends with some variation of this chant:

Being one with the Buddha --
With all sentient beings, raise the Bodhi-mind. Let the Supreme Way be realized
Being one with the Dharma --
With all sentient beings, penetrate all sutras. Let wisdom be like the ocean.
Being one with the Sangha --
With all sentient beings, lead the people. Let harmony pervade everywhere.
May the merits of maintaining the precepts permeate the Dharma world.
And may our vows to accomplish the Buddha Way be realized together.

All Buddhas throughout space and time,
All Bodhisattva Mahasattvas
Maha Prajna Paramita.

"Maha prajna paramita" means "boundless perfection of wisdom." And with bows and bells, the ceremony ends.

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