Relying on words and letters: Scripture recitation in the Japanese rinzai tradition

Erez Joskovich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Classical Chan/Zen literature is famous for its ostensive disparagement of scriptural authority. In practice, however, sutra recitation and invocation of dhāraṇī have been a significant and influential component of Zen monastic life throughout history. Daily and monthly sutra-recitation services take up more of the monks’ time and effort than any other activity. This article examines the liturgical function of Buddhist scriptures within the Japanese Rinzai tradition. It also aims to better understand how Zen practitioners interpret the meaning and purpose of sutra recitation and how they bridge the aforementioned gap between soteriology and practice. I explore the Kankinbō chapter of Goke sanshō yōromon, written by the eighteenth-century Japanese Rinzai monk Tōrei Enji. Tōrei focuses on the mental and physical benefits of sutra recitation and its power to positively affect natural and supernatural environments. This illustrates the multifaceted understanding of texts as ritual objects, one that challenges strict distinctions between worldly benefits and spiritual cultivation. Tōrei’s exegetical efforts to explain the function and justify the legitimacy of sutra recitation attest that the tension between antinomian rhetoric and worship was a major concern for Zen reformers in Edo Japan. Accordingly, I contend that the Kankinbō can advance our understanding of the meaning and function of rituals within Edo-period Zen and shed new light on modern interpretations of the tradition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-78
Number of pages26
JournalJapanese Journal of Religious Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2019


  • Edo period
  • Rinzai
  • Ritual
  • Sutra chanting
  • Tōrei enji
  • Zen


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