Learn About the Interesting History Behind Instruments Resembling Fish

The Wooden Fish

Mokugyo Fish Drum also known as Wooden Fish, is easily recognized by their completely distinctive, pleasantly piercing sound, which has the potential to captivate because of its intensity. The majority of Zen or Chan, Mahayana, and Pure Land Buddhist traditions use the fish drum almost exclusively in ceremonial and personal meditation.

Wooden fish are frequently used in Buddhist rituals, which typically involve reciting sutras, mantras, or other writings. The wooden fish are used in Chan Buddhism to keep the beat while chanting. They are utilized when reciting Amitabha’s name in Pure Land Buddhism. The size and shape of wooden fish vary, ranging from 150 millimeters for laity use or solitary daily meditation to 1.2 meters for use in temples. Along with a bell bowl, its metal counterpart for percussion, wooden fish are frequently positioned to the left of the altar.

The drum is also known as the Wakeful Drum because it awakens the mind to its true nature. This vigilance prevents meditators from drifting off to sleep. The fish represents a wakeful mind because they never shut their eyes. Sleeping on the mat could result in a good wake-up tap in Chan or Zen. The drum can keep you awake but relaxed, mindful but not mindlessly sober at home where there is no one to keep you on your mat.

Wooden Fish History

The story behind the wooden fish’s creation is well known. According to legend, a Buddhist monk who had broken his vows in the past was punished by being reborn as a fish with a tree growing out of its back. The wind only made the weight worse because it caused the tree to shake back and forth, causing excruciating pain and blood. The reborn monk’s existence was a period of agonizing pain due to bad weather.

The monk’s old master witnessed the monk’s extreme suffering while he was strolling along the beach on a windy day. The elderly monk felt sorry for him and resolved to chant a series of ceremonial prayers to deliver his former pupil from his unhappy fate. The old master was successful, and the disciplined pupil was reborn into a happier existence when the heavily weighted fish passed away. The dead tree was turned into a fish by the old master, who placed it on the temple wall as a warning to other monks who might think of breaching their sacred Buddhist vows.

Fish Legend Origin

Fish serve as a symbol for the higher self’s unconscious feelings and motivations. It also serves as a metaphor for higher levels of awareness, knowledge, and thought.

All the species that live beneath the water’s surface will represent fertility, birth, and rebirth because water is the source of all life. Fish is no exception, as it has a strong connection to the sacred feminine in terms of symbolism. The symbolic significance of the fish varies from culture to culture and also relies on the specific species of fish. The fish is also a symbol of luck and wealth.

Fish Symbolism


The fish represents two things. The fish means awareness, or eyes that are perpetually awake. Fish are also a sign of riches and abundance, not just in terms of material prosperity but also in terms of the multitude of realizations that can be attained through meditation.

The seventeen-year journey of a monk to deliver the priceless sutras from India to China is described in the legend of the fish as being obstructed by a large, overflowing river. Unexpectedly, a large fish offered to transport the monk across the river. He was born a fish because he had bad karma from his time as a human. He will put out the bad karma with a virtuous act by carrying the monk. Later, the fish evolved into a Bodhisattva. The fish tossed the monk, sutras and all, in the water on the way back because he had failed to ask the Buddha for anything. Sutras were destroyed.

How Mokugyo Fish Drum is Used

The wooden fish is, as its name suggests, constructed of wood and has carvings of fish on it. Usually made of walnut, camphor, or ebony, wooden fish are used as musical instruments to accompany chanting; when struck, its resonance chamber emits a loud, piercing sound that aids in mental focus. In addition, it is also an easy musical instrument to learn.

The rhythmic sound of the wooden fish during chanting sessions energizes the audience, aids the chanters in overcoming distraction and weariness, and enhances the melody of the service for the spectators. In the same way, that attention should not be excessively tense or too relaxed, chanters should moderately strike the wooden fish.

The act of striking the wooden fish should serve to remind the practitioner of the fish’s unique ability to keep its eyes open whether swimming or motionless. The wooden fish encourages us to work hard and be dedicated similarly.

When is the Mokugyo Fish Drum Used?

When reciting the sutra, chanting a mantra, saying “Namu Amida Butsu,” Amitabha’s name, practicing breathing techniques, or engaging in mindfulness exercises in Zen temples, the drum is most frequently used in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, and the United States. The attentive mind is necessary when performing rituals, such as those for death or rebirth during processions, and to maintain focus and timing while chanting in a group setting when engaging in rituals or asking for rain or luck.

Why Do Practitioners Use a Drum?

In meditation, practitioners beat a drum to keep themselves awake, aware and focused. At the same time, the percussion’s singularly exciting sound induces a trance-like state that allows for a kind of altered state of meditation. The sound’s singularity also instantaneously conjures a sense of holiness. Having a guide on how to use percussions will go a long way. The music seems to go indefinitely, piercing the entirety of the illusion we refer to as our reality and carrying our mantras and sutras with it.

Do Fish Drums Always Look Like a Fish?

The fish drum is carved by hand from a single piece of wood, hollowed out, smoothed, and then painted with symbols. Small mokugyo perch on a cushion to assess the sound’s comfort level. A temple stand is typically used to support larger temple muku. A wooden mallet, with or without felt or rubber striking tips, makes a completely different sound when struck.