Mokugyo are instantly recognizable by their entirely unique and pleasant penetrating sound that almost seems to hypnotize with it’s intensity. The use of the fish drum is nearly universally used in ritual and private meditation amongst most forms of Zen or Chan, Mahayana Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism. (See video below of monk playing fish drum.)
By whatever name—mokugyo in Japan, muyu in China, mock gnu in Vietnam, moktak in Korea, shingnya in Tibet—the piercing pang, pang, pang of the fish drum can be heard at virtually all rituals. Any chanting of sutras or mantras is likely to accompanied by the trance-inducing wooden fish drum. Taoists and Shinto practitioners have also adopted this powerful little drum.
Why use a drum
We use a drum in meditation to keep us wakeful, mindful, alert. At the same time, the stimulating sound, entirely unique in percussion, has a trance-like effect, allowing something of an altered state of meditation. The sound’s uniqueness also instantly evokes sacredness. The sound travels, apparently on forever, penetrating all of the illusion we call our world, and carrying our mantras and sutras along.
Fish drum doesn’t always look like a fish
The fish drum is hand-carved out of a single block of wood, then hollowed out, smoothed, carved with symbols, then lacquered. Small mokugyo sit on a cushion to make sure the sound is pleasant. Larger temple muku normally rest on a temple stand. When struck by a wooden mallet, with or without felt or rubber striking tips, the sound is entirely unique.
The fish drum doesn’t always resemble a fish. Large fish drums, suspended in Chinese temples, are elaborately carved into fish and painted with gold and red. These giant fish are struck each morning and evening to help us remember all the fish in the sea, and to remind us to be wakeful.
What does it mean?
Because the fish never sleeps, it becomes a symbol of awakened meditation and even enlightenment. Since most fish adapt to have large eyes, to see in the murky waters, they also represent penetrating sight, overcoming illusion and attachment.
Fish is one of the eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism
The fish is one of the eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism, accepted by all streams of Buddhism. This auspicious symbol is normally two golden fish, symbolic of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and represents good fortune in general. Striking the drum reminds us, with each piercing strike, to remember the lessons of the eight auspicious signs.
The other symbols are:
• the Lotus, one of the most recognized symbols, standing for the beauty and clarity of enlightenment and the true nature of all beings because the beautiful flower reaches out of the muck
• the Parasol, symbol of royal dignity and protection
• Conch Shell horn representing the sound of the Dharma penetrating the universe to release all beings
• the Banner of Victory: symbolizing Buddha’s victory over Mara, who represents passion, fear of death, pride and lust
• the Vase, filled with sacred items, the never emptying vase is always full and represents long life
• the Dharma Wheel: the eight spoked wheel representing the eightfold path taught by Buddha
• the Eternal Knot: a never-ending symbol that signifies that all phenomena are linked.
The fish is a universal symbol of well-being, happiness, prosperity in freedom in all of Asia. This symbolism is partially because fish are always active and a source of a good life, but also because in India—the well-spring of enlightenment—the Ganges river (and its fish life) are sacred.
Good fortune fish are a major part of Feng Shui in China and aquariums are often prominent in homes to bring happiness and prosperity.