Buddhist rituals and symbols

Gassho: In Jodo Shinshu, “gassho” is the time we place our hands together in a “prayer position,” which symbolizes “oneness,” such as the oneness of ignorance and wisdom, life and death. Together with reciting “Namu Amida Butsu,” gassho expresses our gratitude and appreciation. 

Nenju: Also referred to as “ojuzu,” the nenju is the Buddhist prayer beads used in Jodo Shinshu. They are placed around the hands for “gassho,” symbolizing many Buddhist teachings, such as the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, as well as the oneness of life. The nenju always is carried in the left hand. We use the nenju when reciting the Nembutsu (thus, the name “nen” ju)

Hoji: Hoji is any activity in which people may hear the Buddha’s teachings (Dharma), although often times it is used to describe memorial services. 

Memorial Services: Buddhists observe many memorial services. Extended members of a family, and sometimes close friends, will gather at a temple or home in memory of a deceased member of the family. Following the service, the family may share a meal. An important result of this custom has been the reinforcing of family ties with members beyond one’s immediate family and a sense of continuity from generation to generation, which teaches lessons about interdependence and karma.

Buddhism has many rituals and services associated with death. There’s the makurakyo or pillow service, performed immediately following a person’s passing. There’s a funeral, followed by a seven day memorial service, then a 49 day memorial service, a one-year service, and services observing the third year anniversary, seventh year, 13th year, 17th year, and 33rd year. There’s even a 50 year memorial service and services every 50 years afterwards. We also have the hatsubon service held during our annual Obon service for families who have experienced a loss within the year, and our monthly Shotsuki memorial service for families observing the passing away of loved ones in that month.  

According to the traditional way of counting, the yearly cycles begin with the Meinichi or death dates as 1. One year later then would be cycle 2, two years later would be cycle 3, etc. The isshuki does not refer to the year but to the first round or circuit from Meinichi to Meinichi. Thereafter, the term is “kaiki” or cycle memorial. In other words, the 3rd cycle Hoji is observed on or near the meinichi two years after the death of a person, the 7th cycle six years after death, etc. 

A long time ago, people believed there was a “life energy” that remained after a person passed away. This energy had a kind of life cycle of seven days. Thus, there was a belief that services had to be held seven times every seven days in order for this energy to come to rest, which resulted in the 49 day service (seven times seven days). Another belief held that after 49 days, somehow it was decided whether the dead person went to a Buddhist heaven or Buddhist hell, so family members held a service to wipe out any bad karma and to create good karma in hopes of creating the most favorable outcome. 

However, these beliefs don’t follow what the Buddha taught. One of the great truths of Buddhism is that all things are impermanent, that nothing lasts forever, and that the universe is constantly changing. This truth dispels the notion that there is a soul that is unchanging and lasts forever. Also, Shinran realized that it is impossible for human beings to accumulate good merit that somehow determines what happens to people after they pass away, let alone accumulate merit for someone else, such as a family member. These ideas are considered mistaken beliefs or superstitions, which Shinran warned people against, which was a revolutionary idea 750 years ago and even today. 

We continue to follow the Buddhist tradition of observing memorial services for very personal reasons. They are a time for remembering loved ones who have been a part of our lives. They are a time for reflecting on our own lives, especially given how our lives have been affected by a great loss. It is also a time to take a break from our busy, everyday world and to ponder the greater meaning of our lives. It is a time to listen to the Buddha Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings. In Buddhist terms, we say the Dharma provides a light which helps us find our way in life on a sometimes darkened path. Memorial services have become a time when families and friends come together to share their lives, gain some greater perspective about themselves and move forward to live more fully, with more awareness, and with gratitude. 

So you see, these rituals and services help us deal with our innermost feelings associated with great pain and suffering, helping to awaken us to the wonderful world around us. 

Schedule of Memorial Services

  • Makuragyo

  • Funeral

  • 7 day

  • 49 day

  • 100 day

  • 1 year

  • 3rd year

  • 7th year

  • 13th year

  • 17th year

  • 25th year

  • 33rd year

  • 50th year

  • 100th year

Thereafter, every 50 years.