Buddhist liturgy is a formalized service of veneration and worship performed within a Buddhist Sangha community in nearly every traditional denomination and sect in the Buddhist world. It is often done one or more times a day and can vary amongst the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana sects.
The liturgy mainly consists of chanting or reciting a sutra or passages from a sutra, a mantra (especially in Vajrayana), and several gathas. Depending on what practice the practitioner wishes to undertake, it can be done at a temple or at home. The liturgy is almost always performed in front of an object or objects of veneration and accompanied by offerings of light, incense, water and/or food.
The traditional Chinese Buddhist liturgy for morning chanting (simplified Chinese: 早课; traditional Chinese: 早課), evening chanting (simplified Chinese: 晚课; traditional Chinese: 晚課), and regularly scheduled Dharma services (simplified Chinese: 共修法会; traditional Chinese: 共修法會) in the Chan and Pure Land schools combine mantras, recitation of the Buddha's name and physical and spiritual practices, such as bowing and walking meditation and vow making. Sitting meditation often occurs before or after the liturgy. A typical order for chanting at these services is:
In Japan, gongyo is also sometimes called o-tsutome (お勤め) or shōjin (精進). All three terms are common Japanese words and none is specific to any particular sect or school.
The word gongyo originated in ancient China; although nowadays it is more often used in Buddhism, it first appeared in the Taoism classic Zhuang Zi. Its original meaning is "assiduous or hard and frequent walking/practice".
Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi abstracted and modified this word from an earlier classic of Taoism - Laozi's Tao Te Ching, in which it states:“上士闻道，勤而行之”, which means taking effort and practicing. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the buddhist philosophy developed dramatically in central China, and was influenced by Taoism. Chinese Buddhist philosophers borrowed this word from Taoism classics, and it spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam with Buddhism.
The concept of gongyō is also common in Japanese Pure Land Buddhist schools such as Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. The central practice of these schools is the recitation of the name of Amida, also called the nembutsu, but in daily practice a Pure Land practitioner will also chant excerpts of the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, particular the sections titled the Sanbutsuge or the Juseige, and in some temples chanting the entire Smaller Sutra of Immeasurable Life may occur once daily or alternatively only on more formal occasions.
In larger Pure Land temples, the daily service is performed by priests or ministers, and lay people can optionally attend and recite along if they wish. The times for these services will vary depending on the individual branch, and individual temple.
In traditional Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, lay practitioners may also chant a hymn written by Shinran called the Shoshinge, which is not a sutra per se, but expounds the lineage with which Jodo Shinshu owes its beliefs. A shorter hymn called the Junirai, the Twelve Praises of Amida, can be used as well.
The gongyo of Shingon Buddhism differs amongst various sub-sects, but all of them mainly recite the Hannya Shingyo, the mantras of the Thirteen Buddhas and other mantras, the Light Mantra, and the gohogo; the saintly name of Kukai. Gongyo is important for lay Shingon Buddhists to follow since the practice emphasizes meditation of the body, speech and mind of a buddha.
Nichiren Buddhists perform a form of gongyo that consists of reciting certain passages of the Lotus Sutra and chanting daimoku. The format of gongyo varies by denomination and sect. Some, like Nichiren Shoshu and Nichiren Shu, have a prescribed formula which is longheld in their practice, while others such as the Soka Gakkai International variedly change their gongyo formats depending on modernity, the most recent being the 2015 edition of their liturgy format.
In the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), gongyo is performed to "return to the very foundation of our lives" and "draw wisdom" from inherent Buddha nature, and achieves "the fusion or reality and wisdom"
Nichiren established no formal procedure for gongyo other than the recitation of the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sutra, and at times even just the verse section of the 16th chapter. Hence the format had changed from time to time through the centuries. At the time the Soka Gakkai came into being, Nichiren Buddhist laity were not expected to do gongyo themselves; priests did it on their behalf. The first two presidents of the Soka Gakkai, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, taught members "not to hire priests to chant, as had long been customary, but to chant for themselves, a change they found both disarming and empowering"
The current format has evolved over the years. Originally, it followed the format of Nichiren Shoshu. In the 1970s, silent prayers were added for the success of the Soka Gakkai itself, and in memory of its first two deceased presidents, in addition to prayers for Nichiren and his disciple Nikko. Currently, after the recitation of the 2nd chapter and the verse section of the 16th chapter, daimoku is chanted for as long as desired, after which all the silent prayers are recited to conclude gongyo. The SGI's version of sutra recitation takes approximately 5 minutes, leaving more time for the primary practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. As of 2015, the silent prayers currently are: gratitude to the Gohonzon, to Nichiren, and to his immediate successor Nikko; appreciation for the three founding presidents of the organization; a prayer for the fulfillment of the great vow for worldwide kosen-rufu, for the human revolution and attainment of goals of the practitioner, and for the deceased; and finally for the happiness of all living beings. It is emphasized by the Soka Gakkai, however, that more important than the wording of the prayers is the practitioner's heartfelt intent in doing gongyo and expressing his or her appreciation and desires.
Recitation of the Lotus Sutra can be performed in Shindoku or one's own preferred language.
There is additional form of gongyo performed by Nichiren Shu practitioners at homes and in temples in which the entire Lotus Sutra is recited over the course of 32 days.
In Nichiren Shōshū, gongyo is in principle performed twice daily, upon rising ("morning gongyo") and before retiring ("evening gongyo"). Its recitations of the Lotus Sutra are composed of the following:
It is the act of offering the sutra, daimoku (the invocation Nam-myoho-renge-kyo), and silent prayers to the Gohonzon, the object of veneration. Offering the sutra entails reciting the Expedient Means (second) and the Life Span of the Tathagata (sixteenth) chapters of the Lotus Sutra; the silent prayers are five formal meditations expressing gratitude for the Three Treasures as defined in Nichiren Shoshu, and the merit accrued through Buddhist practices. Buddhist piety is a common sentiment found in Gongyo among Nichiren Shoshu members.
Members of Nichiren Shoshu may only use Juzu prayer beads with pure white cords and white Pom-Pom ornaments, while Nichiren Shoshu priests use an additional set of Juzu prayer beads with white string tassels which they use towards Kito and Lotus Sutra blessings. The rubbing of Juzu prayer beads is prohibited during both Gongyo and Shodai or prolonged chanting in Nichiren Shoshu.
Like in Nichiren Shu and other Nichiren-related sects, the sutra recitation is done in the Japanese phonetic pronunciation of Myōhō-Renge-Kyō, the Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra by Kumarajiva. The number of recitations depends on which silent prayer is to be offered. The established format consist of five in the morning and three in the evening, with the Expedient Means and Life Span of the Tathagata chapters recited once for each silent prayer offered. The full Life Span of the Tathagata Chapter is recited only for the second prayer (an expression of appreciation to the Dai-Gohonzon); for all others, only the "verse" portion is recited. Each recitation of the sutra passages is followed three "prolonged daimoku" (hiki-daimoku, wherein each syllable pronounced distinctly and drawn out: "Na-Mu, Myō-Hō–Ren-Ge–Kyō–") and the corresponding silent prayer, except for the final recitation of the service, which is followed by the chanting of 100 or more daimoku and the final silent prayer. Note that the number of or the length of time daimoku is chanted between the final sutra recitation and silent prayer, is discretionary.
Variations on this basic gongyo format, consisting of different combinations of the Expedient Means Chapter and parts of the Life Span of the Tathagata Chapter, are also offered on certain occasions, such as at mid-day meetings, before chanting daimoku for extended periods, and at funerals and celebrations.
The most important gongyo service in Nichiren Shoshu is the Ushitora Gongyo performed daily by the high priest or his proxy (when he is unable to officiate). Ushitora Gongyo takes place in the Grand Reception Hall of Head Temple Taisekiji and follows the format of the five-prayer morning gongyo service. It is done between the eponymous hours of the ox (ushi, 02:00) and the tiger (tora, 04:00), usually starting at 02:30 and taking about 50 minutes. Its purpose is to pray for the worldwide propagation of Nichiren Shōshū Buddhism and—by extension—the peace and prosperity of all the world's peoples.
The significance of performing Ushitora Gongyo at this time of day derives from earlier Buddhist teachings that describe the hour of the ox as "the end of darkness" and the hour of the tiger as "the beginning of light," and ones that describe all Buddhas as having attained enlightenment at this time. The passage from the hour of the ox to the hour of the tiger therefore symbolizes the transition from the unenlightened condition of a common mortal to the enlightened condition of a Buddha, so the performance of gongyo at this hour serves as a reminder of the true purpose of Buddhist practice: to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime.