A khakkhara (Sanskrit: khakkhara; Tibetan: འཁར་གསིལ, THL: khar sil; Chinese: 錫杖; pinyin: xīzhàng; Japanese pronunciation: shakujō; Korean: 석장; romaja: seokjang; "tin stick"; Vietnamese: thiền trượng; "Zen stick"), sometimes referred to in English as a pewter staff,[1][2] is a staff topped with metal rings traditionally carried by Buddhist monks, particularly in the East Asian tradition.[3]

Originally used as a noisemaker to announce a monk's presence and frighten away animals, it was adapted for use as a rhythmic instrument during chanting and sutra recitation, and for use as a weapon.[4][5][6] It is also known as a "tiger pewter staff" (虎錫), due to its traditional use of driving away predatory animals.[citation needed]

The basic design of a khakkhara is of a central staff topped by one or more metal loops, with several smaller metal rings bound by each loop (similar to the stringing of traditional Chinese cash.[3] Various numbers of loops and rings are employed, with each number being assigned symbolic significance on the basis of a variety of Buddhist numerical formulas.[3] Historical examples from the Famen Temple include staffs with one, two, or four loops and four, six, or twelve rings on each loop.[3]

Several versions of the staff's origin are given in the Sarvastivada vinaya, but in all of them the staff is recommended to monks by the Buddha in order to ward off animals- either for protection from dangerous predatory animals like tigers and lions, or for scaring off small creatures like spiders and snakes that might be trod on by wandering monks.[3] The ringing of the staff can also alert donors within earshot of the monk's presence, as monks traditionally remain silent while collecting alms.[3][7]

In the Mahayana sutra known as the Pewter Staff Sutra (得道梯橙錫杖經), the Buddha instructed his monks that they should have one of these staffs, because the Buddhas of the past, present and future also kept such a staff.[8]

According to the Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms by Faxian, the capital city of Nagara, once had a vihara that held the staff that belonged to the Buddha. The staff was made of "bulls-head sandalwood" (Sanskrit: gośīrṣa candana) and was about 16-17 chi in length. It was encased in a wooden sheath and too heavy for even a thousand men to move.[9][10]

In Chinese monasteries, the khakkhara symbolizes the abbot's administrative authority. When ascending the platform during large ceremonies, the abbot takes the khakkhara and strikes the ground three times while shaking it, symbolizing the breaking of ignorance and calling out to all beings.[citation needed] In Japanese temples, the khakkhara is usually handheld, with the rattle of the khakkhara being used as a rhythmic instrument during sutra chanting to keep time, similar to the wooden fish.[5]

The khakkhara came to symbolize monks in Chinese literature, serving as an emblem similar to the robe and bowl.[3] A popular name for a wandering mendicant monk is 飛錫 (flying staff). Alternatively, a monk who dwells comfortably in a monastery may be referred to as 掛錫 (hung-up staff). A monk who belongs to a monastery but frequently travels for various religious duties may also be called a 掛錫 or a 卓錫, indicating the laying down of his staff. 'Planting a staff' similarly referred to a monk who had taken up a long-term residence.[3]

The number of loops and rings featured on the staff was also assigned symbolic significance, according to a variety of Buddhist numerical formulas- four loops symbolizing the Four Noble Truths, six rings representing the Six Perfections, or twelve rings representing the twelvefold chain of cause and effect.[3]

A notable carrier of the staff is Kṣitigarbha, the bodhisattva of children and travelers. He is usually depicted holding a khakkhara in his right hand. It is also often held by images of the thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara in Chinese and Japanese statuary.[11]

Baiyun Mountain in Guangzhou, China features a spring known as "Pewter Staff Spring" (錫泉). According to legend, a monk struck the earth with his staff which caused the spring to appear.

The "eye-cleansing well" (根洗いの井戸) at Enkōji in Kōchi Prefecture, Japan is said to have been created by means of a khakkhara. The temple's legendary account tells that in 795, Kōbō-Daishi used his staff to break the ground and pull water in order to save the nearby village from drought.[12]

The wooden shaft can either be long for use as a walking stick or short for accompaniment in chanting. As a staff, the khakkhara could be wielded as a weapon; in Chinese wuxia novels the khakkhara is often the weapon of warrior monks, especially those of Shaolin Monastery. It has been used in defensive techniques by traveling Buddhist monks all over Asia for centuries, and monks at the Shaolin temple in China specialized in its use.

In Japan the shakujō became a formidable weapon in the hands of a practiced Buddhist monk. It could be used as a staff to block and parry attacks, and the metal rings at the tip could be slammed into an opponent's face to momentarily blind him. At the very tip of the metal finial is a sharp point which can be used to attack weak points of the body. The bottom end of the khakkhara has a metal butt which can be used to thrust and hit an opponent.

Shorinji Kempo also contains methods of self-defense using the khakkhara, but these methods are rarely practiced today.

Confucian literature makes mention of the staff in the context of filial piety. It is argued that if one's parent fall into hell, it is due to their own wickedness. How then can the Buddha's pewter staff save them (豈浮屠錫杖所能救而出之者乎)?

In popular fiction, fictional Buddhists and tengu are often depicted carrying and even fighting with a khakkhara. It is also featured as an item and wielded by several characters in popular entertainment. A non-exhaustive list of appearances is as follows: