Soto Zen Home Liturgy

When people think of Zen, they think of meditation, and sand gardens. And with good reason. Zen uses the Buddhist teachings as a guide, but seeks to experience first-hand what Shakyamuni Buddha experienced.

However, that’s not to say that there isn’t a devotional side to Zen either. As a peerless teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha pointed the way, “turned the wheel of the Dharma” as they say, and so he is an inspiration to Buddhists everywhere. This is true for other Buddhist deities as well. Whether such deities actually exist or not is less important than you might think.1

In any case, for devotional practices I found that the Soto-sect of Japanese Zen in particular has good resources, both in English, and especially in Japanese, for home practice, and home liturgy. I like this aspect as it gives me something wholesome to focus my devotional energies towards while upholding the tradition.

So, I reviewed a few Japanese-language sources on how to do home liturgy, or otsutomé (お勤め), for the Soto Zen tradition. There seems to be a “short” version for day to day use, and a “longer” version used in more formal ceremonies (or as one desires). I am focusing on the short version only because it’s more accessible for new Zen Buddhists, and easier to maintain on a regular basis.

But first, let’s cover how home altars work in the Soto Zen tradition…

Soto Zen Home Altar

The Buddha Shakyamuni, historical founder. From a 1920’s book published in India.

While homes in Japan often have an o-butsudan, or Buddhist altar cabinet, these are less common in the West. They are not strictly necessary though. Many Japanese don’t have them either due to cost or space. In any case, cabinet or not, many Buddhists have a home altar, and these usually comprise of at least four objects:

  • An central image, hanging scroll, or statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. Any one of these is fine. Sometimes, you also seeing hanging scrolls with Shakyamuni Buddha and the two founders of Soto Zen: Dogen and Keizan such as this one. Soto-Zen sources also state that if you somehow have both a hanging scroll and statue (I do), you can enshrine the statue in front of the scroll.
  • A small candle holder. I like using LED candles personally because they are safer and more environmental.
  • A small flower vase, and flowers. I use a small glass vase, and fake flowers that I got from my local arts and craft store.
  • A small incense holder and incense. I got mine at a local Asian market, but there’s plenty of options here.
  • Optional: a small buddhist bell.
  • Optional: a Buddhist rosary of some kind.

As for placement: the central image is elevated slightly above the rest. The other objects are placed in front of it, in order: flowers (left), incense (center), and candle (right).


According to Soto-Zen sources above, the simplest form of home liturgy goes like so:

Ring the bell (if you have one) three times gently

Put your hands together in gassho

Recite the liturgy at an even pace

Ring the bell three more times

Put your hands together again in gassho

But what liturgy to recite?

The absolute simplest is to simply recite na mu sha ka mu ni butsu (南無釈迦牟尼仏, “Praise to Shakyamuni Buddha”) 3 times.

Another option is to recite the Three Treasures, which is a nearly universal practice in Buddhism:

JapanesePronunciationOriginal Pali/Sanskrit1Meaning2
南無帰依仏Namu ki-e butsuBuddhaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmiI go to the Buddha [teacher] for refuge
南無帰依法Namu ki-e hoDhammaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmiI go to the Dharma [the teaching] for refuge
南無帰依僧Namu ki-e soSanghaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmiI go to the Sangha [the community] for refuge
1 The ṃ (an m with a dot underneath) is pronounced more like “ng” than “m”. So, “Buddhaṃ” in this context sounds more like “Buddhang”. The regular “a” without an accent mark sounds “uh” as in “duh”, and ā is more like “ah” as in “father”.
2 The myriad translations of the Three Treasures often take liberties with interpretations and sectarian views. This is, to my best knowledge, the most accurate and literal interpretation.

For home services, reciting in your native language,2 in Japanese (for consistency with the Soto Zen tradition), or in Pali/Sanskrit is entirely up to you.

A more stylized form of the Three Treasures found in Soto Zen liturgy called the ryakusanbō (略三宝), for which this a rough translation:

十方三世一切仏Ji Ho San Shi I Shi Fu[Praise to] the Buddhas of the Ten Directions,1 and the Three Realms!2
諸尊菩薩摩訶薩Shi Son Bu Sa Mo Ko Sa[Praise to] past teachers, bodhisattvas, and all who follow the Buddhist path!
摩訶般若波羅蜜Mo Ko Ho Ja Ho Ro Mi[Praise to] the Dharma, whose wisdom leads to awakening!
1 Ten Directions – the cosmos as a whole. In other words, all Buddhas everywhere.
2 Three Realms – the realms of desire, form and formlessness. This is another fancy way of saying Samsara (existence) as a whole.

And that’s about it!


The sources state that doing the same liturgy in the morning when you wake up, and also before you go to bed is the ideal cadence. It is also customary to wash one’s face a bit before the liturgy as a respectful gesture, but this is optional too.

However, for people who are busy, it is perfectly fine to do morning or evening, not both. The sources also state that if one is truly busy, simply doing gassho in front of the altar is fine too.

Good luck and happy chanting!

October 2022 Edit: Major corrections and updates in Liturgy section, added additional languages in footnotes below.

1 As a Star Trek nerd, I like to imagine even Mr Spock as a Bodhisattva. 😉

This was a fun little book I received on Christmas. Definitely recommend.

2 Українською:

Я шукаю Притулку у Будді.
Я шукаю Притулку в Дхармі.
Я шукаю Притулок у Сангхе.

На русском:

Я ищу Прибежища в Будде.
Я ищу Прибежища в Дхарме.
Я ищу Прибежища в Сангхе.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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