JB has been making gyobans lately. He has made them for friends and family and just finished one for us which we hung on the back porch. We first saw a gyoban when we were in Japan visiting Basho’s grave.
The gyoban is a fish drum or fish board. It is usually hung outside Buddhist temple doors and was struck to announce meal times or meditation or other community times for monks. It is believed that each time the gyoban is struck, desire is dispelled.
Though the origin of the symbol of the fish is not entirely clear, some say the gyoban is in the shape of a fish because fish eyes do not close when they are sleeping which reminds monks to always be alert and pay attention to what they are doing.
There is one legend where a Chinese Buddhist monk was walking to India to collect sutras. He came to a fast-paced river which was overflowing. A large fish came out of the water and offered to give the monk a ride across. Half-way across the river, the fish said he wanted to atone for a crime committed when he was a human and asked the monk, if he met Buddha, to find out what the fish needed to do to become a bodhisatva. The monk quickly agreed.
It took the monk 17 years to gather the sutras and was returning to China when once again he came to the same river and faced the dangerously rushing overflowing waters. The same fish came out of the water and took the monk across. Halfway across, he asked if the monk had fulfilled his request. The monk said he had forgotten and the angry fish threw the monk into the river and swam away. The monk was saved from drowning by a fisherman, but the sutras were all lost and destroyed.
The monk was so angry at the fish that he had a fish carved out of wood. As he recalled the misfortune of his 17 years of searching for the sutras and then losing them, he beat the fish with a hammer. But each time he hit it, he was surprised to discover that a Chinese character came out of the fish’s mouth until finally, years later, all the lost sutras were recovered.
So now as we enter the house and as we leave, we beat the fish too—letting go of ego and desire and pushing lost sacred energy back into the universe.
(photo by JB)