Apparently, during the time of Dōgen (who lived from 1200 to 1253 and introduced Zen to Japan), the wood fish drum called mokugyo was a flat one that was part of 'the meal ritual' -- it was in the 'outer hall'. People hit it with a long pole during the ritual. They looked like this 'un (from the Met's Collection), 'less I be mistaken:
Then there's the type of drum that the people of today call mokugyo, which looks like a sleigh bell with a "handle" of two dragon-head fish, both biting a ball (or jewel, I've seen it called a jewel). The ball is a symbol of earth -- our plane of existence, I guess? This type seems to be the one that most people talk about, so that's the one I (hope) I am focusing on. (Of course the Met just said that both are called mokugyo...Anyway, insert rant and (yet another) minor nervous breakdown here, and let's continue.)
They're made by hollowing out a piece of wood. Camphor wood's the top choice, but you can get ones in mulberry wood or rosewood. (Unless it's that my source is mistaken... Really, some days I think that's this blog's unofficial tagline.)
The big ones are usually 2 or 3 feet tall -- but you can find bigger (see the video below) a piece. I got most of that basically from one book, which also says that they're painted -- red or "plainer" colors.
How do people play mokugyo? They use a padded drum stick. Big ones are put on a cushion before they're used. (Dunno how 'big' one has to be before it needs a cushion...) Here's a short video of a big mokugyo -- looks like a three-footer, easy:
From what I can figure, the mokugyo is kept in the hondo of Ryutokuji (龍徳寺) in Otaru (小樽), Hokkaido (北海道).
What I've found says mokugyo have two purposes: one is to help keep time during sutra chants, and and the other to call monks together for a Buddhist service. This probably varies from monastery to monastery, not to mention sect to sect. Speaking of which, two sects I've read that use mokugyo are Zen (or禅) and Jōdō aka Pure Land (or 浄土宗.) (So if you ever find yourself on the lookout for spotting one, you know where to start now.)
On a related note, fish symbolism says that because fish don't blink, fish are like a metaphor for vigilance. Guess that makes sense -- mokugyo are meant to keep you on track, like. (And now I know not to start a staring contest with a fish.)
One version has it like this: mokugyo is supposed to have been the creation of one Chih-ling, a Chinese priest who lived during the Sui dynasty (Don't know when that was? I didn't either. It was 581-617 AD. There. Now we both know). Inspiration for it, goes a recounting, came from the Subha Sastra, a sutra.
Or was it?
Here's another history. A Chinese monk called Yinyuan Longqi brought it over in the 1600s. (Yinyuan, according to this same account, started the Ōbaku sub-sect of Zen. His personal dates are thus: 1592-1673.)
Here's a version of the mokugyo's origins: a priest in India got reborn as a fish, because he didn't live like he should've done. His new fish body had a tree growing out of it (whoa). Not only that, whenever this way out of left-field appendage got buffeted by anything, the fish/ex-priest got hurt.
Instead of being honest with himself about why he was now a fish with a tree growing out of his back, he blamed his superior/ex-superior and wanted to exact some good, old-fashioned revenge. One day, this same superior/ex-superior needed to cross the river the fish/ex-priest lived in, and verily did the fish/ex-priest go and take him some revenge (the narrative I came across didn't say what exactly that was, but apparently it counted as revenge).
The superior asked the fish what was going on, and the fish spake his delusion, to which the superior responded with flat denial, telling the fish that You Get What You Deserve. The scales fell from the fish's eyes. The fish asked the superior to make something out of his back-tree that people would use in Buddhism. This would get the fish closer to Nirvana. The superior obliged: he made a fish-shaped drum out of it. When the drum was used, the fish was able to go to Nirvana.
Now for a different origin story that completely (well sorta) flips the dynamic. It talks about a priest (I think) crossing a river and being saved by a fish. He made the fish a promise that he then forgot about... When it came about that the priest had to cross the river a second time (for some reason), the fish gave him a near death experience in retaliation for the slight. In response to this, the priest made an effigy of the fish -- a fish-shaped drum -- so he could beat the tar out of something without officially breaking his vow of non-violence. (I'm not quite sure he'd quite got the whole concept of non-violence.).
That one seems like a different moral story, perhaps on the importance of Keeping Your Promises.... or maybe perhaps Going To Bed On Time And Eating Your Vegetables (Because River Fish With Supernatural Powers Are Touchy And Have No Sympathy For People With Bad Memory).
To round out this post, here's a little science. Poking around for mokugyo info turned up a study on them. Scientists looked at both the drum's hertz (it usually makes two 'peaks') as well as what people liked best about the sounds. I don't understand all of it so... link!
Well, here we are again! Hope you had fun. ;) (Oh, and it's pretty easy to find mokugyo for sale online. Just thought I'd put it in for the curious. )
"Culture in Action: Playing the Spoons and Other Curious Instruments"; Liz Miles; 2011
"A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism"; Christmas Humphreys; 1984
"We Japanese: The Customs, Manners, Ceremonies, Festivals, Arts and Crafts of Japan"; Frederic de Garis, Atsuharu Sakai; 2002
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Mokugyo
"Dōgen's Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A Translation of Eihei Shingi"; Taigen Daniel Leighton, Shohaku Okumura (translators); 1996
"A Japanese-English Dictionary of Culture, Tourism and History of Japan"; 山口百々男, Steven Bates (translator?); 2010
Encyclopedia Britannica: Dōgen