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A khakkhara (Sanskrit: khakkhara; Tibetan: འཁར་གསིལ, THL: khar sil; Chinese: 錫杖; pinyin: xīzhàng; Japanese pronunciation: shakujō; Korean: 석장; romaja: seokjang; literally: "tin 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 Buddhist 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.

The earliest recorded description of a khakkhara is in the writings of the Chinese pilgrim monk Yi Jing who traveled between China, Indonesia, and India in the years 671 to 695 AD.[7]


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][8]

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.[9]

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.[2][10]

Culture and symbolism

A statue of Jizo Bodhisattva holding a shakujo staff and wish-fulfilling jewel at Shinobazu Pond, Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan.

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. 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]


  1. Watters, Thomas (1889). Essays on the Chinese Language. Presbyterian Mission Press. p. 452. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Yang, Hsüan-chih (2014). A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Lo-Yang. Princeton University Press. p. 244. ISBN 9781400857548. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Kieschnick, John (2003). The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. pp. 113–15. ISBN 0691096767. 
  4. THE NINE VERSES OF THE SHAKUJO at www.quietmountain.org
  5. 5.0 5.1 music dictionary : Sf - Si at www.dolmetsch.com
  6. Mol, Serge (2003). Classical Weaponry of Japan: Special Weapons and Tactics of the Martial Arts. Kodansha International. p. 197. ISBN 978-4-7700-2941-6. 
  7. The Sculpture of Indonesia. Jan Fontein; with essays by R. Soekmono, Eddie Sedyawati. Catalog of an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. ISBN 0-89468-141-9
  8. Beer, Robert (2003). The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Chicago: Serindia. p. 184. ISBN 1932476032. 
  9. Shohei, Ichimura (2006). The Baizheng Zen Monastic Regulations (PDF). Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai. 
  10. Fa-Hien; Legge, James. Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms (PDF). Buddha Dharma Education Association, Inc. 
  11. "Juuichimen Kannon 十一面観音". JAANUS. 2001. Retrieved 2019-11-12. 
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