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SOTOZEN.COM > Library > The Buddhist Service Series > Kuyō


What is the Meaning of Kuyō?

The Japanese word kuyō is a translation of the Sanskrit words puja or pujana, which means "to make heartfelt offerings of incense, flowers, candles, food" and so on to buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as to the celestial gods who protect Buddhism. The Sanskrit word paricariya, which means "to give service to or to attend on someone with a respectful feeling", is also translated as kuyō in Japanese.

The essential meaning of the word is an expression of respect and worship - in words, body, or mind - toward something of great importance. Long ago, offerings (kuyō) were also made with water, light, clothing, medicine, and entertainment, as well as simply putting one's hands together in gassho. Stupas, reliquary shrines, Buddhist statues, buildings, and land were also donated as offerings.

Today, offerings of flowers, food, candles, and incense are made and priests are asked to read sutras and give Dharma talks. Kuyō is the form of offerings that demonstrate a feeling of respect and worship toward the Buddha's Dharma.

Tsuizen Kuyō

In present-day Japan, the word kuyō, an abbreviation of the phrase tsuizen kuyō, refers to any offerings made to a departed person. In this case, it is often translated into English as "memorial service."

“Tsuizen" of tsuizen kuyō means "to later­ practice-good deeds" for the peace and prosperity of the departed person by someone related to that person. The practice originated in India where seven such offerings were made over the first 49 days after a person passed away, one every seven days.

When Buddhism was eventually transmitted to China, the Indian practice of puja merged with the Chinese custom of ancestor worship to form the practice of periodic memorial services (nenkaiki) that we observe today: the one hundredth day ceremony, first anniversary, and third anniversary. In Japan, this was extended to the seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, thirty-third, fiftieth anniversaries and so forth.

The third anniversary memorial service takes place two years after death, the seventh anniversary memorial service takes place six years after death, and so on.

Periodic Memorial Services
49th day service 49 days after death
100th day service 100 days
1st anniversary 1 year
3rd 2 years
7th 6 years
13th 12 years
17th 16 years
23rd 22 years
27th 26 years
33rd 32 years
37th 36 years
50th 49 years
Every fiftieth year thereafter

The anniversary years noted above for these memorial services may differ according to region and temple.

The Present-day Form of Kuyō

Grandparents coming to the temple for services, families and friends gathering for a memorial ceremony, laying flowers at a gravesite, or putting their hands together in gassho and placing water and incense at the altar - these practices all share the precious spirit of Buddhist offerings (puja) that have been transmitted from ancient India to the present day here in North America.

We would like to pass this still-cherished tradition from the heart of Buddhism on to the next generation to uphold.