A khakkhara is a Buddhist ringed staff used primarily in prayer or as a weapon, that originates from India. The jingling of the staff’s rings is used to warn small sentient beings (i.e. insects) to move from the carrier’s path and avoid being accidentally trodden on. In ancient times it was used also to scare away dangerous animals. Ringing also is used to alert the faithful that there is a monk within earshot in need of alms. In the Sarvāstivāda vinaya the khakkhara is called the “sounding staff” because of the tinkling sound the rings make.

A khakkhara may have either four rings representing the Four Noble Truths, six rings representing the Six Perfections, or twelve rings representing the twelvefold chain of cause and effect. A four ring khakkhara is carried by novice monks, a six ring khakkhara is carried by a Bodhisattva, and a twelve ring khakkhara is carried by the Buddha. Most commonly seen are those with six rings which have also been claimed to represent the six states of existence (humans, animals, hell, hungry ghosts, gods, and asuras).

In Chinese monasteries, the abbot of the temple usually wields the staff during grand ceremonies, symbolizing the hierarchy of the abbot. The abbot would usually take the khakkhara and strike the ground thrice then shaking it, symbolizing the breaking of ignorance and calling out to all beings.

The wooden shaft can either be long for use as a walking stick or short to accompany in chanting. As a staff, the khakkhara could be wielded as a weapon; in Chinese wuxia novels the khakkhara is often the weapon of warrior monks, especially those of Shaolin Temple. It has been used in defensive techniques by traveling Buddhist monks all over Asia for centuries and monks at the Shaolin temple in China specialized in its use.

In Japan the shakujō became a formidable weapon in the hands of a practiced Buddhist monk. It could be used as a staff to block and parry attacks and the metal rings at the tip could be slammed into an opponent’s face to momentarily blind him. At the very tip of the metal finial is a sharp point which can be used to attack weak points of the body. The bottom end of the khakkhara has a metal butt which can be used to thrust and hit an opponent. An opponent’s weapons can also be easily deflected.

A notable carrier of the staff is the Ksitigarbha, the bodhisattvas of children and travelers. He is usually depicted holding a khakkhara in his right hand.

The khakkhara is the symbol of the Dharma and one of the eighteen objects which a Buddhist monk must carry. Once popularly carried by monks of most Buddhist sects, today it is rarely seen. Bodhisattva monks of Mukyōhō Mahayana Buddhism, however, carry the khakkhara where it is used in practical self-defense methods. Shōrinji Kempō also contains methods of self-defense using the khakkhara but these methods are rarely practiced today.


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