Many of you might have seen these two instruments in temples, the wooden fish and the “Hing,” or what some calls the singing bowl. It’s often seen in Buddhist temples and Taoist temples. Why do we need these, and what’s the difference between chanting with just your mouth and using these instruments? Do we NEED such instruments? This article will get you cleared up, and you will know a lot more than the ordinary people out there after reading!
Why the Instruments
Most people would think that it is an instrument to help the people to chant at the same beat, kind of like having a conductor hit the beat for the chanting group. However, that is not the case in Taoism. We use these as magical tools; they are not purely musical instruments.
When you chant, it’s your mouth chanting; you are the one speaking. When you use the instruments, it’s like the gods at the local altar chanting and speaking the words. So instead of using the power inside your body to do the magic, it’s now using the power inside the altar to do the magic. Let’s say you are doing a cleansing spell. If you chant with your mouth only, it’s all drawing power from your body to cleanse. When you use the instruments, it’s using the power of the altar to cleanse. It’s a totally different effect and purpose.
The altar is cultivated by the host and everyone else that goes there to pray and worship. Imagine this altar here is used by ten people in the house. It has the investment from all ten people, and it will grow faster and bigger than an individual for sure if a newbie in the group goes to the altar and uses the instrument to do the magic. It means he can use the cultivated powers on the altar instead of his own newbie power. That is a great help for the newbie! Or let’s say you are sick and cannot use your full potential; then you might want to use the altar’s power instead.
The wooden fish is used like a keyboard; you hit it to enter your words! The hing is like the “enter” key, which you hit to submit your request, or “enter” the bunch of things you just said. Imagine typing an email, then clicking “send” at the end. Therefore, you will see us hitting the wooden fish when we chant, then hitting the hing at the end when the passage is completed.
When we are done with a full paragraph, what do we do? Enter a few times to start a new paragraph! That is why you see us hitting the hing a few times at some point when a big restart or ending is reached!
This pair of instruments is very important for a Taoist altar because it is like having a keyboard and mouse for your computer. If an altar doesn’t have this yet, then the altar is also very restricted and limited to what it can do. Imagine what you can do with your computer without a keyboard and mouse!
The Proper Size
The wooden fish resembles the “heart”, which resembles the incense pot. If you take the wooden fish and have the opening face the sky, look from the side, it looks like that “heart” shape too! The proper size to start with should be about the size of your incense pot or a bit smaller. Then as you grow and get better, you will buy a bigger one. The Hing’s size has to match the wooden fish.
In our local temple back in the old days, we have a few sets of wooden fish. There was a mega-size one and then some smaller ones. They are there for a special purpose: to separate the “keyboard” for different parties. Imagine you have four computers. Do you want to share one keyboard or use 4? We have the big ones connected to the celestial court, the middle size one for the main local altar, then one for another altar etc. It’s a lot of complex setup going on, but it’s just like computers; the more you know, the more sophisticated you get.
Up to a certain point, like right now, I simplify stuff and combine things into fewer and fewer tools but still do the same job. This is a process you would also go through in the future.
For those without an altar, start with a palm-size (mini version) wooden fish and hing. We call that a personal fish and hing set. It’s small and portable; you can even bring it on a trip and use it in the hotel too. The fish will be consecrated with your own heart. Yes, you can just chant without the small fish and use your own heart’s power, but with the fish, you are training your heart to chant and operate with a good rhythm, building up the power for future cultivation.
Wooden fish is definitely not the bigger the better. Don’t try to be fancy and buy the biggest possible ones! They are only magical when you can consecrate them and make them a real magical tool.
Maintenance and Care
Whenever I see people with beaten-up or dried wooden fish, I feel sad. It’s a magical tool. Come on. From time to time, you should oil the wooden fish if yours is not lacquered coated. The hammer stick should be cleaned. The Hing needs to be cleaned often too. Don’t let it become a bowl of dust! Not only that, you should need to keep them in good shape, but it is also a form of respect and virtue to the gods as well. If you respect your keyboard, you should clean it often and not let your keyboard become your “midnight snack container” with all the nasty stuff hiding in the gaps and grooves. These tools are very durable, and you could be using them for the rest of your life, so don’t go cheap on them.
Want to learn how to hit the fish and hing? Ordain and start learning today to get your hands-on experience going!