Question no. 6: Explaining the Tenrikyo manner of prayer and the seated service

Q: I happened to live at a local Tenrikyo kyokai while on a study abroad program in Japan (or what’s called “home stay”). I was always curious about what was going on during the daily services: Why clap four times during prayer? Isn’t four a bad luck number in Japan? What is going on when they are bowing their heads down? What do the words and gestures of the daily services mean? Is there any significance behind why the first song is repeated 21 times, the second one done just once, and the third one is repeated in three sets of three?

submitted by Freshly Made Friends (real name withheld)

A: Hey Freshly, you’re asking at least five different questions there! You only get to ask just one…. Maybe two at most!

I’m kidding. Your questions are somewhat correlated, so I’ll be more than happy to answer them. But I will start by explaining how kyokai sanctuaries are set up for those of you out there who’ve never been in one before.

A typical Tenrikyo kyokai has three altars, with the central one dedicated to God the Parent  (Oyagami-sama), the one on the right dedicated to Oyasama, and the last altar on the left being the kyokai Memorial dedicated to late followers.

When a follower comes to worship (sanpai) at a Tenrikyo kyokai, they clap and make prayers to each altar, beginning with God the Parent’s before proceeding to Oyasama’s and the Memorial(s).1 Claps are done in fours (as opposed to twos as usually done at Shinto shrines). After clapping four times, followers bow and often engage in a silent dialogue with who is enshrined in the altar they clapped to. (I have once heard from a particular minister about the ideal way of engaging in this dialogue should differ when a follower offers their respects to God, Oyasama, and the memories of Tenrikyo forebears enshrined in the Memorial.) We then clap four times again to end a prayer. Prayers are repeated for as many altars there happen to be.

Why four claps?

The question—why clap four times?—is an understandable one to ask today. Unfortunately, however, Oyasama never appears to have explained why. (As far as I am aware, such an explanation in Scripture or the oral tradition does not exist.) It may have never occurred to the first followers to ask. They either took it for granted or never questioned why.

Nevertheless, I know of a couple of speculations why claps are done in fours.

One explanation is kind of like a religious pun: Four (shi) and putting together (awase) = shiawase or happiness. (Tenrikyo, after all, considers itself as the path to the Joyous Life.) Yes, it might come across as a little corny, but the Japanese are fond of puns like these and sometimes consider certain puns to reflect profound truths. Although four is widely considered an unlucky number in Japan (a homonym of four, shi [四], is death [死]), Oyasama once said that there was no unlucky day, all days among the days of the month were lucky, so I assume this instruction could be applied to numbers themselves and not just numerical dates.

*Update on 10/5/2009: I have decided to add a supplemental explanation I heard since I originally wrote this post that extends the above explanation that asserts the four claps means shiawase/happiness. Hopefully I can explain it in English so that it somehow makes sense.

Here goes: The four claps also symbolize four (shi) ways parts of the body come together (awase) that become the basis of happiness (shiawase).

  1. First is our eyes. The upper eyelid must comes down to the lower eyelid in order for the two to come together. When the two can come together, our vision is maintained with proper moisture. This is said to symbolize that those who are on top or in a position to lead must “come down” to meet and adjust themselves to the needs of the people they are assigned to lead.
  2. Second is our mouths. The jaw, which is located below, must come up in order for us to chew our food that is the source of our nourishment. This is said to symbolize how people “below” must “come up” to meet and adjust themselves to the needs and requests of their leaders.
  3. We put our palms together in prayer to express our indebtedness and gratitude.
  4. The sexual organs of man and woman come together to create new life.

Another explanation I heard second-hand maintains the four claps symbolize a prayer to bless the relationships we have with:

  1. our parents,
  2. our spouse,
  3. our children, and
  4. everyone else.

This explanation is surprisingly similar to one that described why another Japanese new religion claps three times when they pray. Unfortunately, I can’t confidently remember what religion it was. (I think it’s World Messianity or a related group, but again, I’m not completely sure.)

Finally, I’d like to offer my own speculation from a religious studies standpoint. I once attended a service at a branch shrine of the Ise Daijingu in Honolulu (that has a sign on Pali Highway mislabeling it as “Daijingu Temple” for some reason) where the priests clapped four times as well. When I asked why they clapped four times instead of the conventional two times, the answer I got was that the shrine was dedicated to kami (Amaterasu, or Toyouke, or both?) that deserved four.

Although I am unable to corroborate whether or not four claps are also done at Ise, I did find an online article that describes priests at Izumo Taisha clapping four times. (See under the subheading “Kami-ari: The Gathering of the Gods.”)

The fact that four claps are done in Tenrikyo may reflect a religious sentiment that maintains that the object of worship in our tradition, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, is not any commonplace deity that can be found at any local shrine or temple throughout Japan but one that is on the level or even superior to the kami enshrined at Ise2 and Izumo.

Words and hand movements of the seated service

While I have posted the words of the seated service on Tenrikyo Forum, maybe I’ll use the opportunity here to go into a little detail on what some of the hand movements symbolize.

First section

Ashiki o [gasshō no te / “pray” hand movement]3 = “evils”

“Ashiki” may be officially translated as “evils,” but many in the English-speaking congregation have begun to object to this translation and are expressing a desire to change it. It might be best to interpret “ashiki” as anything human beings perceive to be bad or negative.

harōte [“sweep heart”] = “sweeping away”

We are taught that the wrongful use of the mind/heart (kokoro) is the source of all misfortune (i.e., ashiki) in the world.

Since Oyasama largely eschewed writing Scripture in Chinese characters or kanji, there is much fluidity to how some terms can be interpreted. While officially translated as “sweeping,” harōte can be written with: [] “pay; sweep/drive away”, [] “sweep” (with a broom), or [] “exorcise; purification, exorcism” (Spahn and Hadamitzky, pp. 598, 627, and 1099).

A sweeping or brushing motion in front of the chest going outwards symbolizes the “sweeping” or “purification” of the mind/heart of thoughts that are counterproductive to the purpose of human creation, the Joyous Life. Such thoughts are referred to as “dusts.”

I speculate whether the use of the term “harau”4 here is also meant to contrast with the traditional Shinto manner of purifying (which would be explicitly written with the kanji [祓]). To elaborate, one frequently sees in Shinto ceremonies priests waving a purification wand (click the video entitled “(d) ritual purification”) to purify the people taking part in the ceremony, food offerings, and other items. (The Shinto purification rite itself is known as shubatsu.)

I would argue that the first section (and third section) of the seated service may have been meant as a ritual prayer that anyone could do to undergo the purification of what is most important in Tenrikyo: the sweeping/purification of the heart/mind (kokoro) of thoughts counterproductive to the Joyous Life. The use of the word “harau” in the seated service may reflect the concept that, as long as the heart/mind is purified, nothing else needs to be purified (or blessed) by a Shinto priest. By giving the ability to followers to purify only what was really necessary, Oyasama empowered them so they would not have to depend on Shinto priests for ritual blessing and purification.

tasuke [osae no te / “press” hand movement] = “save us”

Hands placed together side to side with palms down in a pressing motion. “Tasuke” is another a word that can be translated differently depending on the kanji (which again, Oyasama did not write in kanji save for a few exceptions). Potential kanji for “tasuke” are: [] “help, rescue; assistance”, [] “help”, [] “help, aid”, and [] “rescue, save, aid” (Spahn and Hadamitzky, pp. 293, 602, 631, 1148). Although the kanji may not seem to differ much in meaning, I would argue that [救] can sometimes give “tasuke” the nuance of “saving” or “salvation.”

Rev. Fukaya Tadamasa has written: “As illustrated by the gestures of the hands pushed down, with palms down, when we repeat the word ‘tasuke‘ (save) it is important that we push down or repress our ego, that we make ourselves nothing and kneel before God in order to be saved. It is mere superstition to seek the help of God without actually reflecting on the self” (1978, p. 16).

tamae [taira ni soroeru te / “open” hand movement] = “please”

Hands open simultaneously at chest level with palms up, about a shoulder length apart. I find it interesting that this hand movement looks similar to how prayers are done in the Jewish tradition. Coincidence? I wonder.

Tenri-Ō-no- [“wave to come”]

Mikoto [osae no te / “press” + taira ni soroeru te / “receive”]

Tenri-O-no-Mikoto is the name of God in Tenrikyo.

The “wave to come” hand movements are described as follows: “The right hand begins at shoulder level, palms facing out, and wrist breaks forward so hand flaps down. Then bring up left hand, and do the same with the left hand (The Otefuri Guide, p. 111). Also: “This imitates a gesture common in Japan and other Asian cultures. To call a person to come, the palm faces down, and fingers are waved to the person” (ibid.).

These movements remind me of the gesture of the lucky cat (“makeni neko“) that can be found in shops across Japan. (But the fingers are straight in the hand movements for the service, not curled like the lucky cat’s.) I find it interesting that there is a consistency with the dance movements throughout the Mikagura-uta when the “wave to come” appears—when the verse is about God calling human beings, only one hand waves. Both hands are waved when we human beings call to God (as done here in the first section of the seated service). There also seem to be lucky cats beckoning with one paw and those that beckon with both. Not sure if there’s any connection at all.

This is followed by the press motion again and the “receive” motion, similar to the motion for “please” above but with hands touching. The Otefuri Guide describes the motion as: “Hands are cupped. . . head is bowed and hands brought up near face” (p. 107).

Rev. Fukuya Tadamasa explained these series of hand motions as follows: “Man who lives in the bosom of God the Parent is able to receive divine protection and live joyously when he reverently prays to God the Parent. . . These ideas, I believe, are symbolized by the movement of the right and then of the left hand in a beckoning manner as we repeat the name of God” (pp. 16–17).

Second section

This post is getting a little long; I’ll refrain from writing detailed descriptions for this one.5

The second section briefly touches on God’s original creation of humanity.

Choto hanashi [“converse”] = “just a word”

Kami no [gasshō / “pray”] = “God’s”

yū koto [kuchi moto o sasu te / “point mouth”] = “sayings”

kiite [migi-mimi o sasu te / “point (right) ear”] = “listen to”

kure [taira ni soroeru te / “open”] = “please”

Ashiki no [“illness” (tilt head to right)] = “wrong”

koto(o) wa [taira ni soroeru te / “open”] = “thing”

iwan de na [nage / “throw” 3x from left] = “(I) do not say”6

I wonder if it would be better to translate “ashiki” here as “harmful,” so it means “there is nothing harmful in anything that God teaches.”

Kono yo(o) no [“weave”] = “this world’s”

ji to ten to o [“earth – sky”] = “earth & heaven”

katadori te [“take from a mold”] = “representing”

Fūfu o [“procreation”] = “husband and wife”

koshirae [“cross over chest”] = “created”

kitaru de na [nage / “throw” 3x from left] = “(I) have”

Kore wa [“open” (right hand only)] = “this is”

kono [“open” (left hand joining right hand)] = “this”

yo no hajimedashi [“give birth”] = “world’s beginning”

Namu Tenri-Ō-no-Mikoto [gasshō / “pray”]

Third section

Ashiki o harōte tasuke [same hand movements as the first section]

sekikomu [“place forward (very slightly)”] = “(I) hasten”

Ichiretsu [“two-hand circle”] = “all mankind equally”

sumashite [“calm water”] = “purified”

Kan [“press”] ro [“scoup”] dai [“lift”] = “the Kanrodai”

The current official translation of the third section can be thought of being inaccurate if the speaker is considered to be God. It is currently translated as “hasten to save us,” which reflects the assumption that the speaker is man (i.e., man simultaneously meaning the entire human species and a generic individual). Certainly, this indicates a degree of controversy in the tradition on how the third section ought to be interpreted. This conundrum exists because the subject of many Japanese sentences is dropped altogether.

The “tamae” (an even humbler form of “kudasai,” please) in the first section suggests the speaker is man, and the “kure” suggests that God is the speaker in the second section (or at least until “hajimedashi.” The singing of “Namu” suggests a human speaker). However, since there are no such honorific markers in the third section, there is some ambiguity regarding the identity of the speaker.

The Kanrodai is the “Stand for Heavenly Dew,” the marker of Jiba, the spot where human beings are believed to have been originally conceived at human creation. The Kanrodai not only functions as a focal point for followers to pray to when they pray to God, but is also the center where the Kagura Service is performed.

Why 21-1-9?

Here again is a question (like the four hand claps) that, as far as I am aware, was never posed directly to Oyasama. The reason why each song is done 21-1-9 for the seated service is, ultimately a mystery. Still, the late Fukaya Tadamasa sensei offered a number of explanations. Here is one:

The reason for our repeating of the verse of the First Section twenty-one times is:

“Ten” symbolizes ten-tenths,

“Twenty” symbolizes duplication,

“One” symbolizes commencement.7

With adequate protection commencement of all things takes place. In other words, I feel that the idea expressed here is that with complete divine protection new life begins (1978, p. 17).

He writes elsewhere that there is one explanation from an unknown source that maintains the 21 (3 x 7) repetitions represents the number three and birth (both “san” [三・産]) while seven is cutting/passing away (the number seven representing the seventh aspect of God’s protection, which has been given the sacred name of Taishokuten-no-Mikoto in the Tenrikyo tradition).

Thus, the number 21 symbolizes our appreciation for God protecting us for an entire lifetime, from the moment we are born to when we pass away for rebirth (1995, pp. 40–41). He does warn that he does not know where this explanation comes from and is thus unable to confirm its validity.

Explanations for the third section are given as follows:

The explanation for the nine repetitions of the same verse divided into series of three is that: Eye, ear, mouth, nose, both hands, both feet and the sex organ constitute the nine organs of man. We repeat ourselves nine times in series of three during our daily tsutome [service] so that we will not forget our debt to God for the usage of these nine organs. (This is an explanation given by Mr. Naokichi Takai).

Another explanation which we have heard is that “three” [mittsu] symbolized the phrase mittsu mi ni tsuku. That is, principles are impressed on the mind. “Six” symbolizes the phrase “rokku ni osamaru.” (translation note Rokku is peaceful. “Rokku ni osamaru” means “peacefully everything is settled”.) “Nine” [ku; 九] symbolizes the idea that if “rokku ni osamaru” is true, then pain and suffering (ku [苦]) will naturally disappear (1978, p. 30).

I would also like to add that “rokku” also means to “make level”; a related Tenrikyo term is rokuji” (leveled ground).

*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.


  • Fukaya Tadamasa. 1978 [1962]. A Commentary on the Mikagura-uta, the Songs for the Tsutome (revised edition). Tenri: Tenrikyo Overseas Mission Department.
  • _________. 1995 [1956]. Mikagura-uta kōgi (revised edition/ninth printing). Tenri: ō Dōyūsha.
  • Spahn, Mark and Wolfgang Hadamitzky. 1989. Japanese Character Dictionary. Tokyo: Nichigai Associates.
  • Tenrikyo Overseas Mission Department. 1992. The Otefuri Guide. Tenri: Tenrikyo Overseas Mission Department.
  • Yamazawa Tametsugu. 1998 [1949]. Otefuri gaiyō. Tenri: Tenrikyō Dōyūsha.


  1. Some churches and mission headquarters (Dendocho, such as in Los Angeles and Honolulu) have more than one altar dedicated to followers who have passed away. This is because the Memorial Hall at Tenrikyo Church Headquarters in Tenri happens to have three altars. The central one is dedicated to late members of the Nakayama family that include the late Shinbashiras and three important individuals who were not related to the Nakayamas: Izo Iburi, Naraito Ueda , and Chushichi Yamanaka). The right altar Memorial at Church HQ is dedicated to the memories of performers of the Kagura Service that usually include late Honbu-in and Honbu-Fujin (the highest members of the Tenrikyo ecclesiastical order under the Shinbashira). The last Memorial altar on the left is dedicated to the memories of everyone else.

    Churches and Dendocho that have two Memorial altars usually have one dedicated to late members of the Nakayama family and the other to late ministers and followers who were specifically affiliated with the church. I have seen the Nakayama family Memorial altars at some older churches are placed next to Oyasama’s altar on the right instead of at left.

  2. More mystery: the Ofudesaki happens to mention Ise Daijingu but I do not precisely know what the verse means. (See 6:52.)
  3. The hand movement names in brackets here are from Otefuri gaiyō (Japanese) and The Otefuri Guide (English). Note that some of the hand movements don’t have Japanese names. The translations in quotations marks after the equal signs are also from The Otefuri Guide.
  4. Harau is the Japanese “dictionary form” of sweep. Harōte is its past-tense in the Yamato dialect. Its modern/standardized Japanese equivalent would be “haratte.”
  5. Rev. Hiroshi Fukaya (who was appointed bishop of America Dendocho in 2010) gave an extended explanation of the second section at Tenri Forum 2006.
  6. The “I”s in parentheses here and below are implied; they have been added since the subject of sentences are often dropped in Japanese. While it is more than possible to translate the “I”s as “God,” God is traditionally considered as the speaker in the second section. (In contrast, the speaker of the first section is presumed to be man, i.e., simultaneously meaning the entire human species and a generic individual.)
  7. This “ten-tenths, duplication, commencement” or “jūbun, tappuri, hajimaru,” has been translated elsewhere (Anecdotes of Oyasama 173) as “sufficiently, abundantly, it begins.”