At Nebraska Zen Center / Heartland Temple, we perform an ancient chanting and bowing ceremony called Ryaku Fusatsu (Jap.) once a month. We also refer to this ceremony as our Precept Ceremony, for in it we re-affirm our commitments to live according to the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, our Ethical Guidelines for everyday life. I'd like to explain what this ceremony is and how we perform it here.
Ryaku Fusatsu is indeed ancient. Its roots go back to Pre-Buddhist India, to ancient Vedic lunar sacrifices performed on the nights of the new and full moon. By Shakyamuni Buddha's time 2600 years ago, these sacrifices were no longer performed, but the new and full moon occurrences were still observed by Hindus as holy days of purification and fasting, days when the Gods came to dwell in the house. They became known as Upavastha(from the Sanskrit upa, near and vas, dwell).
Legend has it that Shakyamuni Buddha's followers also gathered on those days, perhaps because they didn't want to be left out. They would sit down and meditate together. Later, lay disciples –
in whose homes the monks and nuns would sometimes gather – wanted some teaching, so the monks began to recite the 227 rules of the Patimokkha discipline, the rules governing everyday conduct for monks and nuns (257 for nuns). This recitation developed into a confession and repentance ceremony, during which the monks and nuns would speak up if they had violated any of the rules and vow to do better in the future.
This ceremony is still performed today, at the same time and in the ancient way, by Theravadin monks and is called Uposatha in the Pali language, a variation of the old Upavastha, the, "near-dwelling" of the Gods on the ancient Hindu holy days. In Mahayana Buddhism, the spirit of the ceremony is preserved, but the 227 rules are not recited, because Mahayana sects have abandoned them. Instead of the confession being made to other monks, it is made directly to Buddha.
The ceremony was transmitted, with lots of changes and developments, from India through China to Japan and now has been transmitted to America as Ryaku Fusatsu, as it is known in Soto Zen Buddhism.