Repentance Ritual of the Emperor of Liang

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Buddhist Text Translation Society
  • Burlingame, CA: 
    Buddhist Text Translation Society
    , November
     2016.
     370 pages.
     $13.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781601030870.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Whenever I teach Buddhism, my students are surprised at the religion’s strong ritual dimensions. I suspect that this response is due, in part, to the common American notion that religion is a private affair, and that Buddhism is a hip personal “philosophy” that does not entail belief in supernatural figures. The idea that Buddhist practice may involve a heavy dose of repentance—a notion that smacks of a sense of guilt with all its attendant psychological baggage—can be positively jarring to many folks in the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. By contrast, traditional Buddhism has long been a communalaffair in which the sangha regularly assembles to profess faith in various spiritual beings (Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Dharma protectors among others), make offerings, and express repentance for past wrong doings. This recent publication from the Buddhist Text Translation Society (BTTS), an affiliate of the international Dharma Realm Buddhist Association headquartered in Ukiah, CA, would likely be illuminating for casual students of Buddhism.    

Repentance Ritual of the Emperor of Liang is an English translation of all ten chapters of the Liang Huang Bao Chan 梁皇寶懺 (“The Jeweled Repentance of the Emperor of Liang”), a liturgy composed by the Chan Master Baozhi at the behest of Emperor Wu—an early patron of Buddhism in China—in order to free his deceased wife from the sufferings of rebirth in the animal realm. As such, the text is a manual for worship rather than a philosophical treatise or literary narrative. It is said that the liturgy proved so effective that it became a standard practice, and it is still regularly performed in Chinese monasteries to this day. This particular BTTS translation was fifteen years in the making, and the result is a meticulous volume of directions on how to perform this complex, week-long ceremony. Each chapter is divided into sections that include opening invocations and detailed explanations of the principles underlying repentance, separated by repeated instructions for bowing to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In addition, each chapter has its own endnotes, and the entire volume includes a glossary of Buddhist terms. 

Several points stand out in the Repentance Ritual of the Emperor of Liang. Like other Mahāyāna texts, such as the Lotus Sūtra, this text regularly attests to its own ritual efficacy. To cite one example, the “praise” section that concludes chapter 1 reads in part: “The meritorious power of the Emperor of Liang Repentance Roll One, Enables the deceased and the disciples to eradicate their Own Offense; May all realize the Bodhisattva’s Ground of Happiness. As the Repentance is chanted our offenses are blown away like flower petals in the wind. Offenses repented, enmity resolved, Wisdom and blessing increase as calamities are dispelled” (40-41).

The text also highlights the strong incantatory character of the Buddha Word. Indeed, there is scarcely a page that does not include verses of praise for the numerous Buddhas, and the precious Dharma. In addition, like many Mahāyāna works, the Repentance Ritual is highly intertextual, regularly quoting and/or alluding to varioussūtras (again, most notably the Lotus). Finally, the text practically insists that we read its passages aloud. Certainly I found myself, on more than one occasion, reciting the invocation “Namo Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Dragon Flower Assembly” that opens each chapter.

Make no mistake, this book is a challenging read. However, I found that approaching the text as the script of a dramatic performance (for example, Hamilton) allows us to use our imaginations to conjure up the sights, sounds (and smells) of this ceremony. In this light, the Repentance Ritual amounts to a guide for bringing into being the lifeworld of Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhism—quite a feat.

This is not a book aimed at spiritual dilettantes. As a ritual manual, it will likely appeal to scholarly specialists. This reviewer’s sense is that its primary audience will be serious students of Buddhism and Chinese religions, but it should also be of great interest to scholars of Ritual Studies. I also think that feminist scholars might find the foreword by Bhikshuni Heng Chih (ix-x) noteworthy for her testimony about how the late Master Hsüan Hua personally nominated her to serve as Repentance Host, and thus lead the entire ceremony—an unexpected honor for a woman in a traditionally patriarchal religious order. As Chih notes, “I quickly became aware of the power of the collective energy that is generated by a gathering of sincere practitioners performing a ritual together. This strong and positive energy that surges and spreads was palpable to me from my vantage point at the Host’s post in the middle of the assembly” (ix). Details like this make the Repentance Ritual of the Emperor of Liang valuable for getting a sense of what authentic Dharma practice is. My only real complaint is that the text is marred by various typos, an all-too-common feature of many publications these days.  

In conclusion, I must confess my own personal connection to the BTTS: while in graduate school, I visited their offices and affiliate institutions, and from time to time practiced suochanalongside its members. Like Chih, I can attest that ritual participation in such contexts is powerful, and brings a deeper appreciation for the Dharma than mere intellectual study. As one of my instructors often observed, Buddhism is something you do, not study. Continuing in this vein, this text is a potent reminder that the Dharma offers valuable resources for humanity in these troubled times. Even non-Buddhists might agree that we could use more repentance and less anger and divisiveness in our world. Idare say that the BTTS, in translating these centuries-old instructions on “bowing repentance,” provides some timely teachings that we would do well to consider putting into practice. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

John M. Thompson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Christopher Newport University.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

When Buddhism first came to China from India, one of the most important tasks required for its establishment was the translation of the Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese. Now the banner of the Buddha’s teachings is being firmly planted in Western soil, and the same translation work is being done from Chinese into English. Since 1970, the Buddhist Text Translation Society (BTTS) has been making a paramount contribution toward this goal. Aware that the Buddhist Tripitaka is a work of such magnitude that its translation could never be entrusted to a single person, the BTTS, emulating the translation assemblies of ancient times, does not publish a work until it has passed through four committees for primary translation, revision, editing, and certification. The leaders of these committees are Bhikshus (monks) and Bhikshunis (nuns) who have devoted their lives to the study and practice of the Buddha’s teachings. 

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