Special Topics

​Ten Most Commonly Seen Dharma Assemblies in Chinese Buddhism

The following sections describe the origins and main features of the ten most attended Dharma assemblies in Chinese Buddhism.

Guanyin Dharma Assembly

In devotion to Guanyin Bodhisattva, the Guanyin Dharma Assembly begins with the recitation of the Praise for Purifying the Water. Attendees then recite the "Chapter on the Universal Gate of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva" in the Lotus Sutra, chant the Great Compassion Dharani, and perform prostrations while making vows. These practices serve to emulate Guanyin Bodhisattva's compassion in helping sentient beings, as well as wisdom in sharing the Dharma. The Guanyin Dharma Assembly is usually held on February 19, June 19, and Septemer 19 of the Chinese Lunar calendar, which respectively coincide with Guanyin Bodhisattva's Birthday, Enlightenment Day, and Leaving Home Day. Nowadays, the assembly is also held on the 19th day of each month.

Medicine Buddha Dharma Assembly

The Medicine Buddha Dharma Assembly is an important Dharma service which confers the merits of avoiding calamity, praying for blessings, and achieving longevity. Normally held on September 29 or 30 of the Lunar calendar, it includes recitation of the Medicine Buddha Sutra and the Medicine Buddha Dharani, as well as doing prostration while making vows.

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Dharma Assembly

Usually held on the Birthday of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in July of the Lunar calendar, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Dharma Assembly is regarded as one in which practitioners pray to help the deceased gain a better rebirth. Consisting in the recitation of the Sutra on the Fundamental Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and the Bodhisattva's name, it encourages practitioners to emulate the Bodhisattva's great vows to repay kindness, help sentient beings, and, finally, attain Buddhahood.

Ullambana Assembly

According to the Ullambana Sutra, Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha's disciples, couldn't bear to see his mother suffer starvation in the Hungry Ghost Realm after death. Consequently, he asked the Buddha for help. The Buddha told him to make offerings to all the monastics with various kinds of foods on July 15 of the Lunar calendar-- the Pavarana Day-- to help his mother leave the realm using the power generated from the merit. Now, the Ullambana Assembly is held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month for practitioners to help deliver their deceased parents and ancestors.

Three-Session Mindfulness

Created by Chan master Zhongfeng Mingben (中峰明本) in the Yuan dynasty, three-session mindfulness practice aims to help the deceased gain rebirth to the Western World of Ultimate Bliss. This Dharma assembly has three sessions—the morning, noon, and evening—when practitioners wholeheartedly contemplate on aligning their bodily, verbal, and mental actions with the Dharma, aspiring to be reborn in Amitabha Buddha's Pure Land.

Great Compassion Repentance Ceremony

Centering on the practices of Guanyin Bodhisattva, the Great Compassion Repentance Ceremony helps practitioners calm and settle their minds by repenting of their misconduct, while arousing the compassionate vow to benefit sentient beings.
During the Song dynasty, Master Zhili (知禮大師) designed this Dharma assembly based on the Sutra on the Great Compassion Dharaniand the Manual for the Dharma Flower Samadhi Repentance (法華三昧懺儀). It is mainly comprised of Guanyin Bodhisattva's Ten Great Vows and the Great Compassion Dharani.

Pure Land Repentance Ceremony

Founded on Amitabha Buddha's vows, the Pure Land Repentance Ceremony includes the Purification Ritual, which helps practitioners ward off their karmic obstacles to gaining rebirth to the Western World of Ultimate Bliss.
Designed by Master Ciyun Zunshi (慈雲遵式) in the Song Dynasty, this Dharma assembly includes purifying the three kinds of action, prostration to the Buddha, making vows, reciting the shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra and the Amitabha Pure Land Rebirth Dharani, repentance, Buddha-name recitation, and transfer of merit. Its contents are similar to that of the Great Compassion Repentance Ceremony.

Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance

The Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance Ceremony was designed by Master Wu Da (悟達) in the Tang dynasty, based on the Manual of Procedures for the Cultivation of Realization of Ritual Practice According to the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment. When Emperor Yi was on the throne, the master had a boil shaped like a human face on his knee. After Venerable Kanaka cured him by washing the boil with Samadhi water, he then founded the Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance Ceremony and practiced repentance accordingly, every morning and evening. Afterwards, practitioners started to attend this Dharma assembly to practice repentance, seeking to ward off their accumulated bad karma from previous lives, and release the hatred from their karmic creditors.
The three-part text for this ceremony includes Worship and Prostration to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Repentance (to obstacles of defilements, karmic obstacles, and obstacles of karmic retribution), and, finally, Making Vows and Transferring the Merit.

Emperor Liang's Repentance Ritual

Originally named the Repentance Ritual for the Dharma Place of Compassion (慈悲道場懺法), Emperor Liang's Repentance Service is the longest and oldest repentance ceremony in Chinese Buddhism. Legend has it that Empress Chi, the deceased wife of Emperor Liang, was cruel and had a jealous nature. Thus, after her death, she was reborn as a python. She entered the palace and appeared in Emperor Liang's dream. Later, the emperor invited monks to formulate this repentance ritual and practice repentance on her behalf. Through the powerful merits from the practice, the empress was then reborn as a heavenly being.
Practitioners in later generations attend this ritual to help the deceased attain better rebirths and repent their own misconduct.
There are ten chapters in this repentance ritual, including 1) repentance of misconducts generated by the six sense faculties and three kinds of action; 2) prostration to Buddhas and repentance on behalf of all sentient beings in the six realms; 3) making vows and transferring merits.

Yoga Flaming Mouth Ceremony

The Yoga Flaming Mouth Ceremony is usually held as part of the Ullambana Assembly on its concluding day, or when the deliverance ritual is conducted in large-scale Dharma assemblies.
Derived from the Sutra on the Dharani for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts (救拔焰口餓鬼陀羅尼經), the Yoga Flaming Mouth Ceremony is designed to make offerings to hungry ghosts. According to the sutra, when Ananda was practicing sitting meditation in a forest, Mian-ran (面然, meaning "burning face"), the king of the Hungry Ghost Realm-- who was a manifestation of Guanyin Bodhisattva-- came to tell Ananda that he would die and fall into the Hungry Ghost Realm three days later. Ananda asked the Buddha for help. In response, the Buddha gave him a Dharma talk, which later became the Sutra on the Dharani for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts . The Buddha also taught him the Food Conversion Mantra. The sutra and mantra can both help hungry ghosts leave suffering behind.

Water and Land Dharma Assembly

The Water and Land Dharma Assembly is the grandest and most solemn Dharma assembly in Chinese Buddhism. It focuses on saving all sentient beings in the six realms by making offerings to Buddhas, noble beings, and all sentient beings in the ten directions. All the sentient beings who attend the assembly can go to any Hall to listen to the teaching of the sutras and Dharma talks according to their affinities, and, in doing so, arouse the Bodhi-mind.
Various kinds of sentient beings can receive the giving and benefit during the Water and Land Assembly. Some of them get to ward off disasters; some free themselves from suffering; while the Buddhas and noble beings receive the offering. Therefore, attending this assembly yields inconceivable wondrous merit.

Resource: Issue 375 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Text: Editorial Team
, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Hsiao Chen-an
Editing: Chang Chia-Cheng (張家誠), Keith Brown

Extended Reading:
​Into the Venue of a Dharma Assembly

What Should We Bring to a Dharma Assembly?

Dharma Assembly Attendee Etiquette

A Brief Introduction to the Development of the Dharma Assembly

The Contents of Dharma Services

Attending Dharma Assemblies: Prepare Well, Avoid Hasty Effort

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