Special Topics

The Contents of Dharma Services

Understanding the contents of a Dharma service and its meaning helps practitioners concentrate on the practice when attending the assembly. Contemporary Dharma services focus on reciting sutras and practicing repentance. They can last for 2 hours, or one, three, or even seven days. Apart from sutra recitation and repentance prostration, a Dharma service may also include many other contents:

Sutra Recitation

Sutras are collections of Buddha's Dharma talks, the contents include Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' accomplishments and methods of practice. Reading sutras is like holding a mirror that allows us to examine our past behaviors, and reminds us to carry out good deeds and to avoid bad ones. Sutra recitation is one of the Buddhist practice methods. It helps practitioners get familiar with the Buddha's teachings, calm the mind, and cultivate wisdom. It is also a way to share Dharma with heavenly beings, ghosts, and animals.

Repentance Prostration

As ordinary human beings, we have many afflictions and obstacles. When practicing repentance prostration, we worship and respect all Buddhas, repent our negative actions, contemplate, and make vows. In this way, we can deepen our understanding of causes and effects and lessen our greed, hatred, and ignorance. To repent in front of the Buddha is not to seek pardon from the Buddha or to avoid karmic retributions, but to take responsibility for the bad deeds we have done and vow not to make the mistakes again, with the Buddha as our witness. Therefore, practicing repentance prostration helps us refrain from evil deeds and cultivate good deeds.

Transfer of Merit in Merit Hall

In Dharma assemblies conducted in Chinese Buddhist monasteries, practitioners may set up prayer tablets. There are two kinds of prayer tablets. One is the Rebirth Prayer Tablet, and the other one is the Misfortune-reduction Prayer Tablet. Practitioners who wish to help the deceased get better rebirth can set up a Rebirth Prayer Tablet; those who would like to pray for fewer misfortunes for living ones can set up Misfortune-reduction Tablets. The tablets are placed in the Merit Hall. At the end of a service in the Dharma assembly, practitioners transfer the merit to whomever they hope to receive it.

Meal Offering Ritual before the Buddha

The purpose of making offerings is to express appreciation to the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Dharma protecting deities, and accomplished ancient masters for their Dharma sharing and for protecting us, as well as to relieve with compassion the suffering of those sentient beings in the Three Evil Realms. A Meal Offering Ritual before the Buddha in large Dharma assemblies lasts for at least one hour. In this ritual, rice, and other dishes, fruits and flowers are placed on the altar; with blessings from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, they are then given to the sentient beings in the Three Evil Realms through the power of mantras.

Yogacara Flaming-Mouth Service

Hungry ghosts were greedy and selfish in their previous lives. Their bellies are as large as drums, and their throats as thin as needles. Because food entering their mouths turns into flames right away, they can never feel satisfied. Therefore, the purpose of the Yogacara Flaming-Mouth Service is to free hungry ghosts from hunger and dissatisfaction and to help them cultivate Bodhi-mind.

During the service, three or five Vajra gurus sit in the front seats, facing all the attendees. They give Dharma talks on behalf of the Buddha, make symbolic hand gestures - mudras, and practice meditative visualization while chanting mantras. On the altar is an abundance of food. The food is first offered to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and then given to hungry ghosts through the power of mantras and meditative visualization carried out by the Vajra gurus.

About three-thirty in the afternoon, the first session of the ritual begins with Welcoming Sages, Designating the Area for the Assembly, and Making Offering. The second half of the ritual from seven to eleven o'clock in the evening is when hungry ghosts are offered food, because it is the mealtime in the ghost realm. The gurus recite Invitation Verse to invite hungry ghosts from all directions to attend the service. Then, they offer the food to the ghosts while reciting Hell-breaking Mantra, Offense-eliminating Mantra, and Mantra to Open Throats, etc. They also help the ghosts to take refuge in the Three Jewels and guide them to attain rebirth in the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss.

Ritual of Food Offering to Celestial Deities

From three to four o'clock in the morning is when celestial deities take food. During this period of time in the Dharma service, incense, flowers, rice, and food dishes are offered to them, along with the recitation of the Chapter on Emptiness of the Golden Light Sutra, served as Dharma food. The celestial deities include Sakra and the other deities of the twenty-four heavens in the Realm of Form and Realm of Desire.

Celestial deities have great merit, magnificent appearance, good health, and longevity. This is because they cultivate merit and practice well in cumulative past lives. When attending this service, we vow to practice diligently and joyfully benefit others just like the deities. By doing so, we will have better conditions to contemplate the Dharma of Suffering, Emptiness, Impermanence, and Not-self. In this ritual, we also recite Shurangama Mantra and Good Goddess Mantra to pray that celestial deities protect us and bless us with the fulfillment of our vows.


Ritual of Offering to Buddhas by All

Usually conducted during New Year holidays or on Buddhas' or Bodhisattvas' birthdays, the Ritual of Offering to Buddhas belongs to one of the repentance rituals. There are various kinds of offering rituals, such as Offering to Shakyamuni Buddha, Offering to Guanyin Bodhisattva, and Offering to ​Earth Treasure Bodhisattva, etc.
Led by the abbot of a monastery, this ritual was attended by "all" residents in the monastery originally as a practice method that lasts for the time period of burning one incense stick. Later, to comply with devotees' needs, it became open to lay practitioners and may include the transfer of merit to the deceased for better rebirth or to living people for longevity.
The contents of this ritual include Incense Praise, Buddha name recitation, repentance prose, verses praising the Buddha, prostration while making vows, taking Three Refuges, and Transfer of Merit. Depending on the subject and purpose of the offering, the service may also include recitation of Buddha's name and related sutra. For example, Medicine Buddha's name is recited in the Ritual of Offering to Medicine Buddha with a focus on longevity, and Amitabha Buddha's name and the Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra are recited in the Offering Ritual to Amitabha Buddha.

Ritual of Sending off the Sages

During the Sending off the Sages ritual, the last session in the Water and Land Dharma Assembly, practitioners send off sages and sentient beings from other realms who were invited to the assembly earlier.

The first part of the service includes recitation of the Great Compassion Mantra and the Heart Sutra. In the latter part, practitioners visualize that Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and sages are leaving the assembly, and sentient beings from the other five realms obtain rebirth in the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss. Nowadays, some monasteries use animated films to help practitioners visualize instead of burning all the prayer tablets, which is the traditional way.

Resource: Issue 375 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Text: Editorial Team
, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Hsiao Chen-an
Editing: Yeh Shu-jen, DDM Australian Editorial Team

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

​Ten Most Commonly Seen Dharma Assemblies in Chinese Buddhism

Attending Dharma Assemblies: Prepare Well, Avoid Hasty Effort

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