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Q1: What is the difference between repentance prostration rituals and regular Dharma assemblies?

Q&A Regarding the Practice of Repentance Prostration

Can practicing repentance prostration really eradicate one's karmic hindrances? What is the difference between repenting and feeling remorse? This Q&A will help clarify frequently-asked questions regarding the Dharma method of repentance prostration, thereby resolving confusion about these practices.

Q1: What is the difference between repentance prostration rituals and regular Dharma assemblies?

Dharma assemblies are group activities devoted to Dharma talks, making offerings to the Buddha or monastics, and practicing acts of giving, among other functions. All of these activities serve the main purpose of gathering people for the sake of practicing together in accordance with the Dharma. These assemblies feature various methods of Buddhist practice such as Buddhist chants, rites and rituals, prostrating to the Buddha, upholding the dharani or mantra, repentance prostration, and reciting the sutra. Normally, activities such as routine daily morning and evening chanting sessions in monasteries and regular assemblies for repentance or prostration practice all fall under the scope of Dharma Assemblies. So too are ceremonies dedicated specifically to different Buddhas and bodhisattvas, such as Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) Bodhisattva, the Medicine Buddha, Earth Treasury (Ksitigarbha) Bodhisattva, along with the related sutras.

Furthermore, repentance ceremonies are conducted specifically for the practice of repentance prostration, with ceremonial rituals to help us repent our karmic obstacles. This is a Dharma practice method unique to the Chinese Buddhist culture. In fact, however, , repentance rituals already existed in Buddhist practice in the Buddha's time, mainly in the form of a bi-weekly Upasad ceremony, in which the Sangha recites the precepts together, and offenders should publicly disclose and repent their transgressions. Alternately, during the general meeting at the end of the summer retreat, all monks were supposed to receive open criticism by other fellow monks, after which the offender was given the opportunity to make confession and publicly repent his past transgressions. This is to help the monks cultivate and develop in virtue, as well as to maintain the purity of the Sangha. After Buddhism spread to China, these practices gradually formed a complete set of ceremonial rules. Currently in Taiwan, the most prevalent repentance rituals are the Liang Emperor's Repentance Ritual (otherwise known as the Method of Repentance for the Bodhimanda of Compassion and Loving-kindness), the Compassion Samadhi Water Repentance Ceremony, the Great Compassion Repentance Ritual, the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha Repentance Ritual, and the Thousand Buddhas Repentance Service.

Take the Guanyin Bodhisattva's Dharma methods as an example. Both the Guanyin Dharma Assembly, which focuses on chanting the Universal Gate Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, and the Great Compassion Repentance Ritual include reliance on Guanyin Bodhisattva's compassionate vow for help and protection. However, the former stresses the practice of "mindfulness through reciting the Buddha's name". By reciting the Universal Gate Chapter, we will understand that, as long as we wholeheartedly recite Guanyin Bodhisattva's name when encountering life's difficulties and obstacles, they will soon be reduced in severity or even completely resolved. The Chapter also inspires us to emulate the Bodhisattva's great compassionate vow to universally save sentient beings through his 33 auspicious manifestations of  response-and-transformation bodies.

The Great Compassion Repentance Ritual is a method practiced specifically for repentance purposes. The repentance manual was formulated by Master Zhi Li in the Song dynasty, based on the Maha Karuna Dharani Sutra (Great Compassion Dharani Sutra).  Its content comprises six major sections of rituals, including sanctifying the venue and purifying the karma; making offerings in accordance with the Dharma; paying homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with utmost sincerity; making vows and reciting the dharani; sincerely practicing repentance; as well as circumambulating and seeking refuge. Participating in this repentance service not only helps us rein in our body, speech and mind, but also, guides devotees to reflect inwardly and internalize the Bodhisattva's compassionate vow through a process of inner awakening and repentance--- particularly through prostrating and making offerings. Meanwhile, we develop a sincere faith and confidence that we can also rely on the power of the Bodhisattva's vow to eliminate our affliction, repent our transgressions, and eradicate our bad karma. This represents one very effective remedy passed down by the ancestral patriarch, who drew on his own experiences to help us clear our obstacles and obstructions, find peace of mind, and actively emulate the Bodhisattva's vow as expressed through compassion and wisdom.