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Repentance Prostration: A Millenia-Old Method of Practice

"I wholeheartedly pay homage to Shakyamuni Buddha. I wholeheartedly pay homage to the World Honored One Amitabha Buddha of the Western World of the Ultimate Bliss…" Through these chants at Dharma assemblies, we praise the Buddhas'merits, prostrate with repentance, and recite the Buddha's names, in the midst of a calming atmosphere that touches everyone. While being immersed in the ceremony's spiritually inspiring ambience, can we actually grasp the true meaning of repentance prostration practice? And, are we really bringing home the spirit of repentance and applying it in our daily lives? Or, do we use this practice merely to ward off disasters and reverse misfortunes?

The Origin of Repentance Practice

Repentance practice actually started in the Buddha's time. The sangha held the semi-monthly posadha ritual, where a bhikkhu well-versed in the precepts recited the precepts for the sangha members to reflect on themselves and see if they had honored the precepts. Offenders would make confession and repent before the Buddha or the sangha. This urged the sangha members to further develop their virtues, and helped maintain the purity of the sangha.

Later, with the prevalence of Mahayana Buddhism, various methods of repentance practice gradually developed over time, based on the sutras valued by different traditions. For example, for repentance on specific matters, the practice of "repenting through self-revelation and confession" later evolved to include the forms of Buddha-name recitation and prostration before the Buddha, as well as sutra and dharani recitation. Relevant details regarding rituals for repentance, imploring the Buddha to stay in the world, rejoicing in others’ merits, merit transfer, and making aspirations, could already be found in Buddhist scriptures that illustrate the concept of repentance.

In his Research of T'ien-T'ai Repentance, Ven. Da Rui (大睿), having reviewed the traces of development about the practices of repentance, pointed out that the ways of cultivation may have changed over the period of time from early Buddhism to Mahayana Buddhism, the fundamental spirit of repentance had always been the same: to repent one's transgressions in order to remain pure, and to increase in virtuous practices. Moreover, cultivating the concentration of dhyana, realizing  samadhi, and thus attaining liberation, also constitute an essential goal for Mahayana repentance. This shows the close connection between repentance and Buddhist practice in general.

The Evolution of the Essence of Repentance Practice

By the time Buddhism came to China, people from all levels of society were eager to seek spiritual shelter and protection, given the existing Confucian teaching of self-cultivation and introspective reflection, as well as the popular notion to use Taoist rituals to ward off disasters and ease distress, along with long devastating wars. Through repentance, people prayed for blessings in order to be free of misfortunes. Hence, Buddhist doctrines such as cause and effect, karma, and merit were readily accepted by the Chinese people, prompting Buddhist repentance rituals to become prominent.

Using repentance rituals as a method of practice is unique to the Chinese Buddhist tradition. It is believed that the earliest repentance rituals were laid down by Master Dao'an (312-385) of the Jin Dynasty, while Master Zhiyi (538-597) formulated the Tiantai Buddhist repentance rituals, which in turn significantly influenced subsequent repentance rituals to come in later generations. When Buddhism first came to China, repentance ceremonies and practices were fashionable among the aristocrats, with the main purpose of averting disasters and misfortunes, as well as praying for the nation's overall well-being. It was Master Zhiyi who first developed a set of rituals that combined both "repentance through activity" and "repentance through principle". As Ven. Da Rui (大睿), who specializes in the repentance rituals of the Tiantai tradition, points out, Master Zhiyi redefined the Chinese tradition of repentance practice as a form of Buddhist cultivation by repenting and purifying one's karma, thereby serving as a prerequisite for contemplation practice to develop in wisdom. Furthermore, Master Zhiyi also laid the foundation for later generations of masters and patriarchs to compose their versions of repentance rituals. For example, nowadays, the repentance rituals for the Great Compassion Repentance Ceremony, the Pure Land Repentance Ceremony, and the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Repentance Ceremony basically follow the theoretical principle and the structure of repentance as set out by Master Zhiyi.

Repentance Prostration: The Foundation of Buddhist Practice

In his book entitled "Knowing the Path of Learning Buddhism", Master Sheng Yen pointed out that oftentimes we make mistakes without being aware of it. Therefore, we need not necessarily wait for mistakes to happen before repenting, but, instead, we shall always carry a sense of shame in mind and repent of our misdeeds at all times. Participating in repentance ceremonies is a way to return the mind that is polluted by afflictive emotions back to its innate purity and clarity, with each repentance prostration. Wang Chuan, a scholar who has studied Buddhist repentance liturgy for many years, has stated that Buddhists inevitably experience different obstructions and disturbances on the path of learning Buddhism. However, by doing repentance prostrations and repenting with the utmost sincerity, one can eliminate the obstacles encountered on the path to enlightenment. Hence, doing repentance prostrations can be considered both a preliminary practice and an expedient means for Buddhist practitioners to cultivate precepts, samadhi, and wisdom.

Building the Right Mindset for Repentance Practice

Ven. Guo Fang, a DDM Sangha member who is well-versed in various Buddhist repentance liturgies, emphasizes that, prior to participating in repentance ceremonies, we should first develop the right mindset towards the practice of repentance and understand the meaning behind it. We shouldn't adopt the attitude that we're just attending a temple fair or a religious gathering. Instead, we should try to rein in our mind and keep our mind on the right track at every moment. Ven. Guo Fang also encourages practitioners to attend repentance ceremonies. On the one hand, doing so  shows the practitioner's determination to be self-reflective through their actions. On the other hand, it eliminates the negative karma from deep within the heart through the group atmosphere of the Buddhist practice as well as the mutually inspiring kind thoughts of the participants.  

Furthermore, when attending repentance ceremonies, many people may wonder: "Can doing repentance prostrations really eliminate karmic obstructions?" Based on her many years' experience of practicing repentance prostrations, Wang Chuan indicates that this doubt is exactly the same as thinking: "Are my apologies helpful? Will my apologies be accepted?" before apologizing to someone who has a conflict with you or to the person you offended in daily life. This kind of thought is not only unhelpful, but also prevents repentance from making a true difference in our lives. Therefore, Wang added: "While doing repentance prostration, we shouldn't have a quid-pro-quo mentality, or the thought of some kind of trade-off or exchange for merits. The true spirit of doing repentance prostration is to face our past mistakes honestly, and to remind ourselves not to repeat them in the future."

Putting Repentance into Practice in Our Daily Lives

Doing repentance prostrations is more than confessing before a Buddha statue; more so, we use it as a means to actively change our ways of thinking and habitual patterns in our daily lives. In his article "Great Compassion Mantra and Great Compassion Repentance", Master Sheng Yen specifically mentioned that the objective of doing repentance prostrations is not only to purify our body and mind while participating in repentance ceremonies, but also to observe and contemplate our bodily, verbal, and mental actions at all times, as well as to emulate the Buddhas and Bodhisattva's wisdom and compassion, thereby extending the spirit of repentance to our daily lives. Only by doing so can the practice of repentance positively transform our lives.   

Extended Reading:

Repentance Prostration: A Millenia-Old Method of Practice

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

Q2: Is Repentance Equal to Regret?

Q3: Can Doing Repentance Prostrations Really Eliminate Karmic Obstructions?

Q4: What is the difference between repenting alone in front of a Buddha statue and participating in a repentance-prostration Dharma assembly?

Q5. What preparations should we make before taking part in repentance ceremonies?

Q6: Why is It Necessary to Repent (Kṣama, in Sanskrit) before Receiving the Buddhist Precepts?

Resource: Issue 315 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 315 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: 韋徵儀 (Vicky Wei)  
Editing: Chia-chen Chang (張家誠), YKL, Keith Brown