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Special Blog: Emperor Liang Repentance

This is a text that I have had a special connection since I was a young Buddhist—back before I knew any Mandarin, before I knew anything about Buddhism, I knew just one thing: I loved chanting.

It was summer of 2007, and I happened to stumble across Emperor Liang Repentance being held in a small temple in Portland. Immediately, I was drawn to the melodies and the solemn prostrations. A few years later, I became more interested in Buddhism and received my refuge and precepts, and I participated in the repentance service with a deeper outlook. At this point, I knew a bit more about Buddhism, and I could piece some things together with my scattered knowledge of Chinese.

Saddened that there was no English edition of the liturgy, I was determined to put one together, and so it became my first translation project. Looking at the files now, I realize that there are till plenty of eccentricities in my translation, but at the time, I was quite proud of it and found that it had taught me a lot about Buddhism. Through chanting the text, I was engaging with it as a mode of practice. Through translating the text, I was seeking to understand it as a teaching.

It has been a few years since I have had the opportunity to participate in a full Emperor Liang Repentance service, but this year, it’s happening.

Now that I look at the text again while I chant it, I notice that a few epiphanies will arise during each session. A line that I find especially inspiring, perhaps. Or a line I remember fondly from my childhood, which I now see from a completely different perspective. This is how I understand the term profound—that with each interaction I have with these deep teachings, I am able to learn more from it. In a sense, they never get old.

So in this blog, I hope to share some of the lines that have really struck me so far. We’ve only chanted two of the ten scrolls that comprise the repentance, but I already have a few lines that really impacted me.

The first comes from scroll one, and goes:

From beginningless time until today, we behaved unequally through body, speech, and mind. We only thought of our bodies and not the bodies of others. We only thought of our suffering and did not think of the sufferings of others. We only thought of our pursuit of happiness and did not think that others are also seeking happiness. We only thought that we sought salvation and did not think that others are also seeking salvation. We only thought of our family and not the families of others. We only thought that the pains and aches of our own bodies were unbearable while whipping the bodies of others, only worried that the pain inflicted was insufficient. We only feared our own small sufferings yet did not fear the retribution of such unskillful actions, which lead to suffering in hell, nor the many sufferings in the realms of hungry ghosts, animals, asuras, humans, and celestial beings. Through this inequality, we resented others and now our enemies fill the six realms. Offenses such as these are countless. Today, we repent sincerely and hope that they can be completely eradicated.

《慈悲道場懺法》卷1:「又復無始以來至于今日。依身口意行不平等。但知有我身。不知有他身。但知有我苦。不知有他苦。但知我求安樂。不知他求安樂。但知我求解脫。不知他亦求解脫。但知有我家有我家眷屬。不知他亦有眷屬。但知自身一癢一痛不可抑忍。楚撻他身恒恐苦毒不深。但自知畏現身小苦。而不知畏起諸惡業捨身應墮地獄於地獄中備受眾苦。乃至不知餓鬼道畜生道阿脩羅道人道天道有種種苦。以不平等故。起吾我心。生怨親想。所以怨對遍於六道。如是等罪無量無邊。今日懺悔願乞除滅。」(CBETA, T45, no. 1909, p. 927, a23-b6)

Tears began to well up in my eyes as I chanted this passage today because it made me think of the violence that occurs in the world we live in, the violence and hatred that occurs every single day. All of it stems from this beginningless cycle of being self-centered and inconsiderate. This quickly grows, as the repentance text reveals, and we reach a point in our delusion where we find the smallest of pains unbearable while we viciously torture others. We are so removed from others that we do not recognize them as being inherently the same as us. We love and care for our families without realizing that other people have families they love and care about as well. We seek our own happiness often at the expense of others. Despite being written over a thousand years ago, the text is still incredibly relevant today, as it seems like the issues that plague human hearts have not changed very much throughout history.

The next excerpt is one I found particularly helpful in understanding what it means to give rise to the Bodhi mind, otherwise known as bodhicitta.

We, the assembly, seek unsurpassed awakening not for ourselves, but to liberate all sentient beings in the ten directions. From today until we attain Buddhahood, if there are sentient beings who are ignorant and trapped in darkness, unable to distinguish the true Dharma and give rise to deviant views, or if there are sentient beings who practice the Way but have yet to reach the mark of the Dharma, then we will rely on the power of the Buddha, Dharma, worthy sangha, and all kinds of expedient means to help them obtain the Buddha’s wisdom and be complete in realizing omniscience.

《慈悲道場懺法》卷2:「(某甲)等不為自身求無上菩提。為度十方一切眾生。取無上菩提。從今已去至于成佛。若有眾生愚癡黑闇。不識正法起諸異見者。復有眾生雖修道行不達法相者。如此眾生。乃至未來。(某甲)等誓以佛力法力賢聖力。種種方便令入佛慧。令此眾生具足成就一切種智。」(CBETA, T45, no. 1909, p. 929, b10-15)

The first line really hits it home by defining the bodhi mind as aspiring to become a Buddha to help all beings. It then goes on to explain that we should rely on the strength of the Triple Gem in helping sentient beings. Ultimately, we are not the knights in shining armor descending to save the day, but rather just conduits—part of the many causes and conditions to help sentient beings reach liberation. Therefore, we still need to rely on the Triple Gem, as our own merits and virtues are far from sufficient to be effective.

Now that the savior complex is also out of the way, my last favorite line for this post is just one vow from a list of many more.

From today on, we, the assembly, also vow that in every lifetime and every place, if there sentient beings that see our physical bodies, they will instantly attain liberation. If we go to the hells, all hells will transform into Pure Lands and all conditions of suffering will become instruments of joy, allowing sentient beings to purify their six sense organs, be at peace in body and mind, as if in the third Dhyana, and cut through the net of doubt and reach the preliminary stage of perfection.

《慈悲道場懺法》卷2:「(某甲)等從今日去。又願生生世世在在處處。若有眾生。見我身色即得解脫。若入地獄。一切地獄變為淨土。一切苦緣變為樂具。令諸眾生六根清淨。身心安樂如第三禪。斷諸疑網發初無漏。」(CBETA, T45, no. 1909, p. 930, b23-28)

To simply make a vow in Buddhism is powerful, but the vow needs time and effort to be fulfilled. With such a lofty goal—to be able to transform a hell into a Pure Land—I can hardly imagine myself being able to accomplish this vow. However, I know that with perseverance, just as the many bodhisattvas have shown, it is definitely possible. And so I hope we can all start building our own Pure Lands here and now, transforming this human world into a Pure Land as we prepare to transform the hells into Pure Lands. From brightening someone’s day, to cleaning up trash and litter, to creating a zone of fearlessness, security, and peace, we can turn bits and pieces of this world into paradise, and then grow that space until it encompasses our entire realm.

This concludes the blog post for today, but if anybody is interested, I would highly suggest attending a repentance service. There is typically English translation available at any Fo Guang Shan branch temple, and between the chanting, the powerful text, and the sincere prostrations, I find that this is a practice that is simply indispensible.

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