Two major Dharma assemblies take place at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas every spring. One is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance and the other is the Avatamsaka Dharma Assembly. Everything is in bloom during these Dharma sessions. At the same time, it's the season of change. Fresh green leaves grow lushly and with vibrant vitality, adorning this pure monastic community and reinvigorating Buddhist disciples in an incomparable manner. Every time I see older trees bedecked with fresh green leaves, I am reminded of these two Dharma assemblies, and again sense the profound wonder and significance of repentances. Every time I bow to the 10,000 Buddhas to repent of my karmic obstacles and every time I read and recite the Avatamsaka Sutra, understanding Universal Worthy Bodhisattva's conduct and vows further, I learn the spirit of an aging tree turning over a new leaf. I let my habits and offenses fall and wilt, just as the leaves become fertilizer for the soil. I learn to turn away from evil and move toward goodness, just as the aging tree decorates itself with budding leaves of goodness.
Having studied the Buddhadharma for ten years now, I have gained a lot from the practice of repentance. It embodies an outlook on life that is profound and provides a way for us to cultivate our karma and advance our virtue. To cultivators, this is the pioneering practice of great kindness and compassionate wisdom, blazing a trail on the long and obstacle-ridden road of cultivation.
Since I am in the process of writing my graduation thesis on "The Chapter on Entering the Dharma Realm" in the Flower Adornment Sutra, I have researched the Avatamsaka repentance in particular, in order to deeply enter and assimilate the Avatamsaka's sea of meanings. I only hope that my instinctive understanding does not clash with the teachings of Shakyamuni. I also hope that people during this time and age will reap some benefit from understanding and applying the wonderful Dharma within the Avatamsaka Sutra. I earnestly request that good advisors kindly correct any mistakes that I make.
II. The Development of Repentance in China
Repentance is most critical in cultivating and learning the Buddhadharma. The fourth vow of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva's ten great vows is "to repent and reform karmic obstructions." Evidently, there has always been this particular practice according to the Buddha's teachings. For instance, monks and nuns recite the pratimoksha every half a month. Anyone who has violated a precept must repent in front of the assembly before they recite the precepts. Karmavachana (formal procedure) is especially important in the refuge ceremony for laity. Lay people must purify their three karmas of body, mouth, and mind to generate the precept substance. With the Five Precepts, for example, one typically repents from the depth of one's heart by reading the repentance text and bowing to the Buddhas before receiving the precepts. With regard to the Bodhisattva Precepts, one must individually reveal every act of evil, whether large or small, to the Karmavachana Master. This symbolizes a new birth, a way to begin anew.
Repentance is a most important practice within Mahayana Buddhism. The Chinese enjoy Dharma assemblies for bowing and repenting. Hence, repentances that include bowing appeared after Buddhism came to China by way of India. Monastics wrote and compiled repentance texts, such as that of "Jeweled Repentance of the Emperor of Liang." Dhyana Master Zhi wrote this repentance at the request of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty to release the former queen Xi from the body of a python. "The Repentance of Compassionate Samadhi Water" was written by National Master Wuda to cure a sore that appeared as a human face on the emperor's knee. Buddhism's main goal is to save all beings; one empathizes with and is mindful of all beings' suffering while observing one's own causes and conditions. As a result, Buddhism promotes the practice of bowing repentances. Besides the above two repentances, there are also the "Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance", "One Thousand Buddhas Repentance," "Medicine Master's Repentance," "The Avatamsaka Repentance," "The Dharma Flower Repentance," "The Shurangama Repentance," "The Divination Repentance," "The Great Compassion Repentance," and other repentances of the Tiantai School. There is no small number of repentances that have been practiced in China for more than one thousand years. The Chinese especially felt the responsiveness and reaped insights from bowing repentances, thus effecting this major feature in Chinese Buddhism, which is very different from Theravadan Buddhism.
To bow repentances is to repent of one's karmic obstructions, and is a stepping stone in the cultivation of the Way. In the development of Buddhism in China, however, the practice of repentance was influenced by the Taoist custom of praying for blessings to eliminate calamities. Consequently, the true meaning of the Tiantai Repentance Dharma was overlooked, and repentance became secular in nature. Nothing is worse for Buddhism than the commercialization of repentance in nonorthodox Buddhist monasteries. If Buddhism is to flourish again, it must closely examine such phenomena.
III. The True Meaning of Repentance and Reform Both of the Chinese characters for repentance and reform, 懺悔, contain the radical for "heart," signifying that sincere repentance and reform must come from the heart. The character for reform 悔 is composed of the radicals "every [day]" and "heart."
To be continued