shuilu zhai

shuilu zhai
Buddhist ritual
For the past millennium the shuilu zhai (Purificatory Feast/Fast of Water and Land), or shuilu fahui (Ritual Assembly for the Creatures of Water and Land), has been one of the most conspicuous rites of the Chinese Buddhist repertoire. Like the Daoist Jiao (offering ritual), to which it bears a resemblance, Buddhist clergy have routinely performed the shuilu on major nodes of the Chinese festival year as a means for renewing relationships between the human community and the cosmos, and on an ad hoc basis in times of crisis for pacifying disruptive forces. Today it is most widely contracted for mortuary purposes, from whence comes its characterization as the ‘tour de force of Buddhist rites for the dead’.
Typically the shuilu takes seven days to complete, although a three-day version also circulated in earlier periods. The performance involves a massive outlay of human and material resources, with multiple layers of ritual activity taking place concurrently at several different altar sites. The core protocol of the shuilu, staged in the central ‘inner altar’ (neitan), devolves around the two phases of ‘offering to the upper assembly’ of supramundane or enlightened Buddhist deities and saints (sheng) and ‘offering to the lower assembly’ of afflicted beings (fan) who inhabit the six mundane realms of cyclic rebirth (samsara). During the latter phase, the ‘lower’ denizens of cyclic rebirth (including local Chinese gods (shen), ‘dispossessed souls’ (guhun) and the liminoids of purgatory (wanghun/ling)) are purified through bestowal of the Buddhist precepts and escorted into the presence of the supramundane Buddhist deities in the ‘inner altar’. There the two assemblies affirm their mutual commitment to the Buddhist Three Jewels in a massive fête of food and Dharma. Thus the shuilu plays out as a ‘grand purificatory feast’ (dazhai) and rite of ‘universal salvation’ (pudu), its reference to ‘waters’ (shui) and ‘land’ (lu) deriving from the claim to assemble and deliver, en masse, creatures who inhabit the most trying domains of samsara.
Like most Buddhist rites, the shuilu locates its religious efficacy in the absolute primacy of the ‘Three Jewels’ (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and traditional Buddhist cosmological and soteriological norms. But within the course of the liturgy itself, this power also serves to mediate second-order relations between human clients and local gods or the dead, concerns that are often considered to be the domain of Chinese local religion (see also temple fairs). Through a deliberate appropriation of non-Buddhist idioms, the lore of gods, ghosts and ancestors is reinscribed within a master Buddhist framework of ritual and ideology, while the salvific technologies of the latter are exported to the broader field of Chinese religious concerns.
Buddhists trace the shuilu’s genesis to Emperor Wu (r. 502–49) of the Liang dynasty, although this attribution is most certainly apocryphal, given the absence of any verifiable evidence of the its existence prior to the end of the ninth century. While its precise origins remain obscure, by the end of the Northern Song (960–1, 127) the shuilu became a well-established part of the Buddhist ritual topography, with dedicated shuilu halls and troupes operating in most major monasteries across the realm. Contemporary practitioners of the shuilu in the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore uniformly follow the version of the rite developed by the late-Ming reformer Yunqi Zhuhong (1535–1615). However, this situation is of rather recent historical vintage, Zhuhong’s version having eclipsed earlier traditions through active promotion in the national ordination system sponsored by the Qing imperial court (1644–1911).
The enthusiasm for science and modernity that heralded the collapse of the imperial system in 1911 brought troubled times for the shuilu, especially among critics who saw the rite as a holdover of debilitating feudal regimes and superstitions of the past (see religion, recent history of). Repulsed by the image of Buddhist monks reduced to the role of funeral-monger, the Republican era Buddhist modernizer Taixu (1890–1947) rejected the shuilu as a debasement of the Buddha’s ‘original’ spirit of rational insight and self-cultivation. Although the shuilu continued to be performed in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, it suffered the severest setback under the proscriptions on public religious activity enacted by the PRC, its practice reaching the brink of extinction during the Cultural Revolution. With the subsequent opening of China and relaxation of religious policies in the late 1970s, interest in the shuilu has come back strongly. The initial impetus for this resurgence has come mainly from returning overseas Chinese who sponsor the rite for kin who have died during their absence, although the recent boom in China’s economy has fuelled an increase in local patrons. In both instances, the motives are similar to those that have inspired performances of the shuilu for the past thousand years, namely as a traditionally sanctioned means to heal the traumas of dislocation, death and loss. For the monks, it has once again become an important source of revenue, providing resources to rebuild institutions devastated by the Cultural Revolution.
See also: Gongde
Davis, E.L. (2001). ‘Appendix: Huanglu jiao and Shuilu zhai’. In idem, Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Stevenson, D. (2001). ‘Text, Image, and Transformation in the History of the Shuilu fahui, The Buddhist Rite for Deliverance of Creatures of Water and Land’. In M.Weidner (ed.), Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Strickmann, M. (1996). ‘Les banquets des esprits’. In idem, Mantras et mandarins: Le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine. Paris: Gallimard.
Welch, H. (1967). ‘Rites for the Dead’. In idem, The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900–1950. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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