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The Liberation Rite of Water and Land (法界聖凡水陸普度大齋勝會), also commonly known as the Waterland Dharma Function is a Chinese Buddhist ritual performed by temples and presided over by high monks. The service is often credited as one of the greatest rituals in Chinese Buddhism, as it is also the most elaborate and extremely rare service. The ceremony is attributed to the Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, who was inspired one night when he had a dream which a monk advised him to organize a ceremony to help beings in the lower realms to be surfeited from their suffering. The ritual itself was compiled by the Ch'an master Bao Zhi.
The ritual combines classical Chinese operatic-like text including traditional ceremony procedure, such as circumambulating, reciting sutras, Tantric ritual and repentance. Traditional Chinese instruments not usually used in Buddhist ceremonies are also employed. The main goal of the ceremony is to invite beings of higher realms to help the beings in the lower realms get out of their sufferings. It is said that those who participate receive great merit and blessings, even to those who do not contribute.
A total of seven different halls are erected for this festival. The first hall is known as the Inner Shrine, while the other six halls constitute the Outer Shrine. Each hall performs its own ceremony and serves a different purpose. However in this case, this festival is different in the fact that the primary focus is the Inner Shrine and the Outer Shrine serves as the centers where its merits are transferred to the Inner Shrine.
The Inner Shrine
The Inner Shrine is the most important and the most elaborate of all the other shrines. As it requires deep concentration amongst all of the monks and laity attending, most temples have barred public access to the shrine, and only high ranking and assigned monks, patrons and special guests are invited to enter. When the ritual begins, no patron or monk is allowed to leave the shrine until its completion. This is the hall where sentient beings from the lower realms are liberated. Offerings of food, beverages and incense, chanting and reciting of mantras and sutras, transmitting precepts and bowing in repentance on behalf of the lower realm beings are the core procedures in the ceremony. Special procedures also include raising a banner to invite all the higher beings, burning paper effigies of horsemen to deliver a message to the beings of the lower realms, offering foods, flowers, incense and even bathing the high spirits, and burning massive boats to deliver the lower realm beings.
The Outer Shrine
The Outer Shrine consists of six halls, all of which are open to the public. Each shrine recites different sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, the Sutra of Golden Light, and others. Emperor Wu's repentance text is also included.
In addition to these sub-rituals, a Tantric ritual is performed at night by all invited monastics and open to all patrons to feed sentient beings from the lower realms. A ritual to invite celestial beings from the higher realms is held in the morning, also open to all patrons.
Before such ceremony can take place, a purification of the entire temple space must be completed. Once finished, the outer and inner shrines are opened and all simultaneously start their own service.
Upon the completion of the service, paper effigies of boats, paper horsemen and the seats of the deceased and the lower and upper beings are all burned publicly as a final farewell and a closing of the service. The last ritual is often the most elaborate and elegant of the rituals, as it involves rare musical performance from monastics and in some views, a huge bonfire to end the service.
Because of the ceremony's exquisite and very detailed ritual procedure, most temples may hold it only once and possibly may not hold one again because of the strenuous cost to invite monks, as well as the difficulty in having to setup the ritual platforms itself. Additionally, while the ceremony may draw large crowds of practitioners and donors, the ceremony itself can also affect a temple financially. The ceremony is common in Mainland China, as it is the land of origin and most monks have practiced and mastered procedures for this ceremony for years.