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Universal Salvation Ritual Liu, Jingyu


Throughout pre-modern Chinese history, dynastic transitions accompanied by constant turmoil destabilized not only the social system but also social mentality. Wars, famine, and pestilence swept over the entire empire and left fields littered with corpses. The unpredictability of one’s fate was further aggravated by increasing concern about the unstable boundaries between this world and the other worlds, thus opening up the society to the possibility of ritual manipulation. Aiming at bringing about the deliverance en masse of the souls of the dead and conferring blessings upon the living regardless of age, gender, or social status, universal salvation rituals provided effective remedies for helping the souls of the dead to gain relief from the fate of postmortem punishment and restore tranquility to the living. The idea of “universal salvation” has long been a Mahāyānist Buddhist goal since early on in Chinese history. But it was during the late tenth century through the thirteenth century that it became prominent in both Buddhist and Daoist postmortem ritual services, such as in the Buddhist Water-Land Retreat (Shuilu zhai 水陸齋) and the Daoist Yellow Register Retreat (Huanglu zhai 黃籙齋) in particular. Still practiced nationwide in contemporary China as well as in some diasporic Chinese communities, both rituals had their origins in the tenth century, but their textual elaboration and social spread was a product of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Most contemporary performances of the Water-Land Retreat in mainland China and diaspora Chinese communities use a four-fascicle manual entitled Shuilu yigui huiben水陸儀軌會 本 (Synthetic Manual of Water-Land Rite) which is based on a six-fascicle manual entitled Fajie shengfan shuilu shenghui xiuzhai yigui法界圣凡水陸勝會修齋儀軌 (Ritual Manual for Performing the Retreat of the Grand Assembly of All Saintly and Mundane Beings of Water and Land) compiled by the Ming Buddhist master Zhuhong’s祩宏 (1535-1615). But there is another Water-Land ritual tradition based on a ritual manual called Tiandi mingyang shuilu yiwen天地冥陽水陸儀文 (TDMY). The extant recension of the TDMY manual seems to have been compiled in Shanxi province山西 during the early decades of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by a Buddhist monk named Yijin 義金 (act. ca. 1368-1424), who most likely based his manual on an earlier text that postdated the Northern Song dynasty and found great popularity under the Jurchen Jin (1115-1234). The Daoist Yellow Register Retreat was primarily based on the Numinous Treasure (Lingbao靈寶) scriptural and liturgical traditions but had also absorbed elements of other contemporary Daoist movements such as the Divine Empyrean (Shenxiao神霄) and Celestial Heart (Tianxin天心) movements. The name of “Yellow Register Retreat” first appeared in one of the “Old Lingbao scriptures” (gu lingbaojing古靈寶經) called Taishang dongxuan lingbao huanglu jianwen sanyuan weiyi ziran zhenjing太上 洞玄靈寶黃籙簡文三元威儀自然真經and later in Lu Xiujing’s 陸修靜 (406-477) Five Sentiments [of Gratitude] (Taishang lingbao wugan wen 太上靈寶五感文), where it is listed as one of the various Methods of Retreats (zhong zhaifa衆齋法) and second only to the Golden Register Retreat (Jinlu zhai金籙齋). Mainly composed of confessions made to the twenty directions, the principal function of the Yellow Register Retreat at that time was to uproot the sins and transgressions of ancestors of up to nine generations (ba jiuzu zuigen 拔九 祖罪根). However, its full maturation as an independent liturgy was not to take shape until Du Guangting 杜 光庭 (850-933) compiled the Liturgical Manual for the Yellow Register Retreat (Taishang Huanglu zhaiyi太 上黃籙齋儀), which can be considered the culmination of medieval Daoist rituals for the dead. After that, the Yellow Register Retreat became a systematically organized and widely practiced liturgy that accommodated a great variety of needs, including state peace and prosperity, repose for the dead, salvation of restless spirits, exorcism of ghosts and demons, and so on. Throughout later generations, this manual became an authoritative source for the practice of Yellow Register Retreat and served as a model through the following three centuries.

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