Precepts for the Deceased: An Inconceivable Dharma Door

A lecture by Dharma Master Heng Sure on Thursday evening, August 31, 2000, outside the Buddha Hall beneath a Canopy, City of 10,000 Buddhas
English translation by Linda Wang

Venerable Master, all the Dharma Masters, all the fellow cultivators:

Tonight, we are going to briefly explain the Precepts for the Deceased.

Taking the Precepts for the Deceased is an act of great filial respect. People who recite the Earth Store Sutra ought to know this. We’re here in the yang (positive energy) realm but when people die they leave the yang realm. And their intermediate body are in purgatory, and it can be called the realm of King Yama. Sometimes King Yama does not immediately determine a soul’s next rebirth, and so it remains in the underworld.

Especially for people who died as a result of trauma such as accident, war, plane crash, a shipwreck, being eaten alive by animals, or by taking the wrong medicine, therefore, may not have had people develop enough merit and virtue for them. If we in the yang realm wish to create some merit and virtue for those who have died in these ways, we may cultivate this Dharma and dedicate our merit to them. This is the significance of the Precepts for the Deceased. We have to endure some discomfort, kneeling and bowing, in order to receive the Precepts for the Deceased, but the blessings and merit that we can dedicate to the deceased are immense. Receiving the Precepts for the Deceased is an act of filial respect, as well as compassion.

The very first time that the Venerable Master transmitted the Precepts for the Deceased at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB) was more than twenty years ago. The Venerable Master first selected a Dharma name for the recipients. In all the transmissions he gave, whether in Taiwan, Malaysia, or the United States, he used the Chinese character “Fa” (Dharma) as the first character in the two-character Dharma-name, and this has become a tradition. All the souls that apply to receive the precepts during both transmissions of the Precepts for the Deceased this week will be named “Fa Ying” (Dharma Response). Each time I call out, “Say your Dharma name,” you should respond, “Fa Ying and the other souls.”

We first invite the Master. Once the Master arrives, we recite the Great Compassion Mantra, which is equivalent to purifying the boundaries. We then bow to the Buddhas, inviting Shakyamuni Buddha and all the Tathagathas here. We then invite the souls here.

A Dharma Master will tell you which board and which number your plaque is. This set up allows a large number of people to find their plaques and return to the places in an orderly fashion without wasting a lot of time. Please remember your number. Each person carries the plaque with both hands back to his or her spot and kneels. The Dharma Master then transmits the Precepts for the Deceased to the soul that you represent that day. The Precept Master then provide some instructions, explaining how one acquires the precept substance and realizes the merit of these precepts that are replete in one’s inherent nature.

The next part is the repentance. Repentance is very important. Most people probably wouldn’t even think of some of the offenses that we repent of, such as: killing our parents, shedding the Buddhas’ blood, defiling the Sangharama, ruining others’ Brahma conduct, burning and destroying temples and monasteries, stealing the property of the Sangha, harboring wrong views, denying cause and effect, drawing near unwholesome friends, disobeying good teachers, committing offenses ourselves and teaching others to do the same, and enjoying seeing and hearing such doings. The repentance is not limited to this lifetime. You are representing the soul of a deceased person. These offenses have been committed in life after life. We can repent according to the Fourth Vow of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva’s Ten Great Vows. He said, “If the offenses of one person had shape and form, space would not be able to contain them.” Even one person’s offenses would be too many! The repentance text is very deep and thorough. Everyone ought to repent most sincerely and wholeheartedly to create merit and virtue for the soul represented by the plaque that you carry.

Next, the Dharma Masters will transmit the Four Indestructible Kinds of Faith. What are they? They are faith in the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, and the Precepts. No one lacks any of these. The Buddha is enlightenment. The Dharma is the set of rules and meritorious virtue, the Sangha signifies harmony, and the precepts provide liberation. The Dharma Master then says, “From today forward, you souls must believe that your mind is the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha and the precepts. Through endless time into the future, you must never forget that. ” So “indestructible” means everybody possesses it.

What follows is an extremely important line. This is a special feature of the Buddha Dharma, which is, “Although the substance is completely true and permanent, it has to be cultivated and certified to.” As it is said, “With this very mind, one becomes a Buddha. With this very mind, one is the Buddha. We shall take refuge with, dwell in and uphold the Triple Jewel, and receive the pure and wonderful precepts.” This is extremely meaningful, Why do I say that? It is to say: Although everyone has the qualifications and possesses the substance of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, and the precepts, without being deficient in any way, they will not manifest until we cultivate and certify to them. If we have the mind of the Buddha’s idea, thinking, view and awakening then this very mind is the Buddha. Buddhahood isn’t acquired from the outside nor conferred upon you by God or the Jade Emperor, nor sold to you by some guru, nor acquired in a ceremony of anointing the crown. Rather, it’s the wonderful fruition obtained through one’s faith, understanding, practice, and certification. You could say that this religion is very democratic. It is extremely wonderful and difficult to come by, but everyone has a share.

What follows is the taking of refuge, then the transmission of the Ten Major Bodhisattva Precepts for all the souls. These ten precepts are the same as in the Ten Major and Forty-eight Minor Bodhisattva Precepts that monastics receive. We then conclude the ceremony by transferring our merit and virtue.

Taking the Precepts for the Deceased is truly a filial act. As it is said, “The tree wishes to be still, yet the wind blows on. The child wishes to be filial, but the parents are gone.” Everyone has heard of this saying. It describes someone whose parents have passed away, and who did not know how to be filial when they were alive. Now that he realizes that he should be filial, it is too late. He could have taken good care of his parents for several decades, but he missed his chance. People in this situation may practice filial respect by receiving the Precepts for the Deceased on their parents’ behalf. The souls we represent have already passed away, but we can create merit and virtue and transfer it to them, thereby extending the practice of filial respect beyond their physical life span. Isn’t that wonderful? Even though they aren’t physically around, we still have a connection with them in our hearts, and we can use that connection to transfer merit to them. It’s truly wonderful. That is how the Venerable Master explained the Precepts for the Deceased at the CTTB.

This could be considered a secret dharma. It’s an esoteric dharma of the Vajrayana, similar to those in the Flaming Mouth and Mengshan ceremonies used to liberate ghosts and deceased spirits. I believe that if you learn this dharma, you will create tremendous merit and virtue. That is how the Venerable Master explained it.

Receiving the precepts for someone is a filial act of gratitude. We can only hold one plaque and receive the precepts for one person with whom we are acquainted. The plaques for enemies and creditors, however, can represent many beings, not necessarily human and not necessarily someone we know. Therefore, the nature of these plaques is different.

The first transmission of the Precepts for the Deceased took place at the CTTB in 1987, at the conclusion of the Great Water, Land and Air Dharma Assembly. An individual said, “Venerable Master, I saw lots of people in the air while you transmitted the precepts. They were wearing clothes from an ancient era. Their attire was not that of commoners. They wore lots of jewelry. What was strange was that each one was holding a chopped off head in his or her hands. There were several thousand of them. It was very scary! What was that all about?” The Venerable Master answered, “Yes, what was that all about? What language did they speak?” The person said, “They seemed to be speaking French.”

What happens with the Precepts for the Deceased is that you invite a particular member of the underworld by carrying a plaque with his or her name on it. The deceased individual so named comes to receive the merit and virtue that you have cultivated for him or her. The brilliance from that merit and virtue also shines upon some poor, lonely souls. The results are significant. The Venerable Master then said, “Does anyone know who that group of French-speaking people were?” Someone said, “Are they King Louis and his queen during the time of the French Revolution?” The Venerable Master said, “Probably. No one had done any merit and virtue for them all this time. They had been in underworld for several hundred years.” Everyone was at a loss. That group of aristocrats had been massacred in eighteenth century France and had been roaming the underworld since their deaths. Could it be that they were rescued from the underworld only now, with the transmission of Precepts for the Deceased at the CTTB? That’s a possibility. I don’t know either. But I heard this conversation with my own ears. It’s truly inconceivable. Therefore, everyone should be sincere when receiving the precepts for deceased. Its function is very wondrous.

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