Lantern Rituals for the Destruction of Hell

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Names of the Three Fasts
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Lantern Rituals for the Destruction of Hell
Rituals of Purification and of Sacrifice to the Ancestral Souls
Rituals of Purification and Salvation
Rituals of Scattering Flowers and Communicating with Spirits through Lanterns
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Origin of the Lantern Ritual for the Destruction of Hell

The Lantern Ritual is one of the rituals of Fasts and Offerings ( 齋醮 Zhaijiao ) often practised in Daoism. Because the main feature of this ritual is the use of lanterns, it is usually performed after sunset. In ancient China, there existed fire-worshiping rituals; for example, The Rites of the Zhou ( 周禮 Zhouli ) mentions the use of fire in worship, but there were no lantern rituals in ancient China. Chinese society's use of "lanterns" probably originated from the royal families in the Qin and Han dynasties. In the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern dynasties, lanterns began to enter the life of the scholar-bureaucrats and the common people. There is no record about lantern rituals in early Daoism, and in the Southern and Northern dynasties, lanterns came to be used in the Ritual Space ( 壇場 Tanchang ) of Daoist rituals. In Regulations and Penalties for the Use of Lanterns and Candles in the Pervasive Mysterious Offerings ( 洞玄靈寶齋說光燭戒罰燈祝願儀 Dongxuan Lingbao Zhaishuo Guangzhu Jiefa Deng Zhuyuan Yi ), Lu Xiujing, an eminent Daoist priest of the Liu Song in the Southern Dynasty, mentions the position of "Lantern Attendant" ( 侍燈 Shideng ) in the performance of the Ceremonial Altar ( 儀壇 Yitan ). The Essential Secrets of the Most High ( 無上秘要 Wushang Miyao ) compiled by Yu Wenyong of the Northern Zhou dynasty, has many records of the use of lanterns in its discussion of various kinds of fasting rituals. It says that the lanterns used at the offering altars allows "the hungry ghosts and the souls of the dead labouring hard in the Nine Darknesses to be lightened up and to see the root of life". In the Five Dynasties following the Tang dynasty, Daoism came to have a complete Ritual for Paying Homage to Lanterns ( 禮燈儀 Lideng Yi ). The Efficacious Fasting Ritual of the Most High Yellow Register ( 無上黃籙大齋立成儀wushang Huanglu Dazhai Lichengyi ) by Du Guangting contains a section on "rituals for paying homage to lanterns", saying that "the ritual of lighting lanterns has ultimate merits. The lanterns enlighten the various heavens and lands so that the eight directions and the nine nights can all be bright. All those who see these lanterns can have their sins eliminated and good fortune attained". After the Southern Song dynasty, a large number of Lantern Rituals were compiled in the Daoist fasting rituals of the Numinous Treasure ( 靈寶 Lingbao ). The Daoist Canon ( 道藏 Daozang ) and the supplementary Canon of the Ming dynasty contain nineteen scriptures on the various kinds of Lantern Rituals, including the Lantern Rituals of the Golden Register, such as the Lantern Ritual of the Jade Emperor's Seventeen Sorts of Benevolent Light ( 玉皇十七慈光燈儀 Yuhuang Shiqi Ciguang Dengyi ), Lantern Rituals of the Mysterious Emperor ( 玄帝燈儀 Xuandi Dengyi ), and Lantern Rituals of the Three Mao Brothers, the Immortal Controllers of Destinies of the Nine Heavens ( 九天三茅司命仙燈儀 Jiutian Sanmao Simingxian Dengyi ), etc.. The Lantern Rituals of the Yellow Register are also included, such as the Yellow Register Lantern Ritual of the Five Sufferings in Transmigration ( 黃籙五苦輪燈儀 Huanglu Wukulun Dengyi ) and the Yellow Register Lantern Ritual for the Destruction of Hell ( 黃籙破獄燈儀 Huanglu Poyu Dengyi ). Some of them, such as the Lantern Ritual for the Destruction of Hell, were handed down to later ages.


Among the Lantern Rituals for the Destruction of Hell, the Lantern Ritual for Salvation from the Nine Hells ( 九幽燈儀 Jiuyou Dengyi ) is the most representative one that has been handed down until today. According to the Highest Clarity Numinous Treasure Golden Book of the Great Achievement of Aid and Salvation ( 上清靈寶濟度大成金書 Shangqing Lingbao Jidu Dacheng Jinshu ), "the Nine Dark Hells are transformed from the Big Dipper. The eastern one is named the Darkness, the southern one the Dark Yin, the western one the Dark Night, the northern one the Dark Feng, the northeastern one the Dark Capital, the southeastern one the Dark Diocese, the southwestern one the Dark Pass, the northwestern one the Dark Mansion, and the central one the Dark Hell". The Nine Hells are transformed from the Nine Realms, which are arranged according to the Nine Palaces of the Eight Trigrams ( 八卦 Bagua ). Their homologues in Heaven are the Nine Heavens, and on Earth are the Nine Lands. According to the ancient methods, the lantern ritual for salvation from the Nine Hells requires one to lay clean sand in an octagon representing the nine hells in the ritual place, and light the divine lanterns of the nine hells. Sometimes the divine lanterns are arranged on nine trees and placed in nine spots on each tree, so there are nine lanterns on each tree. Sometimes there are nine stages of lanterns on each tree, and nine wine vessels are placed on each stage. The Ritual Master ( 法師 Fashi ) gets fire from the beacon fire at noon and Divides the Lanterns ( 分燈 Fendeng ) after sunset. Afterwards, he conducts the summoning skills to illuminate the Nine Hells and save the souls of the dead. During the summoning ritual, the ritual master Paces the Big Dipper ( 步罡踏斗 Bugang Tadou ) and visualizes himself as the greatest Perfect Man who destroys the hells in all directions. When contemporary Daoist priests of the Orthodox Oneness sect ( 正一 Zhengyi ) south of the Yangtze River perform Lantern Rituals for the Destruction of Hell, the ritual master as High Priest ( 高功 Gaogong ) leads the group, with whips and sticks or magical swords of the numinous treasure in their hands, to pace the Big Dipper from the south and circle clockwise around the lantern altar once. Having paced the Big Dipper in various directions, they hit the ground with sticks or swords, signifying the destruction of the hells. After the performance of the rituals in the eight directions, they walk to the center and burn the talismans and streamers. The ritual master makes the Hand Gesture of Jade Clarity, visualizes the yellow clouds in one direction, and visualizes his own appearance as that of the Heavenly Lord ( 天尊 Tianzun ). Each time he destroys a hell, he clicks his teeth nine times before and after the incantation so that the hell opens up and the souls of the dead ascend to perfection". Finally, the ritual master prays with the memorial of Withdrawing the Lanterns ( 收燈 Shoudeng ), saying, "please extinguish the fire of the golden lotus. I sincerely wish that you did not mind his sins of a thousand years, that they disappear with the cinders, and that all the misfortunes harassing him for long be eliminated with the extinction of the light. I wish that his body enter the realm of light and leave the realm of darkness forever".