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Rare Chinese Buddhist Ritual to be Performed at U.Va. Rite Of Universal Liberation Eases Suffering Of Hungry Ghosts

March 22 , 2002-- Over the past 1,000 years, Chinese Buddhists have created an enchanting and colorful public meditative rite to ease the suffering of "hungry ghosts."

These supernatural beings are believed to be tortured by emotional and spiritual hunger, said Hun Lye, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia. The "Rite of Universal Liberation" is thought to ease physical, mental and emotional anguish and heal the troubled spirits of ghosts and people alike.

This ritual, rarely seen in the West, will be performed by Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns for the first time at an American university, according to Lye, on Saturday, March 30, in the University of Virginia’s Newcomb Hall Ballroom. The performance will be in two segments, the first beginning at 10 a.m. and the second at 1:30 p.m. PowerPoint slides will explain the significance of each element of the ritual as it is performed.

Admission is free, but seating is limited to 200. Audience members are asked to take their seats at least 15 minutes before the beginning of each session.

The rite developed in China under the influence of Confucian and Taoist traditions, but has textual roots in ancient India and reveals Tibetan influences dating to the 13th century, according to Lye [pronounced "lie"], whose dissertation is on the history, culture and development of the rite.

"Chinese Buddhists have culled ritual texts, oral traditions, meditative techniques and opera performance styles for nearly a millennium to create a colorful, complex and enchanting Chinese Buddhist meditative rite that is still performed today," Lye said. "Performers of the rite play a variety of percussion instruments and employ a wide range of oral delivery styles. The musical aspect of this rite is one of its distinctive features."

Although the rite is much prized, few Chinese monks and nuns are trained to perform it. The advent of communism in China and the mass destruction of Chinese Buddhist monasteries during the Cultural Revolution severely diminished the number of qualified celebrants. But in recent years, there has been a revival in interest and training in the rite both in China and in Chinese communities abroad.

The Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, which is one of the largest Chinese Buddhist organizations in the world, has revived this rite in more than 100 monasteries and chapters around the world. Lye arranged the U.Va. performance last summer during a research trip to Asia when he met the Venerable Shih Hsinting, the abbot of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery in Taiwan. Hsinting, an authority on the rite, generously offered to send a delegation this spring to perform it.

Lye arranged the performance to showcase the cultural and spiritual heritage of Chinese Buddhism. "By bringing this performance to U.Va., I hope to expose the University community and others to a fascinating but little-known aspect of Chinese culture and religion that is still a vital presence among Chinese communities around the world," he said.

Other events

In conjunction with the performance, Dan Stevenson, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas who specializes in the history and development of Chinese Buddhist rituals and liturgies, will give a talk, "Troublesome Crossings: The Chinese Buddhist Rite of Water and Land and Distribution to Hungry Ghosts," at 3 p.m., March 29, in U.Va.’s Campbell Hall 158.

The events are sponsored by the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, the North Carolina and New York chapters of the Buddha’s Light International Association, the U.Va. East Asia Center, the U.Va. Department of Religious Studies and the Red Carpet Inn (Charlottesville).

In addition, organizers have arranged a two-day exhibit, March 29-30, of an exquisite set of 60 hand-painted scrolls, normally seen only in a rarely performed Chinese Buddhist rite known as the Shuilu (Water and Land) Rite. This set, painted by contemporary Chinese artists, is based on a famous 15th century set kept at Baoning Monastery in China. The Shuilu Rite paintings are on loan from a private collector in Northern Virginia.

The Shuilu Rite is a seven-day Chinese Buddhist rite performed for the liberation of "all the souls of the dead inhabiting the land and sea." The hall where the Shuilu Rite is performed is usually decorated with painted scrolls depicting all enlightened and unenlightened beings.

Some of these 8-foot by 3-foot painted scrolls will be on exhibit at the March 29 lecture on the Shuilu Rite. A larger number will be on display March 30, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Newcomb Hall Ballroom and during the performance of "The Rite of Universal Liberation." Others can be viewed in Alderman Library’s McGregor Room March 30-31 as part of the University Library's celebration of the future Stanley and Lucie Weinstein Buddhist and Asian Studies Library.

The ritual performance, lecture and art exhibit coincide with the celebration of the future Stanley and Lucie Weinstein Buddhist and Asian Studies Library at the University. A year ago, the Weinsteins announced their decision to bequeath their collection of more than 10,600 volumes to the University. Their collection focuses on Buddhism in China and Japan and includes holdings on Buddhist art. The bequest is expected to create one of the most significant collections for the study of Buddhism in the United States.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (434) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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