This service occurs every year during the Lunar New Year festivities. The service honors twenty-four celestial beings who are considered protectors of Buddhism. The service begins with a purification ceremony and lengthy invitation procedure on Saturday night. Then, early the next morning, we make offerings to each of our invited celestial guests as well as to the Triple Gem. Then, once the offering is complete, we send off the deities.
This service is unique to Chinese Buddhism and includes a mix of Indian and Chinese traditions. For instance, the service is traditionally held on the ninth day of the first month in the lunar calendar, which is the Jade Emperor’s birthday. While the Jade Emperor is not a Buddhist figure, he is seen as equivalent to the Indian deity Brahma, who is considered a protector of Buddhist teachings. While there are many variations of this service, the temple uses the edition by Baohua Vinaya Hall, which is considered the most elaborate.
The liturgy consists of the following sessions:
Purification and Adornment of the Platform
Prior to inviting the Triple Gem and celestial beings to descend upon the hall, the altar is decorated and meticulously adorned. With elaborate tablecloth, fine flowers, and jeweled ornaments, the shrine transforms into a palace that is literally "fit for the gods." Once these preparations are complete, the assembly gathers to purify the platform, which refers to the place where the ritual is conducted. As with many other Chinese Buddhist purification ceremonies, this is done by reciting the Great Compassion Dhāraṇī to invoke Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva while the officiants sprinkle the water of great compassion around the space. This purifies the space and establishes spiritual boundaries to ensure that the rest of the offering will go smoothly without interruption. The merits from this preliminary service are dedicated to world peace, the Dharma protectors, and to all sentient beings.
Solemn Homage in Respectful Invitation
After a brief intermission, the assembly returns to the hall to respectfully invite the Triple Gem and celestial beings who will receive the offerings. This is done in a fixed pattern of proclaiming the deities' virtues, inviting them, then singing praises to them and then presenting simple offerings of tea, sweets, and towels. This is repeated until the Triple Gem and the twelve tables of celestial beings have been invited and received the first set of offerings. The beings are then considered spiritually present and the assembly venerates them after the service before retiring for the night.
Reverent Presentation of Offerings
The following morning, the assembly resumes in the hall to present a grand procession of offerings. These offerings, primarily food, are passed through the assembly so that each participant has a chance to personally present the tray of offerings while kneeling.
Making Offerings at the Proper Time
Having presented the offerings and placed them on each table, the main service for offering begins. This is based on making the Noon Offering Before the Buddhas, a common service at all Chinese Buddhist temples. However, the service is extended by adding to the repetitions of mantras and the officiant proclaims the dedicative report, a prayer which lists the reasons for conducting this service and the names of those who made it possible.
Sending Off the Sacred
At the end of the service, the invited deities are respectfully sent to their original realms. The paper plaques which represent them throughout the service are burned, and the service is complete. The officiant gives a Dharma talk and the assembly exits the hall. After the service, just as how great efforts were needed to prepare the decorations for the service, immense work is done to restore the hall to its original format. Just as all things arise and cease due to causes and conditions, the service too arises for a moment and then ceases.