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“Suryuk-jae” or “Water-Land Ceremony” is a memorial ceremony to placate vengeful spirits wandering on the land or in water, and for hungry ghosts. The Water-Land Ceremony is said to have begun during the reign of Emperor Wu (武帝) of the Liang Dynasty. Emperor Wu, a devout Buddhist, thought that saving the spirits of the deceased who had no one to offer sacrifices for them, accrued the foremost merit. He had Ven. Zhigong compile the Text for the Water-Land Ceremony (水陸齋儀文) and held a ritual in 505 C.E. at the Gold Mountain Temple (金山寺) in Jiangsu Province. In Song China, the Text for the Water-Land Ceremony enjoyed renewed popularity and was practiced nationwide.
In Korea, the Water-Land Ceremony was first held in December in the 23rd year of Goryeo King Taejo’s reign (940). Later, a hall dedicated to the Water-Land Ceremony was established at Garyang-sa Temple in Suwon in the 21st year of King Gwangjong’s reign. Ven. Hongu, a disciple of Ven. Iryeon, wrote the Newly Compiled Text for the Water-Land Ceremony (新編水陸儀文; Sinpyeon suryuk uimun), making the ceremony even more popular. In 1397, King Taejo, who founded the Joseon Dynasty, established a Water-Land Ceremony Building (水陸社) which had a total area of 59 bays. There he held the ceremony to appease the spirits of the Wang clan, the royal family of the former Goryeo Dynasty. Afterward, King Taejo held magnificent state-sponsored ceremonies biannually, on the 15th day of the 2nd and 10th lunar months. Beginning from the 15th year of King Taejong’s reign (1415), the ceremony was offered once a year on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month. The Water-Land Ceremony of the Joseon Dynasty continued until the 10th year of King Jungjong’s reign (1515) when it was abolished.
These days, the Water-Land Ceremony is held all over Korea as a traditional Buddhist event that embraces the equality of all beings and respect for life. In addition, the Cultural Heritage Administration announced in 2013 its intent to have the “Gukhaeng suryuk daejae (國行水陸大齋; State-Sponsored Water-Land Great Ceremony)” designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Jogye Order welcomed this, saying, “Unlike other ceremonies of Buddhism, the Water-Land Ceremony embraces all life without discrimination, and thus, serves the common good.”
- excerpt from Buddhist English (Intermediate 2) published in 2014 by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism