The Water Repentance liturgy was written in the Tang Dynasty by the Imperial Dharma Master, Wu Da, who found out first hand that karmic retributions and consequences may remain invisible through many ages and reincarnations, but can never be escaped and must be repaid.
During the reign of Emperor Yi Zong in the Tang Dynasty (mid 9th century), a young monk named Zhi Xuan once went on the road to visit monasteries across the land. In one unremarkable temple he stayed in, he smelled a repugnant odour coming from the neighbouring dormitory room. When he went over to check it out, he saw a monk lying in bed, his whole body covered with odorous sores. Due to his hideous sight and odour, everyone in the monastery stayed away from him. However, Zhi Xuan did not abandon this suffering man but treated his sores with kindness and care. With the help of this kind caretaker, the sick monk soon completely recovered. Both men began getting ready to move on in their paths. Before they departed, the recovered monk said to Zhi Xuan, “If you ever find yourself in any catastrophe or trouble, you may come looking for me at Jiulong Mountain in Peng Province, Sichuan. When you see the twin pine trees on the left side of the mountain, you will have arrived at the right place.” With that, the recovered man went on his way.
Many years later, Zhi Xuan’s virtuous conduct and profound practice won him high regard and respect from the Emperor, who knighted him with the honourable title of Imperial Dharma Master and gave him the name Wu Da, meaning “thoroughly enlightened.” In addition, the Emperor granted him a throne decorated with eaglewood from which to lecture the Dharma. As soon as Master Wu Da ascended on the throne, his mind gave rise to the thought, “I am now under one person but above thousands of people.” At this moment, a painful growth shaped like a human face appeared on his knee; the human face had a mouth that would open and ask to be fed, causing the Imperial Master excruciating and unbearable pain. The most famous doctors all over the country were helpless in finding the cure for this hideous tumour.
In his moment of desperation, Master Wu Da remembered the offer given by the monk he cared for a long time ago. He immediately set out to seek this man who could be his saviour. When he arrived at Jiulong Mountain, he saw the twin pine trees. Behind the trees stood a magnificent hall where a monk was expecting him with a welcoming smile. The monk consoled Master Wu Da and reassured him that with the pure water from the clear spring below the cliff, the tumour could be completely washed off.
The next day, an attendant boy led Master Wu Da to the spring. As Master Wu Da was getting ready to splash water on the tumour on his knee, the human face on the growth shouted, “Stop! Do not flush me away! Haven’t you read the story of Yuan Ang and Chao Cuo from the History of Western Han?” Master Wu Da answered, “Sure. The two were archenemies in the riotous Western Han period around second century BC. Yuan Ang persuaded the Emperor to kill Chao Cuo, and the Emperor ordered Chao Cuo to be cut in half at the waist.” The human face said, “You were that Yuan Ang who had Chao Cuo killed, and I was that Chao Cuo who suffered that horrific death. When I was being executed, hatred filled my heart, and I swore I would seek revenge at the first chance. Unfortunately for me, for your last ten reincarnations, you have been an eminent monk who has strictly upheld the precepts; therefore, Dharma guardians were always around you to protect you, depriving me of any chance to do you harm. However, when the gift from the Emperor stirred up your arrogant thought for fame and wealth, your tainted mind gave me a chance to get close to carry out my revenge. Now with the purity of the samadhi water, which has been blessed by the Venerable Kanaka, the enlightened sage whom you saved, I can be liberated from hatred, and I will no longer seek revenge.”
The pure samadhi water cleansed away the tumour with the human face, and also the longstanding feud between the two enemies. Master Wu Da wrote the text of repentance, which he chanted every morning and evening to thank the Venerable Kanaka, and named it the Compassionate Water Repentance. Now practitioners can wash away the longstanding feud and bitterness in their own minds by reflecting inwards and repenting with a mind of purity and gratitude.