Emperor Wu of Liang, the August Thearch Bodhisattva

Emperor Wu of Liang sees Bodhidharma. From Baike.com.

The common narrative of Chinese dynastic history is a story of the “sons of heaven” (tianzi ?Ѥl): great men (and one woman, Wu Zetian) who enforced the Mandate of Heaven until they lost it and were overthrown by natural disasters, foreign invasions, or revolt. Their cosmic role as lynchpins between Heaven and Earth meant that the Chinese emperor was more than the ruler of an imperial state. The huangdi (?ӫ?) was what some Sinologists translate as the “august thearch” rather than a mere emperor (1), for he was the center around which spiritual and political order revolved. It was as arbiter of all things holy and high priest of Heaven that the Chinese emperor’s ideology came into direct conflict with the loyalties of the Buddhist sangha.

By the time of Emperor Wu’s (r. 502 – 549 CE) accession, a series of revolts and wars had sent China spiraling into national emergency. His first objective was to maintain his grip on power. This required not only military might, but also ideological reinforcement. For Emperor Wu, this meant “the emperor and the people at the foundation of a dynasty should take religion as the fundamental work to regulate their behavior in accordance with teachings” (Section 48 of The Book of Liang). Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism were therefore to be co-opted as the three religions that would support imperial rule (2).

Ven. Dao Ran. Photo by Linda Wang Bing.

During his 48-year reign, Emperor Wu actively promoted Buddhism. He wrote four articles on Abstention from Wine and Meat (duan jiu rou wen ?_?s?פ?), setting the standard for a popular adoption of vegetarianism as a cardinal virtue and lifestyle option for pious Buddhists. It also forbade the monks’ habit of eating clean meats (flesh that was not seen, heard or doubted to be killed, which dates back to the Han), establishing the vegetarian tradition of monks and nuns in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. The Jeweled Repentance of Emperor Liang (liang huang bao chan??????b), a confessional Chinese Buddhist liturgy, is also named after him. On 8 April 519 CE, Emperor Wu accepted the Bodhisattva Precepts and insisted on vegetarianism and was called the “August Thearch Bodhisattva” (huangdi pusa ?ӫҵ??). This title was to have immense implications for the institution of sangha and emperor.

It is not difficult to understand why he advocated Buddhism. Five hundred years had passed since it was first transmitted to China in the Eastern Han Dynasty and the Southern and Northern Dynasties. Through integration and dialogue with traditional and Chinese cultures, Buddhism had become one of China’s three major schools of thought, alongside Confucianism and Daoism. In addition to commoners and monastics, many nobles whose gentry families supported the Liang Dynasty also supported Buddhism. Participation in Buddhism would surely be the best way of establishing close relations with them.

Emperor Wu composed a poem called A Poem of the Three Religions (san jiao shi ?T?и?), which demonstrated not only a solid grasp of the essences of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism but also hisidea that the three religions could be combined (3).In his poem, the emperor considers filial piety and tolerance in Confucianism to be the most basic form of morality. The “marvelous skill” and “careful practice” of Daoism were abstruse and mysterious techniques. The “accumulation of merit”, “causality” and “no-birth” of Buddhism was “the moon in the sky”. All three traditions had their benefits, although Buddhism had a more comprehensive theory for the afterlife. While the three religions of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, were diverse, they each had their unique uses for the imperial cult.

The emperor, in his efforts to bring Buddhist theology into the orbit of the emperor’s figure, brought a sizable number of Buddhist scholars and monks into his imperium. According to Tang Yongtong, “Emperor Wu advocated Buddhism through a synthesis with Confucianism. The discussion about the Buddhist doctrines also frequently quoted Confucian books, so the motivation of Emperor Wu’s faith in Buddhism was actually mixed with Confucianism” (4). His Buddhism adopted the discussion of good and evil as the most basic question of human character and loyalty and filial piety as the pinnacle of human personality. In the final analysis, the emperor’s intent was based on the Confucian pattern of “making foreign things serve China”.

Emperor Wu’s appropriation of Buddhism as the “August Thearch Bodhisattva” demonstrated that his status had doubled in significance as not only the unique thearch of Imperial China, but as a bodhisattva (5). The cosmos of Buddhism and the world of the Chinese emperors had collided and merged. What was good for the thearch was good for the Buddha, and vice versa. Thanks to Emperor Wu, the objectives between church and state became one.


(1) Yuri Pines, “The Messianic Emperor: A New Look at Qin’s Place in China’s History”, in Yuri Pines, Lothar von Falkenhausen, Gideon Shelach and Robin D.S. Yates, eds., Birth of an Empire: The State of Qin revisited. Berkeley: University of California Press, 258 – 279.

(2) Yao Silian (557-637), Book of the Liang Dynasty. Passages translated by me.

(3) Shi Daoxuan, Guanghongming Ji (CBETA, 2010), T52, no. 2103, P. 352, c 12.

(4) Tang Yongtong, Chinese Buddhism in the Han, Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties ?~?Q????n?_?¦???v(Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 1997), 338-339. Passages translated by me.(5) Yan Shangwen, “The Time of the Development of the Concept of Emperor Bodhisattva Liangwu” (???Z??“?ӫҵ??”?z???Φ?????N?I??),? http://www.wuys.com/news/Article_Show.asp?ArticleID=7946.  

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