Buddhist legends about Emperor Wu of Liang

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During his reign as emperor of China, Emperor Wu of Liang (r. 502–549) embraced and promoted Buddhism. Several times he became a Buddhist monk and forced his court to purchase him back with substantial offerings to the sangha.[1] In 517 he ordered the destruction of Taoist temples and forced Taoist priests to return to lay life.[1] Some of his other reforms, such as the disallowing of capital punishment and of the animal sacrifices during ancestral ceremonies, conformed with his Buddhist convictions.[citation needed]

Because of his constant support for Buddhism, Emperor Wu came to be seen as the Chinese counterpart of Ashoka, the great Indian chakravartin and patron of the religion.[2] Later writers who saw Emperor Wu's reign as a golden age of Chinese Buddhism compiled stories on the emperor's role in creating or sponsoring important Buddhist institutions or rituals. A cycle of stories developed around Bao Zhi, the emperor's favorite monk, and around Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen, who was alleged to have met the emperor in the 520s.[2]

The emperor's encounter with Bodhidharma[edit]

According to Buddhist tradition, Bodhidharma, the first Zen patriarch of China, came to visit Emperor Wu around 520. The emperor told Bodhidharma that he had built temples and given financial support to the monastic community, and asked the patriarch how much merit he had gained for these actions. Bodhidharma replied, "None whatsoever." Perplexed, the emperor then asked the eminent monk who he was to tell him such things, to which he answered, "I don't know."[3] Bodhidharma then left the imperial court to continue his travels throughout China.[3] This account of their legendary encounter typifies Zen's uncompromising teaching methods.[4]

The encounter between Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma was first recorded around 758 in the appendix to a text by Shen-hui (神會), a disciple of Huineng.[5]

The Liberation Rite of Water and Land[edit]

Emperor Wu is also considered as one of the creators of the Liberation Rite of Water and Land, a grand and costly ritual that was supposed to last for an entire week and was designed both to save the spirits of the dead and to improve the condition of the living.[6] This rite probably originated in the tenth century, but an account by monk Zhipan from the thirteenth century gives Emperor Wu a role in its creation.[7] According to this account, the emperor had a dream in which a benevolent monk advised him to free the spirits of the dead from their sufferings.[8] So the emperor called on Chan Buddhism Master Bao Zhi to organize such a ceremony.[8] Bao Zhi allegedly spent three years to compile the necessary texts for this ritual.[9]

The Emperor Liang Repentance[edit]

The emperor is probably best known for being one of the co-authors of a major scripture in Chinese Buddhism. A major Buddhist repentance service is named after the emperor. Titled the Emperor Liang Jeweled Repentance(梁皇寶懺), the repentance records and details the reasons behind his wife's transformation, examples of people affected by karma, stories about people receiving retribution, and what one can do to prevent it. The repentance also involves prostrations to a number of Buddhas.

Historically, Emperor Liang initiated this ceremony approximately 1500 years ago. His wife, Chi Hui, died at age of thirty after leading a life marked by jealousy and anger. After her death, she turned into a giant snake and purgatory . She came to recognize that she needed prayers from the sangha to expiate her sins and release her from the lower realms. Through great generosity, Emperor Liang requested Ch'an Master Bao Zhi and other high monastics to write ten chapters of the repentance. As a result of performing this ceremony, his wife was indeed released from its suffering.

It is a popular text amongst many Chinese Buddhists, the text itself is recited and performed annually in many temples, usually during the Qingming Festival or the Ghost Festival.

A complete English translation of this text was done by the Buddhist Text Translation Society in 2016. The title is "Repentance Ritual of the Emperor of Liang: A complete translation of Repentance Dharma of Kindness and Compassion in the Bodhimanda."

Emperor Wu's "order" of the Execution of the Kowtow Monk[edit]

Emperor Wu was also fond of playing wéiqí, an ancient board game. There was a famous and knowledgeable monk who was nicknamed the "Kowtow Monk", whom the Emperor respected highly and summoned him often to chat with him.

One day, the Kowtow Monk paid a visit to the palace when the Emperor was playing Go with an official. The Emperor surrounded a big group of stones on the board and was so excited that he yelled, "Kill!" All of a sudden, guards rushed into the palace, seized the Kowtow Monk and executed him outside the palace gate.

Unfortunately, the Emperor was so absorbed in the game that he didn't even know what had transpired. After the game, he remembered the monk and summoned him. The Emperor's guards reported to him that the monk was executed per his order, and the Emperor regretted deeply. On the other hand, the Kowtow Monk didn't know why he was executed, and thought that it was the judgement for killing an earthworm when he was young.


  1. ^ a b Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959), p. 51.
  2. ^ a b Michel Strickmann, Mantras et mandarins (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), p. 380.
  3. ^ a b John R. McRae, Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p. 22.
  4. ^ Andrew E. Ferguson, Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teachings (Boston: Wisdom Publication, 2000), p. 16.
  5. ^ John R. McRae, "Introduction The Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism," in The Kōan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism, edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); same author, Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p. 108.
  6. ^ Michel Strickmann, Mantras et mandarins (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), p. 376.
  7. ^ Michel Strickmann, Mantras et mandarins (Paris: Gallimard: 1996), p. 58.
  8. ^ a b Michel Strickmann, Mantras et mandarins (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), p. 379.
  9. ^ Michel Strickmann, Mantras et mandarins (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), p. 487, note 16.