A Devout Buddhist Emperor from Chinese History

Buddhism flourished in China during the Southern Dynasty, mostly because Xiao Yan (464 – 549 AD), Emperor Wu of Liang, was a devout Buddhist. He not only promoted Buddhism nationwide, but also conscientiously practiced Buddhism in his daily life and in his managing of state affairs.

After Xiao Yan became the emperor, he achieved great things politically. Having learned from the demise of the Qi State, he was diligent in handling state affairs and always got up early every morning to review memorials and official documents regardless of the weather or season. In the winter, his hands were sometimes so cold that the skin cracked, but he never complained.

To hear good advice from all over and to make the best use of his people’s talents, he ordered two boxes set up outside the gate of the imperial compound, one called “Bang Mu Han” and the other, “Fei Shi Han.”

If meritorious officials or talented people were not properly rewarded or promoted, they could put their letters of appeal into the “Fei Shi Han” box. If ordinary people wanted to make critical comments on state affairs or offer suggestions, they could put their petitions into the “Bang Mu Han” box.

Emperor Wu of Liang attached great importance to the selection and appointment of officials. He demanded that local officials be honest with a clear conscience, and he often summoned them to the court to remind them that it was their responsibility to serve the country and the people.

To promote high standards in governance, the emperor also sent edicts across the country. If magistrates in small counties were responsible for outstanding achievements, they would be promoted to be magistrates in large counties, and large county magistrates with outstanding merits would be promoted to the position of governor in a prefecture. Thanks to these sound policies, the officials in Liang did well, and agriculture, the silk textile industry, and commerce in Liang flourished.

Emperor Wu of Liang believed in and worshiped Buddha with all sincerity. In the early years when he spent most of his time fighting on the battlefield, he did not have time to visit temples or burn incense and show his respect to Buddha. After he became emperor, he took worshiping Buddha and visiting temples very seriously, and such events became important ritual activities in his country.

In 504 AD, the year after he became emperor of Liang, he led 20,000 monks and laymen to Chongyun Pavilion of Chongyun Hall and wrote “She Dao Shi Fo Wen,” declaring his sincerity in worshiping Buddha.

Emperor Wu of Liang also showed his commitment to Buddhism in his daily life and gained his people’s respect. According to history books, he wore the same head wear for three years and used the same quilt for two years before replacing them with new ones. He followed a vegetarian diet and paid little attention to food or clothing. He wore the same clothes even after they had been washed several times. All his clothes were made of cotton instead of silk, since the extraction of silk would kill countless silkworms, which would not comply with the Buddhist prohibition against killing. He ate mostly vegetables and only one meal a day. When he was very busy, he would just have porridge when he felt hungry. He never drank alcohol or listened to music for pleasure, even though he himself was a proficient musician. He was the most “miserable” emperor in Chinese history.

Emperor Wu of Liang showed great compassion in his governance. Whenever the court sentenced a criminal to death, he would look very sad for many days. In his later years, he declared that he was willing to convert to Buddhism and actually went to stay in Tongtai Temple, the largest temple in Jiankang City, four times. Consequently, he was given the nickname “Emperor Bodhisattva.”

Xiao Yan, Emperor Wu of Liang, truly deserved the title “Emperor Bodhisattva.”He ordered the construction of many temple towers and Buddha statues and promoted Buddhism earnestly during his reign. The capital city, Jiankang, which covered an area of 40 miles in each direction, was home to more than 500 temples, with numerous towering pavilions and pagodas. The Liang Dynasty had a population of five million, and the number of monks and nuns in Jiankang City alone reached 100,000. There were also many monks and nuns in other counties and prefectures.

There was a common practice at that time, known as “sacrificing oneself.” There were two ways to do this. One was to give one’s assets to the temple, and the other was to join the temple to serve the monks.

Xiao Yan “sacrificed himself” four times as a monk in Tongtai Temple (now the Jiming Temple in Nanjing), with lengths of stay from four to 37 days. And each time the court redeemed him with gold. The total amount paid in ransoms to the temple came to 400 million gold coins. Buddhism achieved unprecedented prosperity during the Liang Dynasty.

Xiao Yan was on the throne for nearly half a century, and his country and people enjoyed remarkable cultural and economic prosperity during his reign. Even the enemy countries to the north were amazed and followed suit.

Traditional Confucianism also reached a historical high while Emperor Wu of Liang was vigorously promoting Buddhism. The whole country was permeated with an atmosphere of Confucian culture, and scholars showed a keen interest in Confucian studies. From the emperor to the princes and nobles, everybody took pride in being gracious and having integrity, and strove to improve their cultural literacy.

As a result, during Liang’s just over 50 years, an impressive number of accomplished writers and poets made significant contributions to Chinese literature, such as:

Xiao Tong, who wrote “Selected Works of Zhaoming
Shen Yue, author of “Song Shu;”
Xiao Ziliang, who wrote “Nan Qi Shu;”
Liu Xie, author of “Wen Xin Diao Long;”
Zhong Rong, author of “Shi Pin;”

…..as well as many other well-known scholars, not to mention Xiao Yan’s two sons who became emperors themselves—Jianwen Emperor Xiao Gang and Yuan Emperor Xiao Yi.

In short, the literary achievements during the Liang Dynasty could be matched only by the prosperous Tang and Northern Song dynasties in Chinese history.

Emperor Wu of Liang made remarkable contributions to Chinese Buddhist culture, the promotion of Confucianism, and the spread of China’s divine culture.