China has a long and glorious connection with Buddhism. It is the country where Ch’an (Zen) took root and where much of the now world-renowned Buddhist-inspired art and culture flourished and grew.
There are accounts of the teachings reaching the country as early as 217 BCE, and after that first encounter China produced many great patron emperors who spread the words of the Buddha to the far corners of the country. Emperor Ming (58–75 CE), for example, sent a delegation to India to learn more about the Dharma. They returned with scriptures loaded on the backs of white horses, which resulted in the famous White Horse Temple near Luoyang being built to house them.
Several centuries later, Emperor Wencheng (440–465 CE) is credited with supporting the construction of the exquisite Buddhist carvings in the Yungang Caves near Datong. Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (846-859 CE) was another great patron who helped revive the Dharma, while Emperor Suzong (756–762 CE), a predecessor in the Tang Dynasty, is reputed to have constructed releasing-life ponds at 81 locations in order to create conditions conducive to peace and harmony after a long period of rebellion.
Perhaps the most colorful and famous of all the Buddhist emperors of China, however, was Emperor Wu of Liang (502-549 CE). Although educated in Confucianism and a follower of Taoism, he led 20,000 people in a ceremony during which he proclaimed that he was a Buddhist. He then adopted the principles of the Dharma to administer the country and encouraged his subjects to renounce fame and self-interest. He even rebuked his younger brother for accumulating wealth at the expense of the common people. The emperor also became a strict vegetarian in deference to the Buddhist ideal of not taking life and, like many of the Indian Buddhist emperors before him, banned capital punishment and prohibited animal sacrifice in religious ceremonies.
Emperor Wu was a gifted child, and even at the age of seven he exhibited extraordinary talents in literature and warriorship. Later in life he gained a reputation for his ability at divination, horsemanship, archery, writing, and calligraphy, and for his skill at the board game go. Emperor Wu’s reign spanned almost five decades and was characterized by its openness and close relationship with the grassroots of society. This liberal approach to governing the country was expressed in many ways, but perhaps his most notable initiative was having boxes placed at the palace gates so that his subjects could anonymously and freely offer suggestions and criticisms of the government.
In order to create a harmonious and fair society, the emperor was especially discerning when appointing officials. All potential candidates were expected to be honest, virtuous, and honorable.
During his reign, the emperor left office four times to enter monastic life. He never accepted special privileges during these sojourns in the temple but lived like any other monk – staying in a simple room, cleaning the temple buildings, and participating in the ceremonies. He was hailed as a role model for lay Buddhists as well as for the entire monastic community. Due to his fondness for monastic life and his unceasing support of the sangha, Emperor Wu was given the titles of the “Monk Emperor” and the “Emperor Bodhisattva.”
Emperor Wu is also famous for devising a unique way of providing funds for a monastery. On two occasions he categorically refused to leave a temple and attend to national affairs, and did so only after his ministers agreed to make a substantial donation to redeem him.
Emperor Wu’s support of the Dharma was unprecedented in the early Chinese dynasties. He was a staunch supporter of the sangha and vigorously propagated the teachings throughout his kingdom – in fact, it is said that during his reign monasteries housing as many as 100,000 monks and nuns spanned out from the capital for 20 kilometers in all directions. His reign heralded a golden age of Buddhism in China as people from all walks of life – from the royal family to the common farmer – came to believe in the Dharma. The emperor died in 549 at the age of 85.