Empress Wu Zetian

A Controversial Patron of Buddhism with a Colorful History

The only woman ever to rule as emperor of China, Wu Zhao (Wu Zetian) was born in 624 C.E. At age 14 she became a concubine of Emperor TaiZong of the Tang Dynasty and was given the title of CaiRren (Guardian Immortal) and a new name, Wu Mei. From 655, when she became the empress of Emperor GaoZong of Tang (son of Emperor TaiZong), until 683, when he passed away, she and Emperor GaoZong together ruled China for 28 years. Wu then stayed in power as empress dowager and regent for 7 years before declaring herself empress. In order to build popular support for her reign, she claimed to be Maitreya, the future Buddha. Furthermore, she invented the Chinese characters for her name, Wu Zhao. (Zhao is made up of two characters: “understand” and “emptiness” or “clarity” and ”emptiness.”) Wu remained on the throne for 15 years as the first and only ruling empress in Chinese history. Altogether, she ruled for half a century during the Tang Dynasty.

Wu has aroused much controversy among historians. Undeniably, her role in the annotation and dissemination of Buddhist sutras is both unprecedented and inspiring. She successfully restored many important sutras with supplementary material and addenda. For example, during the Eastern Jin Dynasty there were only 80 fascicles in the Avatamsaka Sutra. (A fascicle is a section of a book that is published in separate installments.) With much effort, Wu retrieved and translated 40 more fascicles from the original text, which resulted in the Avatamsaka Sutra that we read today. Wu also invited teachers of different Buddhist schools to teach, and she remained a humble student despite her prestige as empress. She laid the groundwork for each school to flourish and initiated the tradition of sutra debate and mutual admiration among the different schools.

Renowned historian Chen Yinke (1890-1969) investigated and confirmed that the Mahamegha Sutra, a sutra rumored to be fabricated by Wu, is in fact consistent with the original text from the Jin Dynasty, and not a fabrication. Wu was known to quote a passage from the Mahamegha Sutra in support of her political power. This passage is difficult to translate from the classical Chinese.

In it, Wu asserted that the Buddha had assured her that she was the incarnation of Maitreya, and that she would liberate all sentient beings as an empress. Many historians criticized Wu for presumptuously meddling with the sutra. Through his research, Chen concluded that the sutra had not been fabricated — since Wu was already the empress, she could easily employ the idea with no need for fabrication.

A popular story relates that one day when Buddha was begging alms, a young girl playfully offered him sand. Buddha told Shariputra, who was outraged by this incident, that the girl would reincarnate as a monarch, and that his accepting her offering would result in her becoming a patron and protector of Buddhadharma. There is a similar story in the Samyuktagama Sutra, in which the young girl reincarnated as King Ashoka. Another story is that in order to spread the Buddhadharma and to benefit sentient beings, the girl reincarnated as a monarch twice – first as King Ashoka, then hundreds of years later as Wu. There is nothing startling about these stories from the reincarnation point of view; however, there is no official source in any sutra that explains how Wu has been integrated into these stories.

Wu’s mother was from the devout Buddhist family of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty, so she grew up in a Buddhist environment. Historian Chen even speculated that Wu had been a nun for a short time before her life in the palace. Moreover, after Emperor TaiZong passed away she became a nun at Ganye Temple and participated in the monastic life. Even when she was the empress, she welcomed monks into the palace and prostrated to them respectfully. She enshrined the relics of HuiAn in the palace; invited ShenXiu, senior disciple of the Fifth Patriarch of the Zen school, to lecture at the palace; and honored HuiNeng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, by repeatedly inviting him to the palace to accept her offerings. When ShenXiu passed away, the imperial court was suspended for 5 days.

Among her other actions, when the monk YiJing brought sutras and Buddha relics back from India, Wu received them on her knees. She sent monks to Japan to initiate precept vows there. She studied the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra from FaZang’s commentaries, sponsored monks to translate sutras, and made offerings to the translator monks in person. She propagated the Dharma by commissioning temples and Buddha statues, and by helping the sick and the poor. She also embraced all Mahayana schools, and as a result, Dharmalaksana, HuaYan, Sukhavati, and Zen flourished, creating a solid foundation and environment for diversity, openness, and all-embracing tolerance in Buddhism. She sponsored the printing of sutras, and composed prefaces for them. Her deep understanding, and the conciseness and eloquence of her language, were much admired by Buddhist masters in later generations.

Upon the completion of the retranslation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, Wu wrote the opening stanza, which reverberates to this day:

The Dharma, incomparably profound and exquisite,
Is rarely met with, even in hundreds of thousands of millions of kalpas;
We are now permitted to see it, to listen to it, to accept and hold it;
May we truly understand the meaning of the Tathagata’s words!
Translation by D. T. Suzuki

This passage is so extraordinary that it is repeatedly quoted as the opening stanza of various sutras.

Wu ZeTian propagated Buddhadharma for more than 50 years, setting the cornerstone for all eight schools of Mahayana Buddhism. She also showed how Avalokiteshvara, a male bodhisattva, was transformed into the female Guan Yin. It is difficult to judge Wu’s accomplishments and faults in Chinese history, which emphasized male supremacy. Nevertheless, her contribution to Buddhadharma is unquestionable – not only was Buddhism in full bloom in the Tang Dynasty, the words she left behind are heard to this very day.