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The Impact of Four Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution (四大法难对政权稳定性影响)December 2,2011



The Signifiant sole played by Buddhism in assisting goverance of country

-Part II The Impact of Four Great Anti-Buddhist Persecutions in Chinese History on the Stability of the Political Regimes In Power


The Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution by Emperor Tai Wu in the North Wei Dynasty

The North Wei Dynasty was established by the Tuobo clan of the Xianbei ethnic after they entered the Central Plains (comprising the middle and lower reaches of the Huanghe River). Emperor Dao Wu and Emperor Ming Yuan were devout believers in Buddhism and built quite a few temples. When Emperor Tai Wu came to the throne, he believed in Buddhism at the beginning and revered sramana. However, later on after taking the advice of Cui Hao, his prime minister, he converted to Tianshidao of K’ou Ch’ien Chih, building his ashram in southeast Ping city and becoming a perfect Taoist by proclaiming himself the supreme ruler of Taiping.


On the other hand, in order to unite Northern China and consolidate its rule in the Central Plains, the North Wei Dynasty had to make everyone a soldier. At that time the sramana (religious ascetics) were always exempt from curve, land tax and other levies. Since Emperor Tai Wu was firmly determined to increase his military accomplishments, he started to oppose Buddhism which gradually evolved into the great Anti-Buddhist Persecution.


It began with the suppression of sramana in the fifth year of the supreme ruler of Taiping, Emperor Tai Wu, who ordered that no one, from princes and dukes to the common people, was allowed to secretly provide for sramana. Anybody who, on the sly, had hidden any sramana must turn them in by the given deadline; else his whole family would be put to death. The next year, Gaiwu of the northern ethnic group from Lushui started an insurrection in Xingcheng (Huangling in Shanxi Province) in which a hundred thousand people participated. In the seventh year, Emperor Tai Wu himself led his soldiers to suppress the rebellion. When he arrived in Changan, he was furious when he found some weapons in a temple, causing him to suspect that the sramana conspired with Gaiwu, thus leading him to order the death of everyone in the temple. Cuihao seized the chance to persuade Emperor Tai Wu to exterminate Buddhism. As a result, severe policies aimed at abolishing Buddhism were further put into effect, resulting in the killing of sramana in Changan and the burning of all Buddhist sutras and figures. For a short while, everyone in the country was fearful of danger in every sound. Tuba-huang, at that time the prince who had the power to administer the country when the Emperor was absent, presented petitions time and again to dissuade him in this extermination policy. Although the Emperor did not take his advice, these petitions helped to postpone the announcement of the imperial edict, consequently enabling the sramana far and near to hide and escape when they heard the news, and enabling many Buddhist figures and sutras to be secretly hidden. However, none of the temples within Wei State were able to escape. Historically this was referred to as “the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution by Tai Wu.”


Not long after Buddhism was abolished, Guanquanzhi died of illness. Cuihao was cut in two at the waist for showing contempt for the Hu clan, and over a hundred people from Cuihao’s clan were put to death. The sixth year after abolishing Buddhism, Emperor Tai Wu from Tubatao was killed by Zongai who sent Tubayu, the youngest son of Emperor Tai Wu, to the throne. After that, Zongai killed Tubayu, It wasn’t until Emperor Wu Cheng was enthroned that an imperial edict was made, reviving Buddhism and paving the way for the Yungang Grottoes to be built. Thus Buddhism gradually came back to life.


During the period of Emperor Tai Wu of Tubatao, the country’s economy was developed to some extent within a period of time. But because of Emperor Tai Wu’s excessive action of exterminating Buddhism, later on Emperor Wen Cheng encountered trouble. Although he began to revive Buddhism in order to make the country rich and give the people peace and security, “the awful mess” left by Emperor Tai Wu had led to his subjects in the country lacking a common view in ideology and culture, resulting in the escalating conflicts between the aristocrats of Zianbei and the populace of Ethnic Han Chinese. The other fatal problem was the increasing corruption among the aristocrats of Xianbei, despite the fact that Emperor Wen Cheng repeatedly announced imperial edicts to try to stop it. But the corruption of the officials of all ranks and descriptions had become too severe to allow the edicts to work efficiently. As the suffering of the populace couldn’t be alleviated, their rebellion to the ruling party became more intense.


As a result, Emperor Wu Cheng died young.


Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution by Emperor Wu in the North Zhou Dynasty

The second Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution happened when Emperor Wu Di, Yu Wen Yong of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, was in power, which was about 110 years after the first incident by Emperor Tai Wu in the Northern Wei Dynasty. The Northern Zhou Dynasty ruled the region of Guanzhong-Longxi after the Western Wei Dynasty where Buddhism had prevailed since the Jin Dynasty. The Buddhist Group of Kumarajiva once preached and translated Buddhist Sutras in Changani for a long time, and had a tremendous influence in the region. At that time, over 200,000 monks and nuns and more than 30,000 Buddhist temples flourished all over the country. Among the successive emperors of the Northern Dynasties, many of them were devout believers in Buddhism. At the beginning of his reign, Emperor Wu followed his predecessors’ convention and paid respect to samana. In the fourth year of Tian He, he convened at four successive times the scholars of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism to carry on debates as to which religion’s doctrine was superior.


His original intention was to rank Buddhism after Confucianism, and Taoism above both of those. However, they could not come to a conclusion through the debates because the scholars from the three religions stuck to their arguments. Later Zhen Luan sent his book of Xiao Dao Lun to the Emperor, and Dao An sent his book, Discussion on the Two Religions, in which they tried their utmost to speak in defense of Buddhism and denounce Taoism. The Emperor was so unhappy about the debate between Buddhism and Taoism that he gave an imperial order to put off for a while the debate about which is superior. In the third year of Jian De, Emperor Wu Di convened some Buddhists and Taoists for a debate in his Tai Ji Palace. Zhang Bin did his utmost to denounce Buddhism which was defeated by Master Zhi Xuan. As a result, Emperor Wu Di held court in person in order to argue against the opponent’s viewpoint. Surprisingly, Master Zhi Xuan calmly answered back with brilliant statements, causing the Emperor to leave his Tai Ji Palace infuriated. The next day he gave the imperial edict to abolish both Buddhism and Taoism, destroy the temples and pagodas, burn the figures of Buddha and compel samana and Taoists to resume secular life. About 20,000 smana were forced to resume secular life, and Buddhism in the region of Guanzhong-Longxi was almost completely destroyed.


In the sixth year of Jian De, after the Northern Zhou Dynasty conquered the Northern Qi Dynasty, Emperor Wu Di implemented the policy of excluding Buddhism by burning the figures of Buddha and destroying the temples. As a result, Buddhism in northern China vanished for a short while.


The next year after the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, Emperor Wu Di suffered from severe skin ulcers and died of this disease at the early age of 35. Emperors Xuan and Jing took the throne in succession; only then did Buddhism gradually regain its position.


Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution by Emperor Wu Zong of the Tang Dynasty

During the period of Emperor Wu Zong of the Tang Dynasty which was based on Confucianism ways and strategies of managing a country, many literati and officials thought that the booming of Buddhism would jeopardize the country’s economy; hence, they viciously attacked it. Besides, Emperor Wu Zong was keen on Tao techniques and how to practice them. Once he summoned 81 people, including Zhao Gui Zhen, to his palace, then built a Jinlu Taoist ashram in San Dian, while he himself accepted Falu. In June of the first year of the Hui Chang reign, he summoned Liu Xuan, a Taoist priest in Heng Shan, to his palace and let him practice Falu with Zhao Gui Zhen.


The policies he applied to abolish Buddhism progressed step by step. From what the historical data say, the harsh decrees he employed were steadily increased. In March of the fourth year of the Hui Chang reign, he ordered that people were forbidden to make offerings to tooth and bone relics of the Buddha; anyone breaching this order would be flogged with a stick. For a short while, traces of human presence were cut off in the temples. For a longer time period, Buddhist sutras and figures of Buddha were enshrined and worshipped in the imperial palace. However, Emperor Wu Zong gave orders to burn Buddhist sutras and destroy Buddhist figures. Instead, the figures of Tian Zun La Jun were placed in his ashram. As he was deeply convinced by what Zhao Guizhen said to him, he started an unprecedented Anti-Buddhist Persecution. He gave the edict to destroy the temples in the mountains, Caturdesa, Aranya, common Buddhist altars, public wells and dining rooms in Buddhist temples in villages.


In March and April of the fifth year of the Hui Chang reign, he compelled monks and nuns to resume secular life; if anyone disobeyed the order, he/she would be executed on the spot under the accusation of disobeying the imperial edict. In August, his decrees resulted in extensive demolition of temples and figures of Buddha as well as Buddhist musical instruments such as bells and chime stones to be cast into coins and farm implements. Even privately-owned golden and silver figures of Buddha were required to be turned in to officials. This catastrophe was called the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of Hui Chang.


The next year after this incident, Emperor Wu Zong died from poison while taking a Taoist golden elixir. After that, Emperor Xuan Zong took the throne, killed Zhao Gui Zhen, etc. and revived Buddhism.


Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution by Emperor Shi Zong in Hou Zhou Dynasty

The fourth Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution by Emperor Shi Zong happened in the second year of Xian De of the Later Zhou Dynasty. In order to implement his ruling policies to be based on Confucianism, he used the excuse that the monks and nuns in Buddhist temples had become a national financial burden, thus giving an imperial edict forbidding people to become a monk or nun on their own. He made some harsh requirements for those who wanted to be a monk or nun and also specified that only those initiated into monkhood or nunhood from the nationally-acknowledged Pravarana (precept platform) were recognized, otherwise it was invalid. Temples or aranya were not allowed to be built; if anyone disobeyed, he would be punished with cruel torture. All the existing temples must be demolished. Figures of Buddha made of bronze, brass or copper held by civilians had to be turned in to the government to be cast into money. If anyone were found secretly keeping any that were worth more than five Jin, he would be executed. This collection of incidents was called the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of Yi Zong. According to legend, Emperor Shi Zong hacked the chest of the Bodhisattva figure with an axe to show his intention of destroying Buddhism.


In the sixth year of Xian De, during his journey of northern conquest, all of a sudden Emperor Shi Zong developed a carbuncle abscess in his chest and died from it shortly afterward.


After we have made a general survey of the four Great Anti-Buddhist Persecutions of “three Wu’s and one Zong,” we can easily conclude that the reasons for those incidents were nothing but the emperor’s sincerely believing in his own religion without showing any tolerance for other religions (which is the opposite of what Ashoka did), or because, when antagonism arose between the religions, the emperor could not discern and resolve it, or still yet, because the emperor was not able to make full use of Buddhist resources to turn them into proper production for the country, Instead he mistook Buddhists and their temples for a financial burden on the country. Fortunately, Buddhism has eventually been accepted on a universal basis because of “its essence of setting one’s mind at rest,” which has been passed on in Buddhism for thousands of years. In spite of the repeated Anti-Buddhist Persecutions, Buddhism is still standing, towering like a giant in the world’s multicultural civilization and playing a positive role.