Emperor Wu of Liang is often credited in Chinese Buddhism as a benefactor to the development of Buddhism in China, known for using Buddhist ideologies for reform during his reign, such as the disallowing of capital punishment or the sacrifice of live animals during ancestral ceremonies. Emperor Wu was known to have supported Buddhist monasteries and helped Buddhist monks. Emperor Wu at one point became a monk himself, although only for a short period of time.

Many stories, most of them are likely to be folk legends, involved the emperor and his interactions with various Buddhist figures.

The Emperor's encounter with Bodhidharma

According to tradition, around 520, during the period of the Southern Dynasties, Bodhidharma, the first Zen patriarch of China, came to visit Emperor Wu in hopes of converting him. Hearing that the emperor was already a Buddhist, there was no need to do so.

During the patriarch's time with the emperor, he started to talk about his building of temples and giving financial support to monastics. He then asked Bodhidharma how much merit he accumulated in the process. Emperor Wu felt that the patriarch might not know about of the good deeds that he made, so he pointed them out to the patriarch. The patriarch felt that Emperor Wu was providing his own promotion campaign rather than seeking the Dharma to end samsara; instead, he wanted to boast of his own merit and virtue. Thinking that the emperor might have been attached to his own ego, Bodhidharma replied, "Actually, you have no merit and virtue. In truth, no merit and virtue at all."

Perplexed, the Emperor then asked, "Well, what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?" The bewildering reply was "vast emptiness."

"Listen," said the Emperor, now losing all patience, "just who do you think you are?" Bodhidharma replied, "I have no idea."

Bodhidharma originally went to Emperor Wu with the idea of saving him. To the patriarch's dismay, he realized that the emperor was too conceited; he had too high an opinion of himself. Being an emperor was already something, he thought. He had built many temples, enabled people to leave home, given away a lot of money, and made a lot of offerings to the Triple Gem. He thought that he had created a tremendous amount of merit and virtue. Bodhidharma, wanting to shatter the emperor's attachment, replied that he had no merit and virtue at all.

From then on, the emperor refused to listen to whatever Bodhidharma had to say. Although Bodhidharma had come from India to China to become the first patriarch of China, the emperor refused to recognize him. Since he refused to believe in what Bodhidharma told him, he practically missed his chance to come face to face with someone who was important to Buddhism. Bodhidharma knew that he would face difficulty in the near future, but had the emperor been able to leave the throne and yield it to someone else, he could have avoided his fate of starving to death.

According to legends, Emperor Wu's past life was as a monk in the Buddha's time. While he cultivated in the mountains, a monkey would always steal and eat the things he planted for food, as well as the fruit in the trees. One day, he was able to trap the monkey in a cave and blocked the entrance of the cave with rocks, hoping to teach the monkey a lesson. However, after two days, the monk found that the monkey had died of starvation.

It is said that the monkey was reborn into Hou Jing of the Northern Wei Dynasty, who led his soldiers to attack Nanjing. After Nanjing was taken, the emperor was held in captivity in the palace and was not provided with any food, and was left to starve to death. Though Bodhidharma wanted to save him and brought forth a compassionate mind toward him, the emperor failed to recognize him, so there was nothing Bodhidharma could do. Thus, Bodhidharma had no choice but to leave Emperor Wu to die and went into meditation in a cave for nine years.

The Emperor Liang Repentance

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 soul 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's soul 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.

The Liberation Rite of Water and Land

The emperor and Ch'an Master Bao Zhi were also the creators of the most grandest Buddhist function in Chinese Buddhism, called the The Liberation Rite of Water and Land (法界聖凡水陸普度大齋勝會, Fajie Shengfan Shuilu Pudu Dazhai Sheng Hui). The function basically invites the beings of the higher realms to help the beings in the lower realms get out of their sufferings. The function is composed of seven shrines, each of them holding their own smaller ceremony; the chanting of sutras are involved in each shrine. (Emperor Liang's repentance is one of the texts recited.) The heart of the ceremony's activities is the "Inner Shrine", where access is strictly limited to higher monastics, wealthy benefactors, and government officials. Instruments that are not usually used during regular Buddhist functions are used as well. The service also requires the attendance of over one hundred monastics, and a limitless amount of laypersons. Because of cost, it is extremely rare for a Buddhist temple to hold such a ceremony, since it can affect a temple financially.

According to legend, the emperor had a dream in which a monk advised, “The suffering of the beings in the lower realms is immense, why don’t you make offerings to liberate them from their suffering? Among all good deeds, the accumulation of merits through such services is the greatest.” So the emperor called on Venerable Bao Zhi again to organize such a ceremony. Venerable Bao Zhi spent three years creating the concept and compiling the texts for this seven day festival.

Emperor Wu's "order" of the Execution of the Kowtow Monk

Emperor Wu was also fond of playing wéiqí (Go), 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 wasБуддийские легенды об У-ди

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