Did Bodhidharma Meet Emperor Liang Wu Di?
Copyright 2010 by Andrew Ferguson
This paper will examine evidence that explains how the legendary meeting between Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu may be a historical fact. It is based on evidence that comes from field observation, classical texts, and most important, from scholarship by Chinese researchers Sun Changwu孙昌武, Yang Xiaotian
杨笑天, Wang Rutong王孺童 and others.
Some ideas in this paper restate ideas advanced by Yang Xiaotian in his important essay entitled On the
life of Bodhidharma and Hui Ke. I offer additional ideas that carry Dr. Yang’s ideas further. A review of
the historical evidence suggests that Bodhidharma could have met Emperor Liang Wu Di, though this position is not widely held by scholars.
Essentially, two conflicting stories exist about Bodhidharma’s life in old Chan records. One story, based
on a biography and other information about Bodhidharma that appears in Continued Biographies of
Eminent Monks [续高僧传], a seventh century text by the monk Dao Xuan, relates that Bodhidharma arrived in South China before the end of the Liu-Song Dynasty, on or before the year 478, and
ieventually lived under the Wei Dynasty [初達宋境南越. 末又北度至魏]. The biography, written
between 645 and 665 CE, also mentions two of Bodhidharma’s disciples, Dao Yu and Hui Ke [有道育慧
可此二沙門]. Dao Yu, also known as Dao Fu [道副], is the same monk as the one identified as Seng Fu
[僧副] whose biography also appears in the Continued Biographies. Bodhidharma’s biography also
indicates that Bodhidharma traveled widely to spread his teaching, but his place of death was unknown [遊化為務不測于終].
An example of a different and popularly accepted version of Bodhidharma’s life is in the mid-thirteenth
century work called Compendium of Five Lamps [五灯会元]. This work relates that Chan’s first ancestor
arrived in South China in the year 527, the seventh year of the Pu Tong era [梁普 通七年], and soon
thereafter traveled to Nanjing to meet Emperor Liang Wu Di. After a brief and unsuccessful meeting with the emperor, Bodhidharma proceeded to Mt. Song, where he practiced meditation in a cave near Shao Lin Temple. Eventually, according to this account, Bodhidharma died at Thousand Saints Temple [千圣寺 +, a place about which no other records are evident. A definite date for Bodhidharma’s death is also not offered in the Wudeng Huiyuan account.
Scholars agree that the former Continued Biographies story of Bodhidharma’s life is more reliable
because it was written far earlier than other accounts, perhaps only 130 years or so after Bodhidharma lived. Also, biographies of other monks in the same work offer evidence that supports Bodhidharma’s
story. Scholars in the East and West regard the Continued Biographies as the most reliable source of
information about Bodhidharma’s life. However, the Continued Biographies account of Bodhidharma
does not offer evidence about him that can be reliably dated after the year 494. Some scholars have suggested, and some later old Chinese texts report, that Bodhidharma died in the year 494 or soon thereafter. However, taking account of the Continued Biographies biography of the Second Chan
Ancestor Hui Ke’s life, it is widely accepted that Bodhidharma died in the geographical area around
Luoyang before the Wei Dynasty split into the Western and Eastern Wei Dynasties in the year 534. The biography of Hui Ke in the Continued Biographies indicates that after Bodhidharma died, Hui Ke, “on the
basis of his teacher’s widespread stature continued *Bodhidharma’s teaching+, and was invited to teach by clergy and laity” *而昔怀嘉誉传檄邦畿。使夫道俗来仪请从师范].
But the exact date of Bodhidharma’s death remains uncertain. Based on the Continued Biographies
some Chan scholars suggest the date of Bodhidharma’s death was around the year 530. Suggestions that he died later than this are based on later historical records, including a memorial stele allegedly created by Emperor Wu that is discussed below.
The Chan tradition places great importance on the legend of Bodhidharma meeting Emperor Wu. The story is a pivotal tale that contrasts Bodhidharma’s Chan with the views and practice of the Buddhist establishment of his time. In the Continued Biographies there are various passages that describe
Bodhidharma’s teaching. One relates that it emphasized the “true perception doctrine” of “forgetting-
iiwords, forgetting-thought, and no attainment” *忘言忘念无得正观为宗]. In contrast, Emperor Wu is
remembered to be devoted to Buddhist sutra and doctrinal studies [义学], the ordination of monks [度
僧] the building of temples and writing of sutras [造寺写经], and the accumulation of merit coming
from these activities. Bodhidharma’s practice, which later was summarized in the phrase “directly pointing at the human mind [直指人心+, is thus favorably compared with Emperor Wu’s wide ranging
embrace of other Buddhist beliefs and practices.
Because Emperor Wu did not gain power and establish the Liang Dynasty until the year 502, the Chan tradition widely accepts the story that relates that Bodhidharma arrived in China after Emperor Wu gained power. This is now the most widely accepted version of Bodhidharma’s life even though the most reliable historical source, the Continued Biographies, contradicts this timeline. If Bodhidharma lived and
presumably died in the Luoyang area in 494 or thereafter, how could he have met Emperor Wu, who gained the throne and ruled as the “Bodhisattva Emperor” in the year 502 at place distant from Luoyang
and Mt. Song?
Bodhidharma’s Early Years in China
While there is no direct evidence of Bodhidharma’s arrival date in China scholars widely accept that he
iiiarrived before 479 CE. The Continued Biographies states that Bodhidharma arrived in Southern China
during the Liu-Song Dynasty (420-479) [初達宋境南越]. I will set aside, for the moment, a discussion of
the widely known story in the Record of the Temples of Luoyang [洛阳伽蓝记] that quotes a certain
monk named Bodhidharma who claimed to be 150 years old when he met Yang Xuanzhi, the text’s author, sometime between 516 and about 528. Instead, I will conjecture that if the date for Bodhidharma’s death was 534, then with a lifespan of 100 years Bodhidharma could have arrived in China at the age of 30 in the year 464. In this scenario Bodhidharma would have had ample time to learn Chinese and travel in South China. If, as some evidence suggests, the date of Bodhidharma’s death was
528, and if he died at age one hundred, an arrival in 464 places his age at thirty six years old. Thus his arrival in China as early as 460 cannot be ruled out. Of course, without certainty about how long
Bodhidharma lived, all these dates are only conjecture. However, they indicate the possibility of his arrival in China by 460.
If Bodhidharma arrived in China around 460, it is possible he met the Indian Buddhist scholar
ivGunabhadra who lived in Nanjing during the Liu-Song Dynasty and who died in 468. This view is partly
supported by Bodhidharma’s use of the Lankavatara Sutra text translated by Gunabhadra as reported in the Continued Biographies [达摩禅师以四卷楞伽授可]. Furthermore, the Record of the Lankavatara
Masters [楞伽师资记] written in the year 708 by the monk Jing Jue [净觉] places Gunabhadra in the
first position in the succession of spiritual ancestors of the “Northern School” of Chinese Chan. Bodhidharma is listed as Gunabhadra’s spiritual heir. [魏朝三藏法师菩提达摩承求那跋陀罗三藏
v后…+. Although the Record of the Lankavatara Masters does not explicitly state that Bodhidharma met Gunabhadra, it indicates that certain early Northern School monks connected these two Indian teachers in the direct succession leading to the East Mountain School, a wellspring of China’s mainstream Chan
tradition. Gunabhadra was not otherwise recognized as the first ancestor of the Chan School, however. The text of a stele marking the death of the East Mountain School monk Fa Ru in the year 681 indicates Bodhidharma as the first of the Chan ancestors. It reads “Bodhidharma entered Wei and transmitted to
*Hui+Ke, Ke transmitted to Can…” *菩提达摩入魏传可(可传粲…].
Why would it matter whether Bodhidharma met Gunabhadra? The Record of Eminent Monks [高僧传]
composed by the monk Hui Jiao in the year 417 (from which the later Continued Biographies of Eminent
Monks termed itself “continued”) records the story of Gunabhadra’s life in China. After arriving there
around the year 435 he enjoyed the favor of the Liu-Song emperors and aristocracy. He translated various sutras and taught at different temples in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and elsewhere. During one ten year period Gunabhadra enjoyed the patronage of the official Jiaowang Yixuan [谯王义宣] who met
Gunabhadra, supported his teaching, and carried on correspondence with him. Later, Jiaowang plotted and rebelled against the Liu-Song emperor Xiao Wu but his rebellion was defeated. The emperor suspected Gunabhadra of involvement in the plot, but upon investigating letters between Gunabhadra and Jiaowang the emperor realized that the former had no involvement in the attempted coup. Gunabhadra’s name was cleared. Thereafter Gunabhadra continued to teach and work until his death in 468. If Bodhidharma arrived in China in 464 or earlier, he would have had ample time to meet Gunabhadra before the latter’s death. In such a case, the political dangers Gunabhadra previously faced may have led him to counsel Bodhidharma to beware of entanglement in China’s ruling circles. This could have shaped Bodhidharma’s later attitude toward his contacts with the ruling houses of the
Northern Wei and Liang Dynasties. Although this is just speculation, it fits nicely as a possible piece of the puzzle concerning why Bodhidharma avoided contact with emperors, feudal kings, or high ranking members of China’s aristocracy.
Dao Xuan (596-667), the author of the Continued Biographies, was a brilliant and famous Buddhist monk
of the seventh century. He drew on different streams of Precepts School teachings and systemized them to create and lead the “South Mountain” Precepts School of Chinese Buddhism. He lived in the
Tang capital Chang An after the year 642. There he assisted the famous monk Xuan Zang in translating Buddhist scriptures that the latter had brought back from India. During around the same period Dao
Xuan authored the Continued Biographies, which categorized and described famous Buddhist teachers
starting from around the year 500 until his own era. Dao Xuan was not a monk of the Chan tradition, and his comments about Chan teachers are therefore often considered by scholars to be more objective than the Chan histories created within the Chan tradition itself.
In his Continued Biographies Dao Xuan wrote about monks of then different schools of Buddhism. After the section on Chan monks he wrote an appendix concerning the Chan School. It summarizes Dao Xuan’s view of the Chan tradition at that point in China’s history. He discusses the Chan’s School’s history in some detail, making some critical comments, but also describing the great popularity of Chan and its well known teachers. Regarding Bodhidharma’s apparently widely known mission in China, he says “*A teacher+ of this type was Bodhidharma, who’s transcendent teaching he proselytized in the Yang-tse and Luoyang [regions]. [属有菩提达摩者。神化居宗阐导江洛]. [His practice of] Sitting gazing
at a wall being the highest meritorious practice of the Mahayana [大乘壁观功业最高]. In society those
who came to study with and honor him, taking refuge in his teachings, were [as numerous as] a city [在
世学流归仰如市]”. In another section of the Continued Biographies Dao Xuan provides a biography for
a monk named Fa Chong which refers to Bodhidharma’s teachings, saying, “Later, Chan Master Bodhidharma spread this teaching to the north and south” *于后达磨禅师传之南北]。 These and
other accounts indicate that Bodhidharma’s influence was not limited to the area around Luoyang but stretched at least to the region of the Yang-tse River. The Chinese scholar Hu Shi proposed that Bodhidharma’s spent only limited time in the south of the country before he traveled north to the
viLuoyang area. He points out that Bodhidharma would have needed time to learn Chinese and thus did not likely carry out widespread teaching until he traveled north. However, if Bodhidharma did not return south after living in Luoyang, Dr. Hu Shi’s conclusion contradicts the aforementioned passages from the Continued Biographies that says he spread his teaching “in the Yang-tse and Luoyang” regions. If
Bodhidharma arrived in China around 460, he would have ample time to meet Gunabhadra, learn to speak Chinese fluently, and begin teaching in the Yang-tse River area before traveling north to Luoyang. However, we have no record that this occurred. Without any clear evidence on Bodhidharma’s actions during this time we can’t draw firm conclusions. We are left with the fact that his disciples joined him around Luoyang, and therefore he likely did not teach extensively before arriving in that area. In his appendix to “Chan Practitioners” in the Continued Biographies, Dao Xuan makes an intriguing
statement. He writes that Bodhidharma “Did not stay in places of imperial sway, and those who loved to see him could not draw him to them.” [帝网之所不拘。爱见莫之能引]. This statement by Dao Xuan
describes an important facet about Bodhidharma’s life. His legendary brief meeting with Emperor Wu
notwithstanding, there is no record to indicate he sought out contact with the imperial, or a lesser, royal court during his years in China. Bodhidharma seems to have regarded the court as dangerous to his religious mission. He was a teacher well known in his own era, an individual who “spread *his teachings+ to the Yang-tse and Luoyang,” yet unlike other foreign priests who came to China, he did not curry favor with China’s emperors. His behavior is in contrast to foreign priests during the Liang Dynasty who
actively sought Emperor Wu’s support, including Samghapala *僧伽婆罗] ( in China circa 495-524), and
Paramartha [波罗末陀 or 真谛] (arrived China in 546 and died 569).
The Luoyang Region 485?-497?
Although the Continued Biographies indicates that Bodhidharma’s teachings were widespread in China,
the text only indicates his location during a period of five to ten years, from approximately 485-495. It was at this time that he we know he taught a few disciples in the area around Luoyang. The Continued
Biographies, in its story of Bodhidharma’s oldest disciple Seng Fu, states that that disciple departed the Luoyang area during the Jian Wu era, (494-7) and made his way to Nanjing. [齊建武年南遊楊輦] Later
in the same biography, Seng Fu is said to have died at Kai Shan Temple [in Nanjing] at the age of sixty-one, in the year 524. *…卒於開善寺春秋六十有一。即普通五年也]. Thus we can deduce that Seng Fu
was about 31 years old when he left Luoyang to travel to Nanjing during the period 494-7. Working backward, this indicates he studied under Bodhidharma when he was in his twenties. The record in the Continued Biographies for Bodhidharma’s more famous disciple, Hui Ke, raises some
questions about his age and whereabouts during different times of his life. Both the Continued
Biographies and later records indicate that upon meeting Bodhidharma, Hui Ke was already forty years old. Dr. Yang Xiaotian points out that the Record of the Lankavatara Masters, written in 708, says that
Hui Ke was only fourteen when he met Bodhidharma. Yang suggests that the Continued Biographies
record was the result of reversing the order of the characters of his age, and thereafter the mistake was copied in later records. Despite this error, according to Yang, the Record of the Lankavatara Masters
listed Hui Ke’s correct age. Based on this Yang suggests that Hui Ke met Bodhidharma at the age of 14 in the year 490. Yang further proposes that Hui Ke died in the year 482 at the age of 107. This timeline of Hui Ke’s life conforms to a believable life expectancy for Hui Ke. For if he was already 40 years old upon meeting Bodhidharma in the year 490 and died, as traditional sources tell us, in 592, he would have been over 140 years old. Despite the longevity attributed to many Chan masters this seems unlikely. Dr. Yang’s argument is worth considering. According to the Continued Biographies, Hui Ke met
Bodhidharma around the year 490 and studied with him for six years.
Because Bodhidharma taught his disciples in the Luoyang area of the Northern Wei around the years 490 to 494, and he ultimately died in that area, most scholars have assumed that he did not leave that area after the year 494. However, I think the passage stating that he taught in “Luoyang and the Yang-
tse *regions+,” and similar historical statements call for a closer review of the evidence.
The Northern Wei emperor Xiao Wen (ruled 471-499) was deeply involved with Buddhism. He famously commissioned the Buddhist sculptures of the Yun Gang and Long Men Grottos, sponsored the building of Chan temples, including Shao Lin Temple on Mt. Song, and entertained learned debates and discourse among Buddhist monks on questions of doctrine. The Chinese scholar Tang Yongtong (1893—1964), in
his landmark book Buddhist History of the Han, Wei, Jin, and North-South Dynasties 《汉魏两晋南北朝
佛教史》 offers extensive evidence of how doctrinal disputes based on different translations and
viiinterpretations of Buddhist sutras were widespread during Bodhidharma’s lifetime. The conflict
between competing factions was sometimes acute. Yang Xiaotian also offers evidence of such doctrinal conflicts. Naturally, some factions wishing to advance their own positions with the imperial court had reason to defend their own doctrines and criticize others. It was during this contentious period that Bodhidharma lived in the Mt. Song/Luoyang area during the period 486-495.
Dr. Yang Xiaotian points out that a critical event happened in 494 that may have precipitated Bodhidharma leaving the Luoyang area along with his disciples. In that year the imperial capital of the Northern Wei moved from the northern city of Ping Cheng to Luoyang, the ancient seat of Chinese governments near the Yellow River. Emperor Xiao Wen, along with his court and favored Buddhist priests, suddenly relocated to the place near where Bodhidharma lived and taught. Priests who were known and favored by the Wei court came south to Luoyang with their sovereign. These included Dao Deng, the Emperor’s personal teacher, Seng Yi, who headed the Buddhist community in Ping Cheng,
Fotuo a well-known foreign monk who established monasteries sponsored by the court, plus other high ranking monks who were doctrinally at odds with Bodhidharma’s teachings. Emperor Xiao Wen was devoted to the wide dissemination of Buddhist doctrinal teachings based of different sutras. He organized the clergy for the purpose of supporting and spreading sutra study. Tang Yongtong quotes an imperial edict entitled “Edict Commanding Monks of All Provinces to Expound Sutras During the Summer
Ango” *令诸州众僧安居讲说诏+ that reads, “It is ordered that *the expounding of sutras will occur+ in every province during the Buddhist clergy’s summer ango *practice period+. In each large province there will be three hundred monks, in mid-size provinces two hundred monks, and in small provinces one
viiihundred monks, all dedicated to expounding sutras *for the public+.”
Moreover, during the Northern Wei Dynasty there were rebel Buddhist monks who opposed the religious establishment. Such monks led rebellions against the throne with surprising frequency. Uprisings occurred in the years 473, 481, and again in 490, the latter occurring not long before Xiao
ixWen’s court moved from Ping Cheng to Luoyang. Such rebellions were couched in religious rhetoric
that claimed they represented the true meaning of the Buddhist faith. The leader of the rebellion in the year 490, a monk named Sima Hui-e [司马惠御] declared himself to be a Buddhist messiah [自称圣王]
xbefore his revolt was brutally crushed and he was executed by the authorities. Naturally, the emperor
and Buddhist establishment wanted to forestall any reoccurrence of such problems, and monks who operated outside the control of the court, especially those with a large following, most certainly were regarded as dangerous. When the imperial court moved from Ping Cheng to Luoyang, many people who had reason to criticize or even persecute Bodhidharma were moving into his neighborhood. This conforms with the “many criticisms” leveled against him reported in the Continued Biographies. Dr. Yang
Xiaotian proposes that this atmosphere contributed to a decision by Bodhidharma to move away from Luoyang. This proposal has evidence to support it.
The Continued Biographies tells the story of one of Bodhidharma’s disciples named Seng Fu. His biography relates that he was born in Taiyuan and “went everywhere looking for a teacher but was
unable to find one” [遊無遠近。裹糧尋師訪所不逮]. Eventually he met Bodhidharma who was
“famous for his practice of observing (mind)” *有達摩禪師。善明觀行+. Seng Fu “roamed the peaks
and caves to find Bodhidharma and query him about the profound doctrine” *循擾巖穴言問深博]. Seng
Fu formally became Bodhidharma’s student, and thereafter is said to have “no longer asked about points of doctrine *sutra studies+ and embraced *Bodhidharma’s+ single practice, strictly devoted to
practicing the Samadhi path” *義無再問一貫懷抱尋端極為定學宗焉].
Notice that Seng Fu’s biography says that he sought out Bodhidharma in “peaks and caves.” During this period (about 486-90) Shao Lin Temple was not officially established. However, its ultimate location, Mt. Song, was already long the “central peak” of the sacred mountains in China. Within its wide geographical area some important Buddhist and Taoist temples already existed, including Fa Wang (Dharma King) temple. Geographically, Mt. Song encompasses several peaks and valleys. It is possible that here, during the decade before Shao Lin Temple was established, Bodhidharma had already begun sitting in his famous cave on Mt. Song and there taught his students. Perhaps he actually did live and teach at the place where a hermitage now bears his name, a place about one mile from where Shao Lin Temple was established. This would have been a natural place for a foreign holy man to establish his practice in that era. Could the impending construction of Shao Lin Temple have caused Bodhidharma and his monks to leave? Dr. Yang Xiaotian points out that if Bodhidharma arrived at Mt. Song in 486 and departed in 495, the time would correspond with the traditional “nine years” of sitting in meditation that the Chan
credits Bodhidharma to have spent on Mt. Song.
The Continued Biographies account of the
life of Bodhidharma’s disciple Seng Fu offers
more tantalizing clues concerning the
movements of Bodhidharma and his
disciples. It states that in the Jian Wu Era
(494-7) Seng Fu left the Luoyang area and
traveled to live at Nanjing, then the capital
of the Qi dynasty that ruled in the south of
the country [齊建武年南遊楊輦]. There he
took up residence at Lower Samadhi Forest
Temple on Mt. Zhong, a mountain at the
northeast outskirts of the city, because he
“delighted in *Mt. Zhong’s+ forest and
lakes”* 副美其林藪]. What is surprising is
the very close proximity of Mt. Zhong to the
imperial palace of the Qi Dynasty, which
shortly thereafter, in the year 502, would
become the home of the new emperor Xiao
Yan, known to history as Emperor Liang Wu
Di. The Continued Biographies thus clearly
indicates that Bodhidharma’s senior disciple
established himself at a temple only a few
thousand meters away from Emperor Wu’s
The Continued Biographies holds other interesting information concerning Bodhidharma’s disciple Seng Fu and Emperor Wu. The record says that Seng Fu’s lifestyle was that of a simple monk, his possessions
consisting of the “three garments and six items, and nothing more” *三衣六物外無盈長] used by monks
of ancient times. This simple lifestyle and modesty earned Seng Fu praise from Emperor Wu’s imperial household, including from the emperor himself. The record says that Emperor Wu invited Seng Fu to come and address the court, but Seng Fu steadfastly refused. Is this refusal a reflection of his teacher Bodhidharma’s attitude about avoiding royalty? Also, Seng Fu’s refusal to visit Emperor Wu’s court seems to have only enhanced his reputation. The record relates that Emperor Wu prepared special quarters at Kai Shan temple for Seng Fu to enjoy. Seng Fu eventually died at Kai Shan Temple in the year 524. The same records says that upon his death, Emperor Wu was grief stricken, bestowing posthumous gifts to Bodhidharma’s disciple *天子哀焉。下敕流贈+. The emperor’s eldest child, Princess Yong Xing,
asked the Crown Prince Zhao Ming to compose a letter of “taking refuge” with Seng Fu. [而永興公主素
有歸信。進啟東宮請著其文]. Note that the term “Eastern Palace” (东宫) in this instance means
“crown prince” and is not referring to the well known “Eastern Palace” of Emperor Wu’s palace layout.
The ramifications of this old record in the Continued Biographies require consideration in more detail. It
describes close geographical proximity between Bodhidharma’s most senior disciple and Emperor Wu. It relates that Emperor Wu honored Seng Fu highly, and both Emperor Wu and his family paid great respect to Seng Fu upon his death. It indicates that Seng Fu lived on Mt. Zhong for a significant portion of an approximately twenty seven year period (497-524) but he declined to visit Emperor Wu’s court,
even though it was within easy walking distance from the temples where Seng Fu lived. Indeed, Emperor
Wu’s Tai Cheng Palace was readily viewable from the slopes of Mt. Zhong.
This account raises many questions, but there are two that come immediately to mind. First, why would Seng Fu not visit the Tai Cheng Palace? Second, what was it about Seng Fu, aside from his admirably simple lifestyle, that caused Emperor Wu to respect him so greatly? To appreciate the importance of these and related questions more deeply, we should first review a brief history of Emperor Wu of Liang and his court.
Emperor Wu, whose personal name was Xiao Yan, attained power in the year 502 after leading a successful rebellion against the Qi Dynasty Emperor Xiao Baojuan (ruled 498-502). Baojuan’s rule was
characterized by his personal debauchery and mindless executions of honest court officials and commoners. Though still in his teens, Baojuan was an unstable, dangerous individual who managed to put down two major rebellions prior to Xiao Yan’s successful campaign against him. Xiao Yan, an aristocrat with a heroic military record in campaigns against the Northern Wei Dynasty, led a group of disaffected officials in a skilled psychological and military campaign to unseat the tyrant on the throne. During about the first ten years or so of Xiao Yan’s rule, he gradually embraced the teaching of
Buddhism. Sometime around the middle of the Tian Lan Period (502-519) he became a vegetarian and ceased “entering the women’s quarters” ( i.e. the chambers of the imperial concubines) *不食鱼肉(
xi不近女人] . Very early in his rule, Emperor Wu began constructing new Buddhist temples, partly to honor his deceased mother and father, but also to promulgate Buddhist teachings in his empire. The scope of such building became very extensive and a drain on the resources of the country. Emperor Wu entertained and supported many Buddhist priests and regularly consulted with them about points of religious doctrine and sutra study. The emperor personally wrote commentaries about various sutras
and held large public ordination ceremonies at the temples on Mt. Zhong. The emperor’s oldest son and
Crown Prince, Zhao Ming, was heavily tutored in Buddhist and Confucian literature. Xiao Yan utilized the “Eastern Palace,” a building inside the palace compound, to entertain high ranking Buddhist monks and
listen to their teachings. There, with Zhao Ming’s participation, many famous monks of the day
instructed Emperor Wu about Buddhist doctrines.
The seriousness with which Emperor Wu embraced Buddhism may be seen from the fact that in 419 he formally “left home” by taking the Bodhisattva Precepts in a grand public ceremony. This event occurred in a large garden at the rear of the palace named Hua Lin (Flowered Woods) where the emperor received the precepts along with other members of the aristocracy in a ceremony celebrated by “48,000 people.” Historical accounts indicate that Emperor Wu “left home” in this manner three more times. On each such occasion, the aristocracy was forced to “ransom” the emperor back to his throne by paying large sums to support Buddhist construction projects. The emperor lived in a single room without furniture at the rear of the palace, sleeping on a plain mat on the ground, and spending
xii much of his time studying scriptures.
The “Eastern Palace,” which comprised a group of halls within the Tai Cheng Palace perimeter, was the
great intellectual salon of the age. High ranking monks and literary figures spoke there, and it was the scene of “pure conversation,” *清谈] discussions among learned individuals from different traditions
undertaken for the pleasure of the court. Emperor Wu and his son Xiao Tong sought out not only the high Chinese monks of the realm to visit the Eastern Palace, but foreign monks as well. The Book of
Liang describes Xiao Tong’s activities as a Buddhist believer and an organizer of speaking events by
monks. “The Crown Prince honored and was devoted to the Three Treasures, studying a great number of sutras. Within the palace he established the ‘Wisdom Hall’ as a special place for Dharma assemblies.
He invited famous monks *there+ and their discussions went on endlessly” *太子亦崇信三宝(遍览众
The Tai Cheng Palace thus served as a location for the famous activities of Xiao Yan’s son, Xiao Tong, known to posterity as Prince Zhao Ming [昭明太子]. The Book of Liang relates how this young individual,
before his untimely death at the age of 30 in 531, attained fame as a compiler of China’s growing literary heritage, collecting and editing twelve volumes of prose and poetry from past ages, organizing them in over a hundred categories, and providing commentaries on them. This body of literature was later called the “Prince Zhao Ming Anthology” and is regarded China’s first major literary anthology and work of literary criticism. Emperor Wu and his son collected thousands of volumes of Chinese and Buddhist literature that were kept in a grand library. Xiao Tong also studied and wrote poetry of which many examples remain. Like his father, the young prince wrote learned commentaries on sutras. In his short
xivlifetime, Emperor Wu’s son Xiao Tong became a major literary figure. Upon his tragic death by illness
in 531, the Book of Liang describes his stricken father’s deep grief, quoting him to say, “What command
xvcan I give so that you can understand how grievous this loss is to me? [云何令至尊知我如此恶]”
Emperor Wu’s long rule, from 502 to 549, saw an intimate connection between Buddhism and the Imperial throne hardly matched by any other era of Chinese history. Xiao Yan was called the “Bodhisattva Emperor,” and he personally expounded from Buddhist scriptures to large convocations of
aristocrats and commoners at Tong Tai Temple and specially built platforms on Mt. Zhong. He wrote his own commentaries on sutras and expounded these in public as well.
In such an environment, it is all the more fascinating that Bodhidharma’s senior disciple declined to visit the Tai Cheng Palace. Avoiding the court’s invitation in such a manner, while a number of other high priests came from distant lands to visit there, is remarkable. On the other hand, Seng Fu was not a recluse who avoided all public contact. The Continued Biographies indicates that he was honored as a
model of virtue by the public. Moreover, he accepted an invitation from the Emperor’s elder brother, the Marquis of Chang Hou, to travel to and live in distant Sichuan, far up the Yang-tse River from Nanjing. Seng Fu left Nanjing and traveled to Sichuan, staying there for an extended time. There he visited sacred Mt. Emei and is said to have “established the Chan School” *遂使庸蜀禪法自此大行]. After
some time he returned to Nanjing [久之還返金陵].
Why did Emperor Wu, someone with many eminent monks to grace his court, pay special honors to a monk who never set foot there? Was it because Seng Fu’s teacher, Bodhidharma, was already widely known and honored? We have already examined reasons why Bodhidharma himself likely avoided contact with ruling circles who valued doctrinal discussions. It seems his eldest disciple followed his teacher’s example in his attitude toward the court.
Bodhidharma’s Location between the Years 494 and 524
The only early text that might directly indicate Bodhidharma’s location after 494 is the Record of the
Temples of Luoyang [洛阳伽蓝记] composed by the official Yang Xuanzhi around the year 547. This
record offers visual descriptions of the temples of Luoyang written more than a decade after their nearly complete destruction during the war that divided the Wei Dynasty into eastern and western parts. Yang Xuanzhi’s motive for writing the book may have been partly to criticize the extravagance spent upon the
lost temples, but the account is also a remembrance of the glory of Luoyang following the time when Emperor Xiao Wen moved his court to that city.
The first temple described in Yang Xuanzhi’s account is Yong Ning Temple, a grand landmark positioned
close to the Wei Dynasty imperial palace. After describing the grandeur of the temple, the record quotes a monk from “western regions” *西域] named Bodhidharma who made exclamations in praise of the
temple’s beauty, saying, “’I am one hundred and fifty years old and have traveled through many
countries and there’s nowhere I haven’t been. Yet *behold+ the beauty of this temple! Nothing like it can be found in Yan Fu [a mythical southern continent in Buddhism]. Throughout the Buddha Realm, there is nothing else like this!’ He chanted ‘namu’ with his hands together for days on end” [“自云:
Dr. Yang Xiaotian argues that the monk in this record was probably not the same Bodhidharma that is credited to be the first ancestor of the Chan tradition. Yang and others have pointed out incongruities in this record of Bodhidharma that make it unlikely that he was the individual quoted here. The monk is said to be from “western regions.” While this statement might literally include the area of Southern