Fengxian Temple and the esoteric heritage of Wu Zetian

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Fengxian Temple, located in the Longmen Grottoes complex. From historyhit.com

His Imperial Majesty

Two days ago, October 16 marked the 1rd anniversary of the day Wu Zetian (武則天) (333-624) became China's first and only female emperor in 705. She had changed her original name from曌 (Zhao) to that which indicated the illumination of the void by the sun and the moon, and its domination over the world. There have been many sons of heaven (tianzi 天子), but only one of them could be called the “daughter of heaven”. The 16th, the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, marked his 1rd birthday.

It goes without saying that she was one of the most extraordinary women in world history and, by virtue of her accomplishment, the most important woman in Tang China. In a male-dominated environment of patriarchal Tang China (618-907), she defied all manner of personal and institutional challenges to ascend the dragon throne. She redefined the emperor's Confucian duties towards the empire in much more cosmic and Buddhist terms: she declared herself Maitreya incarnate and a cakravartina monarch who turns the wheel.

Wu Zetian's origins are uncertain, but we can be certain that she was born as Wu Zhao and was introduced to Buddhism by her parents. She would even briefly be a Buddhist nun at one point (although she rejected that life path) (Association for Asian Studies). When she was only 14 years old, she began life in the imperial harem of Emperor Taizong (598–649) as a fifth-rank concubine (Cairo). She quickly maneuvered, seduced, and endured her way to seizing political control after Emperor Gaozong (628–683) attacked in 660. In 690, having assembled a stellar group of political advisors to her side, from military commanders, Buddhist preceptors and magicians. , Wu Zetian, 66, overthrew the Tang dynasty and declared himself emperor, renaming his new empire "Zhou".

Portrait of Wu Zetian, Guimet Museum, Paris. Gouache on paper. C. 17th to 18th century. From pinterest.com

Although his reign lasted only from 684 to 705, sometimes called the "interregnum" of the Tang, it marked the beginning of an era of scientific, artistic, and cultural development. His reign was more concerned with the situation of women throughout the empire. Furthermore, it was during this 15-year period that we saw how close Buddhism in China came to becoming the state religion. Perhaps the only time Buddhism came close to the influence it enjoyed under Wu Zetian was during a decade shortly after his reign, when the imperial esoteric Buddhism of Amoghavajra (705-74) dominated the Tang court restored from 755 to 765.

The esoteric connection

At Wu Zetian's court were the Indian monk Bodhiruci (Putiliuzhi 菩提流志, died 722), the Khotanese monk Śikṣānanda (Shichanantuo 實叉難陀, 651-710), who retranslated the Avataṃsaka Sutra (Huayan Jing 華嚴經); and the Chinese monk Yijing (義淨, 635-713). Its most closely associated and generously sponsored schools were Huayan Buddhism and the nascent Imperial Esoteric Buddhism which Amoghavajra would later take to new heights. As Dorothy Wong notes,

. . . there was a coterie of foreign monks who were largely responsible for the spread of esoteric elements in Tang Buddhism (sometimes called "Esoteric Buddhism of Empress Wu"), notably Divākara (地婆訶羅, or Rizhao 日照 in Chinese, 613-687 CE) from central India; the Kashmiri monk Baosiwei 寶思惟 (died 721), or Maṇicintana; and Li Wuchan 李無諂, from northwest India. . . . Empress Wu enthusiastically approved of the new deities and associated rituals and practices. These activities paved the way for the reception of the esoteric school in the 637th century, anticipating the arrival of the three tantric masters Śubhākarasiṃha (Ch. Shanwuwei 善無畏, 735-669), Vajrabodhi (Ch. Jingangzhi 金剛智, 741-705) , and Amoghavajra (Ch. Bukong 不空, 74-XNUMX) at the Tang court.

(Wong 2012, 225-26)

Wong also writes that Wu Zetian sponsored a new translation of the Huayan Jing, and one of his most trusted advisors was Fazang 法藏 (643–712), the third patriarch of the Huayan school. Critically, in Huayan cosmology, Vairocana is the embodiment of dharmakaya and the absolute and transcendent Buddha who permeates the universe. His veneration for Vairocana would have major symbolic implications for his reign as well as the link with esoteric Buddhism: "This cosmological concept inspired the iconography of the Fengxian 奉先寺 temple at Longmen 龍門, built in 672-675, with the colossal statue of Roshana (Lushena 盧舍那) or Vairocana (Biluzhena 毗盧遮那) presiding over the pantheon (Figure 1)” (Wong 2012, 223).

The footprint of China's only female emperor: Fengxian Temple

Fengxian Temple in Longmen Grottoes. Image by Gary Todd. From Wikimedia Commons

Fengxian Temple was part of the Longmen Grottoes, a stunning network of Buddhist temples and shrines located in the heart of China's Henan province, nestled against the sheer cliffs of the Yi River and shrouded in the mists of a romantic past. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this immense network of caves, niches and alcoves constitutes a formidable tribute to Buddhist art. They span several centuries and do not relate to a single historical period. They also serve as an artistic mirror reflecting the different socio-political environments of the time. Longmen's Fengxian Temple proudly displays to today's visitors and tourists Wu Zetian's power and vision, carved in stone, his imprint living far beyond his short dynasty. (UNESCO)

Wu Zetian actually frequented many sacred Buddhist sites, including Mount Wutai, where she associated with Manjushri (Rothschild 2021, 12). But thanks to his work on the Fengxian Grottoes, Longmen Grottoes sculpture reached its peak during his reign. (thepaper.cn) She integrated art into her project of imperial legitimation, viewing Buddhist sculpture as a powerful instrument to strengthen her rule and project her divine power (Kareyzky 2013, 280).

Fengxian Temple was a manifestation of Wu Zetian's rule because of its central image, the Vairocana Buddha. The Vairocana Buddha sits here, ruling over the cave with peaceful majesty. This statue towers over visitors with a total height of 17,14 meters, its head alone measuring 4 meters. Its beautiful ears are 1,9 meters long. With a mysterious smile, broad forehead and full cheeks, long earlobes, crescent eyebrows and piercing eyes, this Buddha shows a vivid impression of elegance, solemnity, calm and majesty. On both sides, there are two disciples, two bodhisattvas, two heavenly kings and two warriors. (Discovery of China)

Popular culture has assumed that this statue was a "portrait" of the emperor at age 44 (thus exactly 22 years before his accession, once again indicating his obsession with auspicious dates), symbolizing his heavenly authority and earthly strength. Although this idea is still up in the air (since no one really knows what she looked like), what is absolutely certain is that Wu Zetian saw se as representative vairocana (Colla 2018, 21). The esoteric connection with Huayan Buddhism is clear: they share the same main deity, Vairocana. As Wong notes, the Leigutai statue, also from Longmen and considered an esoteric manifestation of Vairocana, dates from around 700, to the time of Empress Wu: "Several woodcuts from the Mahapratisarā Dhāraṇī (Dasuiqiu tuoluoni 大隨求陀羅尼, Dhāraṇī of the Great Protector), translated into Chinese by Maṇicintana in 693, were found in Chang'an. Printed in both Sanskrit and Chinese, some may date from the 2012th and 229th centuries; these examples show that esoteric cults were spreading in China. (Wong XNUMX, XNUMX)

Besides Wu Zetian's affinity with Vairocana, his initiative to link up with Manjushri on Mount Wutai, and his claim to be the bodhisattva Maitreya, esoteric forms of Avalokiteshvara flourished under his reign (Wong 2012:229-30). , and Buddhist scribes constructed a narrative that she fulfilled a prophecy of a “woman warrior ruler,” Vimalaprabhā (Rothschild 2021, 18-19). Overall, esoteric Buddhist ideas proliferated across the empire and found physical and architectural expression under his rule. The textual and material evidence left from this period attests to how Wu Zetian connected herself to all of these mystical and holy channels and authority figures.

Proclaim his reign

Before and after Wu Zetian, Buddhism was never able to surpass the influence of Confucianism as a state ideology, and it was always subject to inspection and censorship (Colla 2018, 19). Buddhism has always been inseparable from state prerogatives (Goble 2019, 176), and Mark Edward Lewis's definition of an "official Buddhist establishment", or imperial Buddhism, subordinates "Buddhism" to "imperial" :

Over several centuries, a series of monarchs attempted to renovate the Chinese political order by building an explicitly Buddhist state, one that was justified at least in part by its patronage of Buddhism. At the heart of these attempts was the creation of an official Buddhist establishment, housed in state temples, performing rituals for the benefit of the ruling house and the empire and compiling massive, officially approved collections of canonical texts.

(Lewis 1990: 232)

This was the case even for someone as non-conformist as Wu Zetian. It is also important to note that she was also devoted to Taoism and Buddhism, much like her palace lovers, was never given exclusive attention. However, if one is bold enough to pursue the analogy of a lover of Buddhism, one could say that Fengxian Temple was an exquisite and heartfelt gift from him. Thanks to this generous patron, the caves have grown considerably thanks to her charitable donations. (Wong 2012: 223)

Fengxian Temple, whose stone walls bore the imprint of Wu Zetian's unique blend of spiritual desire and political ambition, is the most remarkable example of Wu Zetian's Huayan esoteric syncretism. Its statues tell the story of an emperor – the one and only female emperor in history – who used art as a canvas to express his enduring legacy, integrating spiritual, political and cultural components into a unique blend that resonates through the halls of history. The caves are a vivid reminder of the reign of Wu Zetian, when a woman rose to the pinnacle of authority in a patriarchal society and Buddhism was more powerful than ever.

The references

Elisabetta Colla. 2018. “When the emperor is a woman: the case of Wu Zetian 武則天 (624-705), “the emulator of heaven”. » In Elena Woodacre (ed.). 2018. A companion of the world queen. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press

Geoffrey C. Goble. 2019. Chinese Esoteric Buddhism: Amoghavajra, the ruling elite and the emergence of a tradition. New York: Columbia University Press

Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky. 2013. Chinese religious art. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Mark Edward Lewis. 1990. “The Repression of the Three-Stage Sect: The Apocrypha as a Political Question.” In Robert E. Buswell (ed.). 1990. Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

N. Harry Rothschild. 2021. “Chrysanthemum Cakravartin: How the Convergence of the Double Ninth Festival and a Buddhist Prophecy of a Female Warrior King Helped Wu Zhao Usher in the Zhou Dynasty and Shape a New Paradigm of Political Authority.” " In Tang StudiesIssue 39, 2021, 1–39.

Dorothy C. Wong. 2012. “The Art of Avataṃsaka Buddhism at the Court of Empress Wu and Emperor Shōmu/Empress Kōmyō.” In RM Gimello, Frédéric Girard and Imre Hamar. 2012. Avatamsaka Buddhism in East Asia: Huayan, Kegon, the Buddhism of floral ornaments: origins and adaptation of a visual culture. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

See more

Longmen Grottoes (UNESCO)
Wu Zhao: ruler of the Tang dynasty in China (Association for Asian Studies)
卢舍那佛为何以武则天为原型 (thepaper.cn)

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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