Millenarianism Pt. 3: Mahayana Rebellion of 515

My last post dealt with the intersection of traditional religion and social struggles in Cambodia. When dealing with these kind of topics, one must be careful not to adopt an overly secularized narrative of events: religion may provide inspiration or justification for political interests, but it is not solely a political tool. At the same time, religious-inspired rebellions erupt out of specific social contexts, and should not be dismissed as merely “superstitious” or “crazy.”

One example of a nuanced examination of these kinds of questions is Yang Shao-yun’s essay “Making Sense of Messianism: Buddhist Political Ideology in the Mahayana Rebellion and the Moonlight Child Incident of Early Sixth-Century China.”

This essay deals with a Buddhist revolt in the early 500’s, during “the second phase of the Age of Fragmentation, known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties – south China was ruled by a series of Han Chinese dynasties-in-exile, which engaged in frequent warfare with dynasties founded by ‘barbarian’ peoples who had seized control of the north” (Yang 1).

The Mayahana Rebellion, which should not be confused with the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, was launched by an alliance between a monk, a nobleman, and up to 50,000 rebels:

The Mahayana Rebellion broke out in the late summer of 515, when a renegade monk named Faqing married a nun and formed a sect in the Northern Wei province of Jizhou (in the southern part of today’s Hebei province) with the assistance of a local aristocrat named Li Guibo. The sect was named the Mahayana (dacheng: ‘Great Vehicle’, a term usually referring to the Bodhisattva-oriented branch of Buddhism practiced in East Asia), and Li Guibo was given the titles of Tenth-stage Bodhisattva, Commander of the Demon-vanquishing Army, and King who Pacifies the Land of Han by Faqing.

Using drugs to send its members into a killing frenzy, and promoting them to Tenth-Stage Bodhisattva as soon as they killed ten enemies, the Mahayana sect seized a commandery and murdered all the government officials in it. Their slogan was “A new Buddha has entered the world; eradicate the demons of the former age,” and they would kill all monks and nuns in the monasteries that they captured, also burning all the sutras and icons. After defeating a government army and growing to a size of over 50,000, the rebel army was finally crushed by another government army of 100,000. (2)

The secularist interpretation of this rebellion, popular with Marxists, actually started with Confucian historians:

Most historians, starting from the Confucians who wrote the dynastic histories, have preferred to regard the monks who led these rebellions as not truly motivated by religion, but rather using a distorted form of religion to “delude” (huo) ignorant and superstitious people and thus gain adherents. Even sympathetic historians of Buddhism like Tang Yongtong, Tsukamoto and Ch’en deny that such rebellions or “religious banditry” had anything to do with true Buddhism, because of their idealised assumption that true Buddhists would never resort to violence. (7)

The Confucians tend to focus on the “distortion” of “genuine” religion, while the Marxists see heterodox religion as an “ideological tool to mobilize the peasantry for class warfare against both the imperial government and the corrupt monastic establishment” (Yang 7). The Marxist historian Tang Changru, for example, argued that “the rebelling masses did away with the central doctrine of these religious teachings – namely, obedience and longsuffering and faith in the afterlife and reincarnation… Even though their activities could not be free of religious superstition, what they did was essentially a betrayal of Buddhism” (qtd. in Yang 3-4). Yang, however, points out the flaws with this kind of theory:

Purely secular or materialist explanations of an event like the Mahayana Rebellion ultimately fail to stand up to scrutiny, because they cannot provide satisfactory evidence that an insurrectionary alliance between a monk, an aristocratic family, and thousands of peasants would be possible without a politico-religious ideology that could appeal to all involved. Simply assuming that ignorant and starving peasants would be taken in by a messianic prophecy underestimates the need for such messianic beliefs to be deeply rooted in their worldview, and seeing the aristocrats as aiming only for political power begs the question of why Li Guibo would proclaim Faqing as his Master, rather than his religious advisor. One would also need to explain why Li Guibo assumed the identity of both a Bodhisattva and a king. (9)

Mandala of the 6 Chakravartins. Public domain.

Tibetan Mandala of the 6 Chakravartins. Public domain.

On the other hand, one cannot separate political implications from “pure” religion, either. Yang examines the long history of Buddhism as a source of political legitimacy for kings and would-be-kings (AKA rebels) alike:

The first recorded use of a Buddhist motif in a Chinese rebel ideology has escaped the notice of scholars, but is particularly interesting as an illustration of the syncretism that resulted when what Muramatsu called “a substratum of indigenous tradition” was “modified but not radically changed” by “accretions” of foreign religions. Around 336, in the northern kingdom known to historians as the Later Zhao, a handsome man named Hou Ziguang (or Liu Guang according to another source) called himself the Buddha Crown Prince (fo taizi) and claimed to have come from the kingdom of Greater Qin (daqin guo, a Chinese name for the Roman Empire) to become king of Lesser Qin (xiaoqin guo, Qin being a name by which China was known). He then changed his name to Li Ziyang and […] took the title of Great Yellow Emperor (da huangdi) and the reign title of Longxing (ascendant dragon). […]

‘Li Ziyang’ associated himself with some of the most powerful motifs in the politico-religious culture of the time: the myth of Greater Qin where the people were said to appoint a virtuous man to replace the reigning king whenever a crisis or disaster occurred; the significance of Laozi’s supposed surname Li in Daoist messianism; prophecies about the future; the Yellow Emperor, legendary sage- king and progenitor of the Chinese people; and the ascendant dragon representing a new ruler. […] But Li’s innovation lay in trying to draw on Buddhist political ideology through the title Buddha Crown Prince, at a time when the Zhao ruler himself was beginning to use the same kind of ideology. (15)


Finally, nowhere are politics and religion more closely intertwined than in eschatology. Deriving from the Greek eskhatos meaning “last, furthest, uttermost, extreme, most remote,” eschatology is “the study of the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, hell).” When one is concerned with the “end times,” every political event becomes a “sign of the times,” a symptom or an omen of what is to come.

Chinese eschatologies are complex, with elements of both Buddhism and Daoism:

The history of interactions between Buddhism and Daoism is a huge topic that cannot be explored in depth here, but it should suffice to say that several Daoist sects of the Han dynasty and Age of Fragmentation had teachings about a coming apocalypse in which a messianic figure would appear to bring the “chosen people” to heaven, renew the universe, and then establish a perfect kingdom on earth. Muramatsu expressed the theory that these sects had adopted the Buddhist eschatological notion of a kalpa – a recurring cycle of creation and destruction of the universe, called a jie in Chinese.

Zurcher, however, holds the opposite view that Chinese Buddhism borrowed from a Daoist belief in numerous concurrent cosmic cycles that periodically coincide in a cataclysmic nodal point (hui or zhou), when the world will be afflicted by demon armies and natural disaster.

We may never be certain about which theory is correct, and in fact both may be true, because as Zurcher has eloquently observed, “at a lower level, and particularly among lay believers, the dividing lines become blurred, and it may well be that still further down, at the illiterate level which is now forever beyond our reach, the two traditions completely merged, like the hidden body of an iceberg of which we only see the two separate tips.”

Zurcher thus postulates an “intermediate zone” of ‘Buddho-Daoist hybridisation’ and ‘Buddho-Daoist eschatology’ at the popular level that “may have been more representative of Chinese Buddhism” than the canonical texts and ‘orthodox’ epigraphy would seem to convey. (13)

Maitreya, work of Mathura, 2nd Century CE. Public domain.

The Bodhisattva Maitreya, work of Mathura, 2nd Century CE. Public domain.

Erik Zurcher’s studies of later apocryphal Maitreyan sutras provides a crucial insight into the development of eschatological theories:

The major ‘reinterpretation’ of Maitreyanism that Zurcher observed in the apocryphal sutras was […] the placing of Maitreya’s advent not at the peak of the antarakalpa when the world is in a Golden Age, but at its nadir – “an imminent period of decay and misery”.

This was the crucial element transforming Maitreyanism from sanguine millenarianism to a militant “eschatological-messianic complex”, and while Zurcher sees Daoist influence as instrumental in introducing this element, he also links it to two other influential motifs within canonical Buddhism itself: the cakravartin monarch who rules the world at the time of Maitreya’s advent, and a prophecy about the eventual decline of Buddhism.

The last two chapters of this thesis will be concerned with examining these influences in relation to the Mahayana [Rebellion.] (14)

Yang traces the ideas of the cakravartin (also spelled chakravartin) back to its Indian roots:

The term cakravartin means ‘wheel-turning monarch’ in Sanskrit, and is translated as zhuanlun wang in Chinese. In Hindu mythology, the cakravartin is a universal ‘king of kings’, and Buddhism developed this into a world-monarch who ‘turns the wheel of the Buddhist law (Dharma)’.

It is prophesied in canonical sutras that Maitreya will appear during the reign of a cakravartin named Sankha whose capital city is Ketumati (present-day Varanasi), during the middle peak of the next antarakalpa. Sankha will then renounce his throne and become a disciple of Maitreya, attaining enlightenment at one of the sermons under the naga tree.

It was generally believed that humanity was in the declining phase of the first antarakalpa, heading towards the nadir (with disasters, war and a ten-year lifespan) before entering a new cycle to progress towards the Golden Age of Sankha’s reign millions of years in the future. (17)

Sunrise on the Ganges, Varanasi. Credit: orvalrocheforte.

Sunrise on the Ganges, Varanasi. Credit: orvalrochefort.

The “prophecy about the eventual decline of Buddhism” is known as mofa:

The mofa motif was based on a pessimistic prophecy by Sakyamuni, recorded in numerous sutras, that the ‘true Dharma’ (zhengfa) would last for 500 years after his death, followed by 1,000 years of an inferior ‘semblance Dharma’ (xiangfa), after which the truth of Buddhism would be lost and enlightenment become unattainable. (20)

Yang notes that the violent anti-clericalism of the Mahayana Rebellion of 515 seems to prefigure the prophecies of the later apocryphal sutras:

While the Shenri jing and Dehuzhangzhe jing have optimistic predictions about a great king reviving the declining Dharma and converting China’s neighbouring peoples, and people everywhere becoming monks, the three ‘apocryphal’ sutras have a much darker view of the future – or perhaps the present.

The “way of [the Demon-king] Mara” will flourish, and the Sangha will degenerate into a decadent ‘demonic clergy’ who break all monastic rules, cannot understand the sutras, accumulate wealth, take serfs, allow slaves and fugitives into the Order, and expel all monks who remain pious. There are floods, droughts, famine, epidemics, and an oppressive government, and lifespans begin to shorten. […]

We can see clear traces of the Mahayana rebel ideology in these sutras, and the decadent Sangha/natural disasters scenario fits with conditions at the time. (20-1)

Yang ultimately concludes that the concept of the cakravartin had more to do with political legitimacy than with theology, but acknowledges that the eschatological concept of the mofa was the crucial link that united the disparate social classes involved in the Mahayana Rebellion:

The shared discourse of rulers and rebels was one of politico-religious ideology rather than eschatology per se, and as this ideology circulated downwards to the ‘popular level’, it was ‘distorted’ into a radically militant anti-clericalism that sanctioned the slaughter of monks and nuns as ‘demons’, the attainment of Bodhisattvahood through killing, and the burning of sutras – because the clear signs of degeneracy in the Sangha showed that the mofa had begun, and the slate had to be cleaned for a new Buddha and a new cakravartin. This distortion then diffused back upwards, to disenchanted monks like Faqing and pious aristocrats like Li Guibo. (22)

Dharma Wheel. Credit: Shazz, Esteban.barahona

Dharma Wheel. Credit: Shazz, Esteban.barahona.


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