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The Buddhist re-interpretation of the legends surrounding King Mu of Zhou.

King Mu of Zhou was subject to two different legendary traditions in classical Chinese sources. Both of these traditions were re-interpreted in Buddhism for the purposes of Chinese Buddhist apologetic thought. In this paper I will examine how these re-interpretations worked and in which Buddhist texts they are present.

King Mu of Zhou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: (modern dating according to Mathieu: 956-918 B.C.; traditional dating according to Mathews: 1001-946 B.C.)1 was the fifth king of the Western Zhou dynasty (1122-770 B.C.). Since early times, King Mu had been the subject of legends. Basically there are two different traditions. One can be extracted from the Mu tianzi zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Biography of the Heaven's Son Mu)2 and from the Zhushujinian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Bamboo Annals),3 and another one is found at the beginning of the Liezi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], chapter 3 (Graham 1960: 61-64). According to A. C. Graham, the present text of the Liezi was composed towards the end of the third century A.D. (Graham 1961: 197). So the Mu tianzi zhuan, dating back to 350 B.C. (Mathieu 1993: 342), and the Zhushujinian, dating back to 299 B.C. (Nivi-son 1993: 39-47), would appear to be the older sources.

In the Mu tianzi zhuan and in Zhushujinian, chapter "Zhouji" [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.], we read that King Mu in the seventeenth year of his reign traveled west to meet the Xiwang Mu [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] (Queen Mother of the West)4 at Mount Kunlun [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] (Fang 2008: 49ff.). In the Mu tianzi zhuan the banquet the Queen Mother held for King Mu is described. According to the description, the Queen Mother and King Mu at this occasion exchanged poems. In hers, the Queen Mother identifies herself as "the daughter of the Celestial emperor" (Yoshikawa 2008).

The account of King Mu given in Liezi, chapter 3, differs from the tradition in the Mu tianzi zhuan and in the Zhushujinian. In the Liezi, the main part of the story deals with King Mu becoming acquainted with a huaren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (magician), who guided King Mu on a spiritual journey to heavenly places described in the fashion of Daoist divine abodes. Only on the basis of the impact of this spiritual experience did King Mu undertake his worldly travels, such as the journey to the Queen Mother of the West.

So basically--with the traditions based on the Mu tianzi zhuan and on the Liezi--there are two different versions of the legend of King Mu, both of which were absorbed and reinterpreted by medieval Chinese Buddhism. In my monograph discussing the apologetic scriptures of the Buddhist Tang-monk Falin [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] (572-640; Julch 2011), I have touched upon the Buddhist reception of the older tradition based on the Mu tianzi zhuan. In the present paper I will analyze the role King Mu played in Buddhism, taking into account the reception of both traditions in a broader variety of Buddhist sources.

As explained above, according to the Mu tianzi zhuan, King Mu traveled to Western regions to meet the Queen Mother of the West. However, in sources of medieval Chinese Buddhism the story of King Mu traveling to the West is told in a different way. According to these sources, King Mu's journey was not motivated by the Queen Mother of the West, but by the Buddha. Since the Queen Mother's location and India, as the place where the Buddha appeared, were both imagined as being in the West, in the legendary tradition they could easily be exchanged. King Mu was thought of as a king incumbent during the lifetime of the Buddha. As we are told in various parts of Falin's apologetic scriptures, the parinirvana of the Buddha occurred on the fifteenth day of the second month in the fifty-second year of King Mu[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (T 2109, p. 481, b24-25). The earliest elaborate account of the story of King Mu traveling to the West to meet the Buddha is found in Falin's Poxie lun[??] (T 2109, p. 478, b6-28; Julch 2011: 168ff.). There it is related that King Mu saw unknown omens arising in the West, and was afraid that these indicated the arrival of a new shengren EA (sage ruler) who might terminate the dynasty of the Zhou. So together with his chancellor, the Marquis of Lu FifSfc, he undertook his journey to the West to meet his supposed opponent. However, in the fifty-second year of his rule the omens became graver. When he asked his adviser, Hu Duo /S^, he was told that the sage ruler in the West had entered nirvana. King Mu took it with relief, as he felt that his dynasty would no longer be endangered.

In Falin, as well as in most of the later references, this account is denoted as a quotation from the Zhoushu yiji Jnllf JifE. However in the present version of the Zhoushu yiji, this passage cannot be found.5 The tradition of King Mu traveling to the West because of omens appearing in connection with the Buddha became very famous in Buddhist literature. In Falin's own writings we find it mentioned more than once. In abridged versions it re-appears in a later section of the Poxie lun (T 2109, p. 485, a7-9; Julch 2011: 232) and in Falin's main work, the Bianzheng lun [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] (T 2110, p. 530, a21-24; Julch 2011: 558). It is also seen in the Xuji gujin Fodao lunheng MM^^i^MWM (T 2105, p. 398, a2-b2), and in the Fozu tongji $i'$l$iJ8&Juan 2 (T 2035, p. 142, c7-12), just to name a few examples. Prior to Falin, brief references to this story are seen in Lidai sanbaoji WiXlELll^, juan 1 and 12 (T 2034, S. 23, al8; T 2034, S. 104, c25-29; Julch 2011: 47).

The version of the King Mu legend presented in the Liezi has also been re-interpreted in Buddhism. In the Beishan lu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], juan 1, the account of King Mu given in the Liezi is quoted elaborately (T 2113, p. 578, a26-bl5). In a postscript the huaren or magician who guided King Mu on the spiritual journey is identified with the Buddha (T 2113, p. 578, bl5). In the Fayuan zhulin [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.], juan 14, we find a similar re-interpretation. Here it is said that the magician was in fact a combination of ManjusrI ~Xffl. and Maudgalyayana [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], while the heavenly abodes, being described as Daoist mystical palaces in the Liezi, were in fact locations where Buddha Kasyapa preached the dharma (T 2122, p. 394, b20-22). In abridged form, the latter pattern is repeated in Fozu tongji, juan 54. There we read merely "In the time of King Mu, ManjusrI and Maudgalyayana came from the West to [perform] magic on the king [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] (T 2035, p. 469, c29-p. 470, a2).

Interestingly, the Fozu tongji, in juan 34, has one section where both traditions regarding King Mu are brought together. In a passage designed as a collection of traditions on King Mu, both the tradition based on the Zhoushu yiji and the tradition re-interpreted from the Liezi are rendered (T 2035, p. 327, al7-b2).

As these references show, the legends of King Mu, in their re-interpreted versions, were frequently quoted in Chinese Buddhist apologetic literature. So what is the purpose of these references? In China, opponents of Buddhism frequently despised Buddhism as a foreign religion that had come from the lands of the Barbarians and was not a part of Chinese culture. To counteract these views, Buddhist apologias are eager to show Buddhist influence in many aspects of Chinese antiquity, finally displaying Buddhism as an essential part of the very roots of Chinese culture. With this intention, Buddhist apologias argue that the reason for King Mu's travel to the West was the Buddha and not the Queen Mother, that King Mu's guide on his heavenly journey was either the Buddha himself or Manjusri and Maudgalyayana, but not some magician of Daoist lore. Legends surrounding King Mu are one theme of many that are addressed to demonstrate the involvement of Buddhism in classical Chinese antiquity.6 The case of King Mu is, however, of particular interest, since it keeps re-appearing in different scriptures over and over again. It can therefore be seen as a red thread running through much of Chinese Buddhist apologetic thought.

(1.) Mathieu 1993: 342; Mathews 1943: 1166. It is important to note that the traditional dating differs from the modern dating, since, as we will see later, the Buddhist sources refer to the fifty-second year of King Mu, whereas according to the modern dating King Mu only reigned for twenty-six years.

(2.) For research regarding the Mu tianzi zhuan, see Fruhauf 1998-99; Mathieu 1978; Porter 1993.

(3.) For research regarding the Zhushu jinian, see Keightley 1978; Shaughnessy 1986.

(4.) For research regarding the Queen Mother of the West see Cahill 1982 and 1993; Fruhauf 1999.

(5.) Erik Zurcher (1959: 273), presenting a full translation of this passage, names Falin's Poxie lun as the oldest available source.

(6.) For other examples see Julch 2011: 71ff.


Cahill, Suzanne. 1982. "The Image of the Goddess Hsi Wang Mu in Medieval Chinese Literature." Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Berkeley.

-- 1993. Transcendence and Divine Passion: The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press

Fang, Shiming [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.]. 2008. Guben zhushu jinian jizheng [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.]. Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.].

FrUhauf, Manfred W. 1998-99. Einige Uberlegungen zur Frage der Datierung und Authentizitat des Mu tianzi zhuan. Oriens Extremus 41: 45-71.

-- 1999. Die Konigliche Mutter des Westens: Xiwangmu in alten Dokumenten Chinas. Bochum: Projekt-Verlag.

Graham, A. C. 1960. The Book of Lieh-tzu. London: Murray.

-- 1961. The Date and Composition of Liehtzyy. Asia Major 8: 139-98.

Julch, Thomas. 2011. Die apologetischen Schriften des buddhistischen Tang-Monchs Falin. Munich: Utz.

Keightley, David N. 1978. The Bamboo Annals and Shang-Chou Chronology. HJAS 38: 423-38.

Mathews, R. H. 1943. Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary: A Chinese-English Dictionary Compiled for the China Inland Mission, rev. American ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Mathieu, Remi. 1978. he Mu tianzi zhuan: Traduction annotee, etude critique. Paris: Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoises.

--1993. Mu t'ien tzu chuan. In Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. Michael Loewe. Pp. 342-46. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, Univ. of California.

Nivison, David S. 1993. Chu shu chi nien. In Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. Michael Loewe, 39-47. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, Univ. of California.

Porter, Deborah. 1993. The Literary Function of K'un-lun Mountain in the Mu Tien-tzu Chuan. Early China 18:73-106.

Shaughnessy, Edward L. 1986. On the Authenticity of the Bamboo Annals. HJAS 46: 149-80.

Yoshikawa, Tadao. 2008. Xiwang mu. In The Encyclopedia of Taoism, ed. Fabrizio Pregadio. Pp. 1119-21. London: Routledge.

Ziircher, Erik. 1959. The Buddhist Conquest of China. Leiden: Brill.

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Author:Julch, Thomas
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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