Fotudeng, Buddhist monk in a bloodthirsty court

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Fotudeng, Buddhist monk in a bloodthirsty court

Unread postby Lady Wu » Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:14 pm

This is my translation of Fotudeng's biography from the Jin Shu (Chapter 95 = On the Practitioners of Occult Arts). The full historical context, including the background stories of the Latter Zhao rulers Shi Le and Shi Hu, may be found in Taishi Ci 2.0's ZZTJ translations.


Fotudeng, whose original surname was Bo, was from India. He studied religion at a young age and became very proficient in the occult arts. In the 4th year of the Yongjia reign (AD 310), he came to live in Luoyang, and claimed to be over a hundred years old. He could nourish himself by breath alone, and could go for days without eating. He was an expert of incantations and could command spirits to his will. He had a hole on one side of his abdomen, which he normally kept stuffed up with a piece of cotton. Every night, as he read, he would remove the cotton, and light would emit from the hole and light up the entire room. And once, during a period of fasting, he went at daybreak to a creek. Pulling out his internal organs from the hole at the side of his abdomen, he washed them in the water. After he was finished, he put them back inside. In addition, he was able to predict good or bad fortune from the sound of a ringing bell. All his predictions came to pass.

When Luoyang fell into chaos, Fotudeng hid himself among the commoners, in order to observe the situation. At that time, Shi Le was encamped at Gebei and committed mass killings. Among the victims were many from Buddhist congregations. Fotudeng went to join the household of General Guo Heilue. Every time Guo Heilue followed Shi Le to battle, Fotudeng was able to predict whether the battle would be won or lost. Shi Le because curious and asked Guo Heilue, "I never thought you were particularly resourceful, but you managed to foresee the fortunes of each campaign. How is that so?" Guo Heilue replied, "General, the Heavens support your ventures and the spirits are on your side. There is a Buddhist monk of extraordinary intellect and skill. He said that you would come to conquer the Chinese heartland. I have honoured him as my teacher. Everything that I had told you before were his words." Shi Le thus summoned Fotudeng to test his arts. Fotudeng took a bowl, filled it with water, then lit up some incense and recited an invocation over it. Soon, a blue lotus grew inside the bowl, with colours so bright that it radiated like the sun. Thereupon, Shi Le believed in him.

Shi Le passed by Fangtou on his way back to Hebei from Gebei. The people of Fangtou planned to raid his camp by night. Fotudeng said to Guo Heilue, "Enemies will soon arrive. You should let your lord know." And it happened just as he predicted. Since the camp was prepared, it was not overtaken. Shi Le wanted to test Fotudeng further. One night, he sat in his tent in full armour, carrying a sabre. He then sent someone to tell Fotudeng, "We haven't been able to find the Grand General all night." The messenger came to Fotudeng, but, before he was able to say a word, Fotudeng demanded of him, "All is secure here, and there are no enemies. Why is he staying battle-ready at night?" This made Shi Le believe in Fotudeng even more

Later on, Shi Le, in a fit of anger, desired to kill all the monks, including Fotudeng. Fotudeng secretly went to hide in Guo Heilue's house. He told his disciples, "If the General's messenger comes and asks for me, say that you don't know where I went." When Shi Le's messenger arrived, he was unable to find Fotudeng, and thus he returned to report to Shi Le. Shi Le, stunned, said, "I had intended to do harm to Fotudeng, and so he's left me." He could not sleep all night, but kept thinking about seeing Fotudeng. Fotudeng, sensing that Shi Le had repented, went to visit him early the next morning. Shi Le asked him, "Where did you go last night?" Fotudeng replied, "Sir, you had angry thoughts yesterday, and so I took the liberty of avoiding you. But now you have changed your mind, and thus I dared to come." Shi Le broke out in laughter and said, "Reverend, you must be mistaken."

The source of the water feeding Xiangguo's moats were five li northwest of the city. It dried up all of a sudden. Shi Le asked Fotudeng how to make the water flow again. Fotudeng said, "Now, we must command the dragon to get us water." He took his disciple Fashou and a few others to the source of the original spring. Sitting on a folding chair and lighting benzoin incense, he spoke a few hundred words of incantation. He did so for three days. The water started trickling in. A little dragon, some five to six cun long, came with the water. All the monks rushed to go look. Not long after, a flood of water came, and the moats were completely filled.

Duan Mobo of the Xianbei marched to attack Shi Le with a huge force. Shi Le, frightened, asked Fotudeng what to do. Fotudeng said, "Yesterday, the bell-chimes of the temple said that you will capture Duan Mobo tomorrow at the time of the morning meal." Shi Le ascended the city walls to observe Duan Mobo's army, but to him it seemed an endless mass of people. He blanched at the sight and said, "How can we capture Duan Mobo if they look like this?" And so he sent Kui An to speak to Fotudeng again. Fotudeng told Kui An, "Duan Mobo has already been captured." Right at that moment, the troops lying in ambush north of the city sprung forth and chanced upon Duan Mobo himself. Thereupon, they captured him. Fotudeng advised Shi Le to release Duan Mobo and send him back to his own lands. Shi Le followed his advice, and thus was able to obtain Duan Mobo's support.

Liu Yao sent his younger cousin, Liu Yue, to attack Shi Le. Shi Le sent Shi Hu to meet him in battle. Liu Yao was defeated, and retreated to defend Shiliangwu. Shi Hu dug in to guard against him. Fotudeng, who was in Xiangguo at the time, suddenly sighed and said, "Poor Liu Yue!" His disciple Fazuo asked him what he meant by that. Fotudeng said, "Yesterday at the Hai hour (9-11 p.m.), Liu Yue was captured." And it was indeed as he said.

And then Liu Yao came in person to attack Luoyang. Shi Le wanted to go relieve the city. His subordinates all advised him against it. Shi Le visited Fotudeng to ask for his opinion. Fotudeng said, "The chimes at the top of the pagoda are saying, 'Xiuzhitileigang, pugugqutudang'. This is in the Jie language. Xiuzhi means army. Tileigang means to go out. Pugu is Liu Yue's title in their language. Qutudang means to capture. So, what they were saying is that, should we march forth, we would capture Liu Yao." Then, he commanded a young boy to bathe and fast for seven days. After that, Fotudeng mixed hemp oil and rouge in his own palm, and held his hand up to show the boy. From his palm emitted a brilliant glow. The boy exclaimed, "There is a great host, and among them is a man, tall and fair-skinned, and he has red strings tied about his forearms." Fotudeng said, "That would be Liu Yao." Shi Le was pleased at this, and so he went to Luoyang to fight Liu Yao, and captured him alive.

Shi Le claimed the title of "Heavenly Prince of the Zhao", and acted according to the rites pertaining to an emperor. He became even more reverent in his veneration of Fotudeng. At that time, Shi Cong was planning to rebel. Fotudeng advised Shi Le, "Green onions* are going to be infested with insects this year, which are harmful if eaten. You might order the people to avoid eating green onions." So Shi Le had it announced all throughout the land, that no one should eat green onions. Not long after, Shi Cong fled on his own accord. Because of that Shi Le held Fotudeng in even higher regard. He would consult with Fotudeng on everything before acting on it, and called him the "Great Monk".

(Note: The word for "green onion" is cong, a homophone of Shi Cong's name.)

Shi Le's favourite son, Shi Bin, died of a sudden illness. Right before the funeral, Shi Le sighed and said, "I had heard that, when the heir apparent of the lord of Guo died, Bian Que* was able to bring him back to life. I wonder if the same can be done now?" And so he sent someone to talk to Fotudeng. Fotudeng took a branch of willow, dipped it in water, sprinkled the water over Shi Bin and recited an incantation. Then, he held Shi Bin's hands and said, "Rise now!" And Shi Bin rose, and recovered from his illness. After that, Shi Le had most of his children raised in Fotudeng's temple.

(Note: Bian Que was a famed physician in the Spring and Autumn period.)

One day in the year when Shi Le was to die, the skies were calm and there was no wind. Yet, one chime on the top of the pagoda rang. Fotudeng said to those gathered about him, "The bell is saying that a grand personage will die within the year." And true enough, Shi Le died within the year.

Shi Hu took over as the ruler of Zhao and moved the capital city to Ye. He devoted himself to venerating Fotudeng, to an even greater extent than Shi Le did. He ordered for Fotudeng to be dressed in the finest silks and driven around in carved carriages. On court meeting days, when Fotudeng was brought to the palace hall, all below the rank of Regular Attendant would help him off the carriage, and the crown prince and the lords would help him into the hall. The master of ceremonies would announce "The Great Monk is here", and all those who were seated would rise, as a sign of respect for him. Shi Hu also ordered Li Nong, the Minister over the Masses, to go to Fotudeng in person to inquire about his health every day once in the morning and once in the evening; the crown prince and the lords would pay respect to him once every five days. There was none other who was accorded the same level of honour. When the monk Zhi Daolin was in the capital and found out that Fotudeng was consorting with the Shis, he remarked, "Lord Fotudeng must be taking Shi Hu to be a seagull*."

(Note: The seagull reference comes from a story in the Taoist classic Liezi. The story goes: "There was a man living by the seaside who loved seagulls,and would go out to the sea every day to play with them. Hundreds of seagulls will flock to him and frolic with him. His father said to him, 'I heard that seagulls like to play with you. Bring them here so I can play with them too.' The next day, when the man went to the sea, the seagulls would only circle in the air above him, but would come to him no more." The message of the story is that one may befriend wild things only by being pure in heart.)

Because of Fotudeng, many of the common people converted to Buddhism, and contributed to the building of temples. They raced to leave their families and take religious vows. However, many false adherents were mixed in with the true followers, causing many problems. Shi Hu issued an order for his ministers to discuss this. Wang Du, the Imperial Historical Secretary, memorialized, "The Buddha is a foreign god, and the people of the Chinese lands should not worship him. The religion was first spread in the Han dynasty, but only people of the Western Reaches were allowed to build temples in the capital city for worshipping in their fashion. The Han people were not allowed to take religious vows. Wei continued implementing Han laws, and followed the former rulings. Now, we should command that no one from Zhao should be allowed to go to the temples to burn incense and worship, so as to uphold our proper rites. Everyone from ministers down to office clerks should be forbidden from doing so, and those who violate this law should be charged with carrying out improper sacrificial rituals*. Citizens of Zhao who had joined a monastery should revert to their previous dress and occupation."

(Note: "Carrying out improper sacrificial rituals" was a grave transgression, including offences such as performing official sacrifices to the wrong deities, or at the wrong times, or with the wrong rituals.)

Most of the officials of the court agreed with Wang Du. However, because of Fotudeng, Shi Hu issued an edict saying, "I was born on the frontier, and by fortune alone I came to rule over the Chinese lands. In matters of worship, we should follow our original customs. The Buddha is a god from the frontier lands, and thus it is right for us to worship him as well. If the tribes or the people of Zhao find pleasure in becoming Buddhists, let them do so."

At one point Fotudeng was staying in the temple in Yecheng. His disciples were spread throughout the land. Once, he sent his disciple Fachang to go north to Xiangguo. It happened that another disciple of his, Fazuo (different from the previously-mentioned Fazuo), was returning from Xiangguo. They ran into each other by the city walls of Liangji. They parked their carriages next to each other and conversed through the night, bringing up their master at times. In the morning, they each went on his way. As soon as Fazuo arrived before Fotudeng, Fotudeng chuckled at him and said, "Were you and Fachang gossiping about your master in your carriages last night?" Fazuo, stunned, became shame-faced. Thereafter, everyone in the state would say to each other, "Think no thoughts unkind--the Monk can read your mind". And no one would dare to blow his nose or spit in the direction of wherever Fotudeng was.

Shi Sui, Shi Hu's crown prince, had two sons, whom he kept in Xiangguo. Fotudeng said to Shi Sui, "The little one has just gotten ill. You should check up on him." So Shi Sui immediately sent a messenger to go look. Indeed, the boy was already ill. The Imperial Physician Yin Teng and a foreign monk said they could cure him. Fotudeng said to his disciple Faya, "Even if the saints were to come, they could not cure this illness; let alone people like them!" Three days later, indeed, the child died.

Later on, when Shi Sui plotted rebellion, he said to his attendant, "The Monk has uncanny powers. He may leak my plot. When he comes tomorrow, we must get rid of him." Fotudeng was in the habit of paying respects to Shi Hu at every full moon. He said to his disciple Senghui, "Last night, a heavenly being called out to me, telling me, 'If you go to the palace tomorrow, do not stop by anyone's house.' If I end up stopping by anywhere, you must prevent me from doing so." Normally, when Fotudeng went to the palace, he would stop by at Shi Sui's residence. Knowing that Fotudeng was on his way to the palace, he waited a long time on the way to meet Fotudeng. When Fotudeng was about to walk up to the South Terrace with Shi Sui, Senghui tugged on his robe. Fotudeng said, "I have some other business and cannot stay here." He rose again before sitting for long. Shi Sui pleaded with him to stay longer, but could not stop him from leaving. And thus Shi Sui's plan failed. When Fotudeng returned to the temple, he sighed and said, "The crown prince is planning trouble, and his schemes are already taking shape."

Later on, Guo Heilue led a force to conquer the Mountain Qiang people north of Chang'an, but fell into a Qiang ambush. At that time, Fotudeng was sitting in a hall, and suddenly his expression turned sorrowful, and he said, "Lord Guo is in jeopardy." Thereupon he chanted, "All monks, offer your prayers." Fotudeng himself also offered prayers. A while later, he said, "If he leaves by the southeast path, he will live; otherwise, he will be lost." Then he continued to pray. And some moments later, he said, "He has escaped." More than a month later, Guo Heilue returned. He said that after he had fallen into the Qiang's trap, he fled southeastward, and ran into one of his subordinates. The subordinate gave his own horse to Guo Heilue, saying, "Lord, take this horse, and I will ride on yours. Let us leave it to fate whether we will be delivered." Thanks to the subordinate's horse, Guo Heilue was able to escape. When they worked out the time of the events, it was exactly when Fotudeng was offering his prayers.

At one time, there was a great drought. Shi Hu sent his crown prince to the Fukou, west of Linzhang, to pray for rain. He prayed for a long time, but the rain did not fall. And so Shi Hu ordered Fotudeng to go himself. Immediately, two white dragons descended upon the temple, and on the same day torrential rains poured over an area of thousands of li.

At another time, Fotudeng sent a disciple to go to the Western Reaches to buy incense. Later on, after the disciple had been on his way, Fotudeng told the other disciples, "I read from my palm that the one whom I sent to buy incense was robbed somewhere, and is on the verge of death." And so they lit incense and prayed for him, and saved him from afar. When that disciple returned later, he reported that he encountered robbers on a certain day in a certain place, and while they were just about to kill him, they suddenly caught the scent of incense. The robbers, for no apparent reason, panicked and said, "People are here to save him!" And thus they abandoned him and fled.

On another occasion, someone obtained a giant softshell turtle from the Yellow River, which had never been known to produce those creatures. He brought the turtle to Shi Hu. When Fotudeng saw it, he remarked, "It won't be long before Huan Wen enters the Yellow River!" Huan Wen's style name was Yuanzi*, and it did come pass as Fotudeng predicted.

(Note: The word for "giant softshell turtle" is yuan, a homophone of Huan Wen's style name. This seems to be a prediction of Huan Wen's attempt in sailing into the Yellow River by way of the canal, in AD 369.)

Once, Shi Hu had a dream when napping, in which a flock of sheep came from the northeast bearing fish. When he woke up, he went to talk to Fotudeng. Fotudeng said, "That is a bad omen. The Xianbei* may come to rule the Central Plains!" And his prediction came true.

(Note: The Chinese character for "xian", as in "Xianbei", is a combination of the graphs for "fish" and "sheep".)

Another time, Fotudeng and Shi Hu went up the central terrace. Suddenly, Fotudeng exclaimed, "Trouble, trouble! There is a fire in Youzhou!" And so he took some wine in his mouth, and sprayed it in that direction. A while later, he smiled and said, "It has been saved." Shi Hu sent someone to check on Youzhou. There, they reported that fire arose from all gates on that day, but a black cloud rolled in from the southwest, and released a sudden rain that put out the fire. There was a whiff of alcohol in the rain.

Shi Xuan planned to murder Shi Tao. Shi Xuan arrived first at the temple and sat with Fotudeng. One solitary bell was ringing at the top of the pagoda. Fotudeng said, "Do you understand what the bell is saying? It says, 'The barb is brazen.'" Shi Xuan, flustered, said, "What is that supposed to mean?" Fotudeng prevaricated, saying, "I, a barbarian, became a monk, but instead of keeping my silence in a hermitage in the hills, I am living in comfort and luxury. Is that not brazen of me?" When Shi Tao arrived a while later, Fotudeng stared at him for a long time. Perturbed, Shi Tao asked Fotudeng why he was staring at him. Fotudeng replied, "I thought it strange that, lord, you stink of blood, and so I looked to see what it was."

Shi Hu dreamt of a dragon flying southwest and descending from the sky. The next morning, he asked Fotudeng about it. Fotudeng said, "The calamity is about to begin. It would be advisable to keep peace between father and sons, and be very careful." Shi Hu led Fotudeng to the eastern pavilion, and, together with his queen, Lady Du, pressed him for more details. Fotudeng said, "There is an evil-doer by your side. Before ten days are over, blood will flow, west of the stupa and east of this hall. Be careful and do not go east." The queen said, "This monk must be senile! How could there be evil-doers in the palace?" Fotudeng then changed his tone and said, "Everything that your six senses perceive is an evil-doer. The old may be senile, but may the young be not confused." After that, he would only speak in parables, and not explain what he meant.

Two days later, Shi Xuan indeed had someone murder Shi Tao in the Buddhist temple. He then planned to murder Shi Hu when Shi Hu attended the mourning; but, due to Fotudeng's forewarning, Shi Hu was unharmed. When Shi Xuan was arrested, Fotudeng admonished Shi Hu and said, "They are both Your Majesty's own sons. Why create tragedy upon tragedy? If Your Majesty could subdue your anger and show him clemency, your state will last sixty years or more. But if you will execute him, Shi Xuan will become a comet of ill fortune, crossing into the domain of the Ye Palace." Shi Hu did not heed him. Over a month later, a possessed horse, whose mane and tail bore marks of burning, galloped in through the Zhongyang Gate and out through the Xianyang Gate. It headed towards the Eastern Palace, but could not enter there, and so it went northeastward. And then suddenly it disappeared. When he heard about this, Fotudeng sighed and said, "The disaster is upon us!" Shi Hu was feasting his ministers in the front hall of the Taiwu Palace. Fotudeng chanted, "O Palace! O Palace! A forest shall grown from this thorn, and all our clothes shall be torn.". Shi Hu ordered someone to dig up the rock at the front of of the palace, and there they found a thorn growing. Ran Min's nickname was Jinu, or "thorn-slave".

(Note: Ran Min, an ethnic Han general in Zhao's service, overthrew the Shi clan in AD 350 and committed genocide against the Shis' ethnic group, the Jies.)

Soon after Shi Hu had completed the building of the Taiwu Palace, all the paintings of ancient sages, loyal ministers, filial sons, martyrs, and chaste women turned non-Chinese in appearance. Ten or so days later, their heads all shrank into their shoulders, leaving only their hats and topknots showing slightly. Shi Hu was greatly offended by that, but he kept it to himself. Fotudeng looked at the paintings, wept, and went to build a grave for himself by a tree-lined road west of Ye. After that, he returned to the temple, and said to himself, "Do we have three more years?" He then answered himself, "No." He asked again, "Do we have two years? One year? A hundred days? A month?" And he answered himself, "No." And he fell silent. Later, he said to his disciple Fazuo (the first one), "In the Wushen year (AD 348), the seeds of turmoil will sprout, and in the Jiyou year (AD 349) the Shi clan will meet its downfall. I will give up my spirit before they descend into chaos." He died in the temple in the palace of Ye.

Later on, a Buddhist monk coming from Yongzhou claimed that he saw Fotudeng go west through the passes. Shi Hu dug open Fotudeng's grave, but found only a rock and no body. Disgusted, Shi Hu said, "The rock signifies myself. He buried me and went away. This means I will die soon." He became ill after that, and in the next year, he died. Zhao fell into great chaos.

(Note: Shi Hu's surname, "shi", means "rock".)
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Re: Fotudeng, Buddhist monk in a bloodthirsty court

Unread postby Fornadan » Thu Jan 31, 2019 6:16 pm

If you're interested in the intricacies of the Jie language and Futodeng's ethnic origins, this blog post, and the comments section, may be for you
Translations from the Book of Jin:
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