Beheading the Foreign Monks

In the mid-Tang there was a certain author named Zhang Zhuo 張鷟 (?658-730) who compiled a collection of short strange tales entitled the Chaoye Qianzai 朝野僉載. The extant parts of the work is available at Project Gutenberg here. It contains a lot of unusual stories which are highly educational with respect to the contemporary culture and beliefs at the time. Some are rather shocking like the following:


In the Jingyun period [710-712] there was continual rain for more than sixty days in the western capital. There was a foreign monk named Baoyan who said he possessed a magic practice that could stop the rain. He setup an altar and recited sūtras and dhāraṇīs. Butchering had been forbidden at the time. Baoyan used twenty sheep and two horses as a sacrifice. His prayers went on for more than fifty days and the rain became heavier. The foreign monk was consequently beheaded and the rain subsequently stopped.

Whether this really happened or not is up to debate. Nevertheless, what is interesting is the term huseng 胡僧 here, which means foreign or specifically Central Asia/Indian monk. It would have presumably been unusual for a Buddhist monk at the time to sacrifice animals, though quite possibly at the time said term referred generally to any religious professional from the west, many of whom would have been active in the cosmopolitan capital of Chang'an. There is another tale detailing the activities of an Indian monk in Wu Zetian's court:

周有婆羅門僧惠範,奸矯狐魅,挾邪作蠱,咨趄鼠黠,左道弄權。 則天以為聖僧,賞齎甚重。... 氣岸甚高,風神傲誕,內府珍寶,積在僧家。矯說祅祥,妄陳禍福。神武斬之,京師稱快。

In the Zhou [690-705] there was a Brahmin monk Huifan. He was crafty and bewitching, commanding evil and witchcraft. He hovered around, sly as a rat. With the left path he manipulated the court. Zetian believed he was a holy monk and richly rewarded him. ... He had a very high spirit and an arrogant air about him. He amassed treasures of the imperial storehouse in the monk's quarters. He would falsely tell of supernatural matters while absurdly speak of calamities and fortunes. The imperial guard beheaded him and the capital city was overjoyed.

Here poluomen seng 婆羅門 (Brahmin monk) differs from the huseng 胡僧 above, which again is curious. The character seng normally refers to orthodox Buddhist monks, though again the non-Buddhist colloquial sense of the word in this period seems to have meant any religious professional from the west. In the early 8th century we know that Indian and Central Asian priests of various backgrounds were active in China. The exotic forms of magic and astrology that they brought with them generated a lot of interest amongst the Chinese at the time.

Unfortunately some did not behave themselves so well and got beheaded, or so the strange tales tell us.