Today, is a short post about the Empress Xu (徐皇后) (1362 – 1407), consort of the Yongle Emperor, her background and life, and the teaching the 17th Karmapa recently gave about her connection with the 5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa, and an extraordinary dream in which Avalokiteśvara dictated an entire Sutra to her.
Empress Wu – Consort of Yongle Emperor and third Empress of Ming dynasty
Empress Xu, formally Empress Renxiaowen (仁孝文皇后), was the empress consort to the Yongle Emperor and the third empress of China’s Ming dynasty. Born in 1362, as the eldest daughter of Xu Da and Lady Xie (謝氏). She had four brothers—Xu Huizu (徐輝祖), Xu Tianfu (徐添福), Xu Yingxu (徐膺緒), and Xu Zengshou (徐增壽)—and two younger sisters, who were the wives of Zhu Gui, Prince Jian of Dai (thirteenth son of the Hongwu Emperor) and Zhu Ying, Prince Hui of An (twenty-second son of the Hongwu Emperor). On 17 February 1376, she married the Zhu Di, Prince of Yan, the Hongwu Emperor’s fourth son. After Zhu Di ascended the throne as the Yongle Emperor on 17 July 1402, Consort Xu, as his primary wife, was created empress in December 1402.
Dream Revelation of a Sutra by Avalokiteśvara
Empress Xu is the first person credited with transcribing a Buddhist sutra from a dream revelation. The 17th Karmapa spoke about her dream:
“As was mentioned, the Ming Emperor Yongle and his Empress had great faith in the Dharma. It was the Empress who had greatly encouraged Yongle to invite the 5th Karmapa and she had great devotion for him. When the Empress died, the Emperor wrote to Dezhin Shekpa at Wutai Shan to hold rituals for her. The Emperor also said he would never take another Empress, and he never did. She was his last Empress.
In a dream, the Empress saw Avalokiteśvara was writing a sutra and when she woke up, she wrote it down. Later, she showed it to the 5th Karmapa to see if it was authentic or not, and he said it was very good. As a memorial of the Empress, the Yongle Emperor then printed many copies of this sutra that had been revealed to the Empress in her dream.” [Other accounts state that she wrote the Sutra down from memory after waking up].
According to sources, her work is entitled ‘The Sutra of Great Merit of the Foremost Rarity spoken by the Buddha, which the Renxiao empress of the Great Ming received in a dream” (大明仁孝皇后夢感佛說第一希有大功德經 第1卷, Da Ming Ren Xiao Huang hou meng kan Fo Shuo di yi xi yu da gong de jing). In her introduction to the sutra, the empress wrote that one night after meditating and burning incense, Guanyin (Avalokiteśvara)[i] appeared to her as if in a dream, and took her to a holy realm where the sutra was revealed to her in order to save her from disaster. After reading the sutra three times, she was able to memorize it and recall it perfectly upon awakening and writing it down.’
The scripture is said to be housed at the Beijing Zhihua Temple. An edition of the Sutra (in Chinese only) can be seen here. It is listed It is under the catalogue of Manji Shinsan Dainihon Zokuzōkyō (卍新纂大日本續藏經). Although it was listed under Ming’s Southern Collection 永樂南藏, this collection is now lost. Recently, they found this collection at Qinglong Monastery, Shanxi, in the 70’s.The full text in Chinese can be downloaded here.
It has also been claimed by some not only to be a Buddhist text but one that was used by Yongle for political gain and power, see here.
Author of ‘Inner Training’ – Advocate of Women’s Education and Good Relationships
Although this was not mentioned in the 17th Karmapa’s teaching, it is said that Empress Xu believed that the beautiful virtues of women were formed through education. She attached great importance to women’s education, and in 1404, in order to educate women in the palace, she combined previous generations of books on women’s education, “Women’s Speech”, “Women’s Ring”, the collection of ancient saints on women’s character teachings, and filial piety and high queen’s relevant remarks, and the implementation of women’s education, into “Inner Training” (內訓, Nèi xùn).
Empress Xu also asked Yongle for giving gift to the wives of husbands she summoned as cabinet ministers. In the Temple of Juyi, Queen Xu gave them clothes, gold and silver and other gifts, encouraging them to understand their husbands, and because their husbands were busy to serve their hard-working husbands, so that they are free from worries and can one-pointedly help the Emperor.
Body placed in the Ming XIV Mausoleum
After the death of Queen Xu , the extremely grief-stricken, Yongle held a big fast for her, and commiserated he could no longer hear her voice.
It is reported that after the Empress passed away, the Emperor lasted only one hundred days more in his reign. The casket of Queen Xu’s body was placed in the Nanjing Palace until the changling of Changping, Beijing, was completed, and Zhu transported Queen Xu’s coffin from Nanjing to Beijing for burial. The funeral was extraordinary, and Queen Xu was the first person to be buried in the Ming XIV Mausoleum.
Fifteen years later, Yongle died on his way to the north , and was buried with Empress Xu in Changling.
Yongle Kangyur – first Kangyur printed
The 17th Karmapa also briefly described the Yongle Kangyur, created during the time of the Yongle Emperor:
“Likewise, the Emperor had a copy of the Kangyur printed using wood blocks and brought back to China. This became known as the Yongle Kangyur. Scholars say this was the first printing of the Kangyur in Tibet, and it occurred because of the Ming Emperor and Dezhin Shegpa’s efforts. ”
For more on the 5th Karmapa and the Yongle Kangyur, as well other Karmapas’ connections to the different editions of the Kangyurs, see my previous article: The Kangyur and the Karmapas’ role in their publication and preservation. In this article, it states that:
“Around 1410 the Yongle Emperor made an offering of the first printed copy of his Kangyur around 1410, to a famous pilgrimage site temple, Pusading, at Wutai Shan, which also now houses the only known exemplar of a forty-two volume supplement to the Wanli Kangyur.”
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 2nd March 2021.
[i] Guanyin is the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. Among the Chinese, Avalokiteśvara is almost exclusively called Guanshiyin Pusa (觀世音菩薩).