Kuan Ti: The Protector of Buddhism

In the year 162 A.D. during the period of the warring states of the Three Kingdoms, a child was born to a humble family in Shansi who grew up to become China’s most illustrious and outstanding son, a great hero, and was later deified to become one of the most popular Gods of the Chinese people. His admirers and devotees ranged from Emperors to the common people and his popularity never waned over the long period of time. Thousands of temples and shrines have been erected in his honour and can be seen in all parts of the country. His images and portraits adorn home shrines or walls of countless homes whether they be Taoist, Confucianist or Buddhist.

In a country with wars and rebellions throughout its history of the various Dynasties, great heroes have emerged and distinguished themselves in every way to deserve veneration and remembrance but none has ever equalled Kuan Ti to gain elevation into the ranks of Gods or enjoy worship by different classes of people as their patron saints. To the Taoists and others, Kuan Ti was their God of War while the Buddhists confer upon him the great honour as their Protector.

Born as Kuan Yu he led a simple life and made his living as a young man by selling bean-curds, which provided the excuse for the bean-curd sellers to respect him as their patron saint today. He also devoted much time to serious studies and on one occasion displayed his excellent memory power by reciting word for word, the entire volume of the Classics after reading it but once. Kuan Yu’s other name is Yun-Chang.

Through his great love for justice and fair-play, Kuan Yu soon got himself into deep trouble when he slayed the licentious and corrupt magistrate who forced a poor girl to become his concubine. This made him into a criminal and Kuan Yu had to flee for his life into the mountains. As he was trying to cross over to the neighbouring province he chanced to stop by a stream to have a wash; when to his surprise he noticed a great change to his appearance! His facial complexion had changed from white to a reddish tint, which saved him the trouble to disguise himself so that he was able to walk through the sentries who were guarding the mountain pass without the least of problem.

Upon reaching Chu-Chou of the Szechuan Province he soon befriended two others who shared his noble ideals and virtues and they ended up as “sworn brothers” in a ceremony, which has been recorded in the history as the “Brotherhood at the Peach Orchard … . Chang-fei, a butcher, became the youngest brother. He was a man of fiery temper who had an unyielding sense of justice and was well known for his immense appetite both for food and adventure. He also had a black face, which was full of whiskers, and together with his formidable frame of some seven feet high, very few would dare cross his path. His great love and loyalty to Kuan Yu has won him a place of honour so that he is always seen standing behind Kuan Ti in all depictions. Liu Pei, the elder brother who came from a distinguished but impoverished family with Imperial lineage was known to be a man of honour. He later distinguished himself by founding the Later Han Dynasty. Kuan Yu, a powerful figure of more than eight feet tall, possessed an enigmatic personality and integrity, which won him respect of all whom he met.

Together these three newly sworned brothers set out and became involved in military pursuits, Kuan Ti once serving under the crafty and famous Ts’ao Ts’ao. They displayed great military prowess and fought many battles, which can be read in full details in the famous novels of “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”.

Kiian Yu proved himself worthy of the honour and affection of those who fought with him for he was brave and generous and was never known to turn aside from danger. He also proved his fidelity on the occasion when he was taken prisoner together with the wife and concubines of Liu Pei, and having been allocated a common sleeping quarters with the ladies, he preserved their reputation and his own trustworthiness by sitting all night through, outside their door, reading a book under the bright light of a candle There is also another version of this account which stated that he stood through the night at the door of the ladies’ room with a lighted lantern in his hand.

In the recorded history of his life Kuan Yu had many occasions to display his nobility, uprightness, integrity, loyalty and bravery. He lived at a time of great distress and chaos when the virtue of the Han Dynasty, set up in 202 B.C., began to decline and uprising, warring, dissatisfactions and rebellions were rampant. Temptations of acquiring wealth, fame and power did not deter him from remaining faithful to the oath that he had taken with his brothers at the peach orchard: “…to be loyal to each other in life and united in death…” And of his ability to bear pain unflinchingly, there was an occasion when he was wounded by a poisoned arrow, which required the arrow and the poison to be removed. He calmly submitted himself to the terrible ordeal and allowed his arm to be cut opened and scratched to the bone by his physician while he concentrated his attention on a game of chess, without showing the least sign of pain.

In the year 219 A.D. he was captured by Sun Chuan and put to death. It was recorded that on the night of his death, his consciousness appeared to a Buddhist monk seeking instruction on the Buddha’s teachings.

According to the Buddhist account, Kuan Yu manifested himself before the Tripitaka Master Chi Tsai, the founder of Tien Tai Buddhism, with a retinue of spiritual beings. The Master was then in deep meditation at the Yu Chien Mountain when he was distracted by Kuan Yu’s presence. After receiving the teachings, Kuan Yu requested the Five Precepts and became a Buddhist practitioner. He then vowed that he would from then on be a guardian for the Buddha Dharma and thus, for more than a thousand years, Kuan Ti has been worshipped as a Guardian or Dharma Protector in Buddhist temples. The Pure Land Buddhists also respected him as the Sentinel to the Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha. For these reasons Kuan Ti has earned a place in the Chinese Pantheon of Deities; his statues are normally found in the first hall of most temples and incense is offered to him as a mark of respect.

The honours and tributes that the succeeding Emperors of the various Dynasties conferred upon him marked him as the greatest military hero whoever lived. Kuan Yu earned the rank of ‘TI’ meaning “God” or “Emperor” and has ever since received worship as Kuan Ti or Wu Ti. Here are the other main awards, which he had subsequently earned, elevating him to the ranks of Duke, Prince and then Emperor:

1. In 1120 the Sung Emperor ennobled him as the “Faithful and Loyal Duke”. Eight years later he again conferred him another title, that of “The Magnificent Prince and Pacificator”.

2. In 1330 Emperor Wen of the Yuan Dynasty honoured him with the title of “Warrior Prince and Civilizer”.

3. In 1594 Emperor Wan Li of the Ming Dynasty conferred on him the title of “Faithful and Loyal Great Ti, Supporter of Heaven and Protector of the Kingdom”. In his honour thousands of temples were built across the land so that people could honour and worship him, thus making him one of the most popular Gods of China.

4. In 1813 the Ching Emperor added the appellation “Military Emperor” and Kuan Ti was regarded as the Patron of the Manchu Dynasty.

5. In 1856 during the battle between the Imperialists and the rebels, Kuan Ti was said to have appeared in the heavens, which helped to turn the tide of the battle in the Emperor’s favour. After the victory, Emperor Hsein Feng quickly elevated him to the position of reverence similar to that of Confucius, the great Sage of China.

All these awards have helped the people to remember and worship Kuan Ti not only as a God of War but also as their God of Chivalry and Prosperity. He is also regarded as the Guardian of the Brave, Loyal and Righteous, and so on. However it must be mentioned here that the manners of worship of Kuan Ti at his temples are not necessarily a Buddhist practice although he has earned a place into the Chinese Pantheon. Buddhism may accept and even encourages its followers to revere the gods for their virtues or pray to them for some protection or worldly boons, but they must always be aware that Enlightenment cannot be won by such practices and that their refuge should be sought in the Three Jewels.

As a Buddhist deity, Kuan Ti stands alone but as a Taoist deity two other companions usually accompany him. A young looking man is always portrayed beside him holding his seal while Chang Fei can be seen with his halberd which according to tradition, the edge of it facing towards the direction of the suspected danger from evil influence. For this reason he is often depicted as standing behind Kuan Ti’s right so that his halberd may face the other direction, if so required.

Kuan Ti’s anniversaries fall on the 13th day of the 2nd moon and the 13th day of the 5th moon in Malaysia and Singapore while Hong Kong celebrates it on the 24th day of the 6th moon. It is also customary for the Chinese to make their ways to Kuan Ti temples at the start of the Chinese New Year to offer prayers of gratitude for favours rendered and to seek his continued protection for the coming year.