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The White Lotus Sect ( Bai Lian Jiao 白蓮教 )

The White Lotus Sect (Bai Lian Jiao 白莲教) was a millenarian movement with Buddhist traditions that several times in history ignited large-scale popular uprisings against the ruling dynasties. The religious background of the White Lotus Sect goes back to the Pure Land School (Jing Tu Zong - 净土宗) whose oldest patriarch, Huiyuan 慧远 (334-416 CE), founded White Lotus Societies (Bai Lian She 白莲社 or Lian She 莲社 "Lotus Societies") in Donglin Monastery 东林寺 near Mt. Lushan 庐山.

During the Northern Song Period 北宋 (960-1126), White Lotus societies spread all over Southern China. They were supported by monasteries as well as by rich landowners. In the mid-12th century, the monk Ci-Zhao 慈照 (worldly name Mao Ziyuan 茅子元) founded a new Buddhist School out of these societies, the White Lotus School (Bai Lian Zong 白莲宗). The adherents of this school venerated the Amitabha Buddha 阿弥陀佛 and observed the Five Buddhist Precepts (Wu-Jie 五戒) that were also a focal point of the Pure Land teaching.

Mao Ziyuan also adopted the method of the Tiantai School 天台宗 to illustrate the teachings of the Buddha by drawings and pictures, which made it much easier to attract a wider followership. He also compiled confessional rules for daily worship, the Bai Lian Chen Chao Chan Yi (白莲晨朝忏仪). In order to connect the scattered Lotus Societies, he erected a Lotus Repentance Temple (Lianchantang 莲忏堂) on the shores of Lake Dinghshan 淀山湖, near Kunshan 昆山, Jiangsu, adopted the title of Master (daoshi 导师) and assembled an auditorium to which he preached the teachings of the White Lotus School.

The newly founded White Lotus School was officially forbidden, and Mao Ziyuan had to leave Kunshan for Jiujiang 九江, Jiangsi. Yet, because the teachings of his school were quite simple and easy to understand, the White Lotus Sect ("sect" in the sense of not being an officially acknowledged confession) attracted a lot of adherents not only in the Lower Yangtse region, but also in other parts of China.

When the Mongols founded the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368), the White Lotus School was officially acknowledged and even sponsored by the government. It therefore became such an important branch of Buddhism that some believers even participated in the propagation of the faith as "Lotus people" (Lian Dao Ren 莲道人) in private temples at home (tang'an 堂庵). Because they retained the everyday clothes and did not shave their heads, they were also called "Monks With Hairs" (Fa Seng 发僧). Their private temples became such important clerical institutions that sons commonly inherited their father's duty of managing these semi-public prayer halls.

The most popular deities were the Amitabha Buddha, the Guanyin Bodhisattva, and the Da-Shi-Zhi 大势至 (Mahasthamaprapta) (together called the Three Amida Saints 弥陀三圣). The adherents prayed for health and fortune, and rich believers sponsored the building of official institutions like streets, bridges or temples. The owners of private temples often belonged to the most wealthy families in the cities and had close ties to the government.

In the course of time the teachings of Mao Ziyuan changed somewhat, especially among the common populace that developed their own ideas of the White Lotus religion. It was a very popular belief that the Amitabha Buddha would descend from Heaven as a redeemer of mankind. Adherents of this millenarian branch of the White Lotus School assembled at night and soon began to rise weapons against the Yuan dynasty in order to hasten the advent of the Amitabha Buddha or the Bodhisattva Maitreya 弥勒佛.

Coming Of The Mi Le Fo 弥勒佛 (Maitreya) Scriptures


Therefore in 1308, the Yuan court prohibited the White Lotus School in total and was only allowed open confession again a few years later. In 1322, it was declared illegal again because more and more White Lotus groups had begun to fight openly against local governments. The most important leaders of White Lotus rebel groups were Han Shantong 韩山童, Liu Futong 刘福通, Xu Shouhui 徐寿辉 and Zou Pusheng 邹普胜. Their adherents fought to topple the Yuan dynasty and to welcome the "King of Brilliance" (mingwang 明王), i.e. the Maitreya Boddhisattva. The White Lotus groups constituted indeed an important reason for the downfall of the Yuan dynasty.

Based on this experience, the White Lotus School was prohibited under the Ming Dynasty 明朝
(1368-1644), and for good reasons, because the foundation of the new dynasty was no reason to cease belief in the advent of a redeemer deity. During the early Ming period, White Lotus uprisings in all provinces were successfully put down. The various secret White Lotus societies later changed their names and were not easily recognized as White Lotus offsprings. They adopted names like "teaching" of the:

Jinchan 金禅教 "Golden Zen"
Wuwei 无为教 "Non-activity"
Longhua 龙华教 "Flower of the Dragon"
Wukong 悟空教 "Aware of the Voidness"
Huanyuan 还源教 "Back to the Origin"
Yuandun 圆顿教 "Yuan Dun"
Hongyang 弘阳教 "Vast Yang"
Mi-Le 弥勒教 "Maitreya"
Jingkong 淨空教 "Pure Voidness
Dacheng 大成教 "Great Completeness"
Sanjiao 三阳教 "Three Yang"
Hunyuan 混源教 "Origin of the Primordial Chaos"
Wenxiang 闻香教 "Sensing the perfume"
Luodao 罗道教 "Arhat Way"

Because they were not allowed to establish a central authority, their rituals and services differed from each other, as well as the central deities venerated by the adherents, albeit the most important deity for most White Lotus sects was the Maitreya.

During the Zheng-De's (正德) reign, a new deity appeared among White Lotus adherents, namely the Wu Sheng Lao Mu 无生老母 "Birthless Old Mother", that was seen as a form of transcendent Buddha that never incarnated but ever existed without coming into being or transforming into a non-being form. She would nevertheless come down upon earth in the human shape of children, would protect them from harm and guide them safely back to Heaven, the "Home Of True Voidness" (Zhen Kong Jia Xiang 真空家乡). The different schools also used different writings to propagate their faith.

The behaviour of these various groups toward the government was therefore also not stringent. While some cooperated as normal religious institutions, others were openly opposed towards the local government. The adherents of the latter groups came mainly from the lower strata of society, like landless peasants or unemployed persons. In 1420, Tang Sai'er 唐赛儿 rebelled against the Ming government and in 1622, Xu Hong Ru 徐鸿儒.

The most important White Lotus sect during the late Ming period was the Wen Xiang School (also called Da Cheng School 大乘教 (Mahayana)) that had been founded by Wang Sen 王森 and Wang Haoxian 王好贤 in Luanzhou 滦州. They managed to attract the support even of more wealthy people so that they were able to purchase large tracts of land and acted as employer to peasants and workers.

During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), the situation got even more aggravated. There were more than one hundred various branches of the White Lotus school. In 1774, the White Lotus leader of the Qingshui Sect 清水教 (Pure Water Sect), Wang Lun 王伦, rose in rebellion in the province of Shandong. Between 1796 and 1804, the heretic Lotus societies in the border region of the provinces Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu aroused a protracted local war against the Qing authorities. This was the first large-scale popular uprising that initiated the downfall of the Qing dynasty, although this had in many cases not been the main objective of the rebellions.

In 1813, the Tian Li Sect  天理教 - "Heavenly Order", under Li Wencheng 李文成, disturbed the local governments in northern China. Only in the second half of the 19th century, the leaders of White Lotus groups adopted political plans.

The White Lotus Rebellion 1796-1804

In the deeply forested border area between the provinces Hubei, Sichuan and Shaanxi, a lot of homeless "wandering" people (Liu-Min 流民) had gathered to escape the grip of landowners, creditors and tax collectors. Until 1772 and 1773, already several hundred thousand persons belonged to these outlaws, and numbers constantly rose by immigrants from the provinces of Henan, Anhui and Jiangxi.

In the bad climate of the region, which made agriculture a scarcely profitable business, the inhabitants made their living by working in the land clearing business, in the paper industry, or in the smithy business. Under such hard conditions, a lot of people resorted to the harbour of religion and became followers of the many secret White Lotus Societies. A saviour deity that only required people living in a modest and cooperative way with each other (sharing income, sharing food, mutual support in case of need) provided a strong appeal for the White Lotus leaders.

The first leader proclaiming the coming of a new age was Fan Ming De 樊明德 in Henan. Liu Song 刘松, Liu Zhi Xie 刘之协 and Song Zhi Qing 宋之清 in Hebei, Sichuan and Anhui even prognosticated the return of the Ming dynasty (they used the character code Niu-Ba 牛八 for the character of the surname of the Ming rulers, Zhu 朱). In 1795, a collective uprising was carefully planned, and groups willing to participate were equipped with swords and gunpowder. The local government instantly took harsh measures to catch and arrest all adherents of the White Lotus societies and thereby even intensified the resistance of the White Lotus leaders against government and dynasty.

In February 1796, Zhang Zhengmo 张正谟 and Nie Jieren 聂杰人 rose in rebellion in the region of Yidu 宜都 and Zhijiang 枝江 in Hubei. A month later Wang Conger 王聪儿 and Yao Zhifu 姚之富 rebelled in the region of Xiangyang 襄阳. The various rebel groups did not cooperate with each other but fought for themselves, barricaded behind timber palisades or fortified villages to resist the local gendarms. Only the troops of the Xiangyang rebels were able to build up a large army that was able to challenge the Qing troops in the field. Half a year later White Lotus groups in Sichuan joined the rebellion under the leadership of Xu Tiande 徐添德 in Dazhou 达州 and Wang Sanhuai 王三槐 and Leng Tianlu 冷天禄 in Dongxiang 东乡 (modern Xuanhan 宣汉).

In February 1797, the rebel armies of Hubei spread out and looted all the region and began wandering to the neighbouring provinces. The regular Qing troops were only able to persue them and was not able to root out any base of the locust-like White Lotus army. In July the Qing finally managed to encircle the rebel base in Sichuan, so that the Hubei rebels approached for relief. Although Wang Conger was talented enough to build up effectively brigades under different commanders, his soldiers were not able to cooperate with each other, so that each company after the other was repelled and disintegrated.

In March 1798, the Hubei rebels were trapped by the Qing army near Yunxi 郧西, and its leaders died. The Sichuan rebels likewise had suffered great losses. Yet the files of the rebels were constantly filled with new recruits, and the local population supported the insurgents, provided them with food and gunpowder, carried their supplies and scouted them through the mountain hills. In the early year of 1800 the rebels were nevertheless again defeated near Jiangyou 江油 in Sichuan.

The Qing generals had adopted a new method to cut the rebels off their supplies of material and recruits. The government had built palisades for villages and forcibly settled down the peasants of the hilly lands into these defense compounds (zhaibao 寨堡, cunluo 村落). All economic activities were to take place within these compounds. At the same time, village militia were recruited and trained to fight against White Lotus "bandits". These measures helped to deprived the White Lotus rebels of food and supplies and took them away the necessary manpower to staff their army. The Qing army step by step encircled the last rebel groups in the triangle of the provinces Hubei, Sichuan and Shaanxi, where the rebellion had begun. In late 1804 the war against the White Lotus heretics could be declared as terminated.

The nine years long White Lotus war had devastated a large number of districts in Central China. It had cost the lives of countless civilians and regular troops, including more than 400 high officers, and consumed more than 200 million liang (Taels) of silver, which corresponded to four times the annual revenues of the state treasury. It had proved the inability of the Qing government to cope effectfully with large-scale popular uprisings and the wide-spread corruption among both the civilian government and the military establishment.

The Heavenly Order Society

The Heavenly Order Society was one of the few White Lotus movement of late imperial China that managed to associate different groups into one. It came into being by the cooperation of the Bagua sect 八卦教 "Eight Trigrams" (also called Jiugong sect 九宫教 "Nine Palaces"), the Ronghua Society 荣华会, and the Baiyang 白阳教, Hongyang 红阳教 and Qingyang 青阳教 sects. The most important leaders of this new united groups were Li Wencheng 李文成 and Feng Keshan 冯克善 from Henan and Lin Qing 林清 from Daxing 大兴 near Beijing.

The society war organised in eight groups (corresponding to the eight trigrams). The mainly used scripture of the adherents was the San Fo Ying Iie Tong Guan Tong Shu 三佛应劫统观通书, and they venerated the Birthless Old Mother, but also the sun. They believed in the three progressive eons (sanji 三际), calling the past "dimension-less extreme" (wuji 无极), the present the "greatest extreme" (taiji 太极), and the future "sovereign extreme" (huangji 皇极), but also prognosticated the decline of the Red Sun (hongyang 红阳) and the ascent of the White Sun (baiyang 白阳), thus favouring the rise of a new dynasty.

In 1813, the Heavenly Order Society rose in rebellion against the Qing dynasty and devastated the provinces of Henan, Shandong and Zhili. Some groups even invaded the Imperial City.
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