Friday, February 11, 2011

The Jade Emperor

The Jade Emperor

According to the Taoist tradition, the 9th day of the first Chinese lunar month is the Birthday of the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝聖誕 Yuhuang Dadi Shengdan), also known as the Birth of the Heavenly Lord (天公生). The Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝 Yuhuang Dadi) is a deity figure well known in Chinese popular culture. He is the sovereign of all the gods of the heaven realms and ruler of the manifest universe. All the deities and spirits of all the worlds everywhere are subordinate to his supreme authority.

In the entire Taoist pantheon, the Jade Emperor ranks only second to the three primordial deities known as the Three Pure Ones (三清 Sanqing(the central figure of the Three Pure Ones, the Celestial Venerable of Primordial Beginning, was briefly mentioned in another post here). This trinity is an embodiment of the primal creative force of the Tao (Way), but because they are the personified embodiments of impersonal cosmic energies, they are somewhat considered to be beyond the call and reach of ordinary beings. Therefore, the Jade Emperor is considered to be their avatar because he is the divine monarch who rules over the celestial bureaucracy that oversees the worlds of gods, spirits, ghosts, and humans.

According to an early Taoist deity classification scheme, the Jade Emperor was also a part of the Four [Heavenly] Controllers (四御 Si Yu) who were considered to be the assistant divinities of the Three Pure Ones. They were responsible for ruling and overseeing different areas and aspects of the world. The group includes the Jade Emperor as the group’s leader; the Great Emperor of the Central Heaven of the North Pole of Purple Subtlety (中天紫微北極大帝 Zhongtian Ziwei Beiji Dadi); the Great Heavenly Emperor of the Supreme Palace of the Polaris Star (勾陳上宮天皇大帝 Gouchen Shanggong Tianhuang Dadi); and the Imperial God of the Earth/Land (后土皇地祇 Houtu Huang Diqi). Another scheme does not count the Jade Emperor as one of the Four Controllers but considers him as an independent leader of them; in which case, the Great Emperor of Longevity of the South Pole (南極長生大帝 Nanji Changsheng Dadi) is included amongst them instead.

A story of the origin of the Jade Emperor is given in a Taoist scriptural text called Collected Scriptures on the Fundamental Deeds of the Lofty Jade Emperor (高上玉皇本行集經 Gaoshang Yuhuang Benxing Jijing). He was born of his parents the Supreme Lord of the Great Tao ( 太上大道君 Taishang Dadaojun) and the Empress of Precious Moonlight (寶月光皇后 Baoyueguang Huanghou). As a young child, his character and conduct was always marked by wisdom, kindness, and compassion. After he grew up, he inherited his father’s throne, but later renounced it to pursue spiritual cultivation. He achieved immortality after many thousands of eons of cultivation, and after another hundred million eons, he attained to the rank of the supreme Jade Emperor.

The Jade Emperor
(Image: Source unknown)

His birthday is observed on the 9th day of the 1st lunar month because - of the single-digit odd (e.g. yang) numbers - 1 is the first (representing the primal or primordial) yang (odd) number, and 9 is the last (representing the ultimate or uppermost extreme) yang (odd) number.

On this day, followers of both the Taoist and popular folk religious traditions observe rites called Worshipping the Heavenly Lord (拜天公 bai tiangong) in his honor. Incense and special foods are made as offerings, and Taoist temples will conduct special ceremonies and recite scriptures.

It is also interesting to note that according to the Buddhist tradition, the birthday of Sakra (帝釋天 Dishi Tian) - sometimes called the Jade Emperor’s “Buddhist counterpart” because they share a very similar role - is also celebrated on this day by Buddhist followers (see the subsequent post about Sakra which can be found here).

Another interesting fact worthy of mention is that in 1982, a crater on Saturn's moon Rhea, discovered by the Voyager 2 spacecraft, was named Yu Ti which is an alternate spelling of Yu Di (玉帝), the abbreviated name of the Jade Emperor.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

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