Till Death do Us Part

Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu.
Illustration by Jinxie Zhong (金协中)

What is the most 'romantic' scene in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms? Why did three men drink from one cup of wine in the middle of a blossoming peach garden? How did theirs later become one of the most epic stories in ancient history?

This post will not answer all these questions but will spotlight the most venerable of the three peach garden brothers. Born at the threshold of a chaotic time when a declining empire fell apart, this nobody happened to meet two other nobodies who shared a dream of a peaceful and virtuous land. The virtuous soul risked his life in incessant battles, abiding at all times by core Confucian teachings and by his oath with his brothers. His virtues did not only preserve one of the most respected of human civilizations but also went on to influence those in its adjacence. His unfortunate death did not put an end to his epic story but started a new chapter for a patron Saint of a civilization.

Story of an Epic Hero and a Patron Saint

Although many revere him as a God of war, he only went into war for the greater good. He should rather be revered as a Confucian Saint. Below is a video of his life and afterlife. Please note that the violent scenes are dramatic redundancies that do not reflect on who he truly was.

From a Patron Saint to God's Divine Judge

Below are teachings by His Holiness Hộ Pháp about His Holiness Guan Sheng Di Jun in 1948:

He was sanctified at the time of the Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms. Now, He has attained a position as the Third Reigning Divine Being in the True Religion of the Supreme Being. Such lofty honour is incomparable. There are few Divine Beings who have such honourable power. If ever, only Trần Hưng Đạo in Việt Nam can compare to Him to some extent. Rarely did anyone in East Asia achieve it. Therefore, we should study how He attained such a special Divine position.

Hớn Thọ Đình Hầu Quan Vân Trường was at that time a Shu commander under Lưu Bị (Liu Bei - 刘备). We can see His loyalty, courage, righteousness, and spirit, especially regarding brotherhood and His love for His friends. Surely enough, although our Vietnamese people were influenced by Confucian culture, no one has emulated Him. Thanks to loyalty, He did not follow Cao for riches, and was only devoted to Liu. Thanks to righteousness, He did not turn back on His friends in times of hardship. His loyalty and righteousness are one of a kind. Regarding His spirit, it is impossible to fully describe: He did not kill people who dismounted the horse. According to the scriptures, He was close to being killed by Hạ Hầu Đôn (Xiahou Dun - 夏侯惇), because the latter knew His weakness; but He was saved by Trương Liêu (Zhang Liao - 张辽). Every time He turned His sword, the other jumped off his horse. His spirit is one of a kind. He guided His spirit only with the Spring and Autumn Annals. Later generations honoured Him with two lines of poem: “Spirit guided by the Spring and Autumn Annals, merit devoted to the Han; Loyal like the Sun and the Moon, righteous like Heaven.” He never left the Annals, but always contemplated their content to guide His spirit. Since the vow of friendship at the Peach Garden, He never changed heart through either hardship or glory. His spirit has no match; it is hard to find anyone else like Him on earth. It has a special power. Let us explore how He attained it.

His origin was a Red Dragon spirit. Once, people in Northern Han violated Divine Law, and were punished by the Court of God by a drought which led to a famine. The village people prayed to Him for salvation. He knew clearly that they were punished by Divine Law, but still made rain because He loved them too much to let them starve. The Court of God ordered the Gods of Thunder to destroy Him. With the help of a monk, He hid under a bell in a pagoda. The monk told those in the pagoda not to lift the bell until His punishment period was over. Out of curiosity, they lifted it, and He had to reincarnate into Hạng Võ (Xiang Yu - 项籍).

Everyone knows who Hạng Võ is. If we read “Queries of Trọng Tương (仲襄) for the Han”, we know clearly He was Hạng Võ in one life and Guan Gong in the following one. Because Hớn Bái Công (Liu Bang - 刘邦) listened to Lã Hậu (Lü Zhi - 吕雉) and killed meritorious mandarins including Hàn Tín (Han Xin - 韩信), such crime resulted in their being condemned to hell for lives without being judged. At that time, Master Trọng Tương (仲襄) was a poor Confucian student but was very virtuous. After his father’s death, Trọng Tương built a tomb for him and lived in it. He was often saddened by the thought that he was talented but did not have a good fate. He wrote a poem to complain, “Heaven and Earth are partial; God is unjust.” The purpose was to criticize the Han crime which remained unjudged in hell. For this reason, he committed blasphemy and his soul was taken to hell for judgment by the Kings of hell. Trọng Tương calmly replied, “If I were a judge in the Court of hell, I would solve it.” The King of hell accepted. He ruled, “Karma from the previous life shall be paid in the next: Bành Việt (Peng Yue - 彭越) shall reincarnate into Lưu Bị (Liu Bei), Anh Bố (Ying Bu - 英布) into Ngô Tôn Quyền (Sūn Quán - 孙权), Hàn Tín into Tào Tháo (Cao Cao - 孟德), Hạng Sư (Yongchi? - 雍齿) into Nhan Lương (Yan Liang - 颜良 ), Hạng Bá (Xiang Chan - 项缠) into Văn Xủ (Wén Chǒu - 文醜), and Hạng Võ into Guan Gong.

We know that the six commanders of Hạng Võ betrayed and chased Him to Ô Giang where He was beheaded and handed over to Đình Trưởng. His uncle, Hạng Bá, turned his back on Him, submitted himself to Hớn Bái Công and invaded the Shu State. Karma in this life resulted in the following one. But strangely, for Lữ Mông (Lü Meng - 吕蒙), the karma was different. In his previous life, Lữ Mông was a blacksmith. Guan Gong hired him to weld a large sword according to His secret design which He did not want anyone to know. When it was completed, He tested and suddenly remembered His thought. He slew the blacksmith in two. The blacksmith reincarnated into Lữ Mông. The day He left His body was the day He paid the karma with the blacksmith; Lữ Mông reincarnated to take His life in return.

When His spirit departed, Châu Xương (Zhou Cang - 周仓) and Quan Bình (Guan Ping - 关平) also killed themselves. Their spirits wandered to a pagoda, and asked a monk named Phổ Tịnh (Pujing - 普净) to get His head back. The monk used a fan to knock against the door and chanted the kinh vãng sanh (end-of-life dharani) three times. Guan Gong still stayed there and asked for His head. The monk laughed and said, “Nhan Lương and Văn Xủ reclaim their heads from whom? It is your karma.” His Holiness Quan Thánh Đế Quân woke up, and requested Phổ Tịnh’s permission to stay and cultivate His spirit. He became awakened at that same pagoda. After His awakening, He destroyed evil spirits to save living beings. Since then, He has not reincarnated anymore, but only used His Divine authority to carry out His missions. With His Divine authority, He attained Buddhahood and was honored the title “Cái Thiên Cổ Phật” by the people. Bần Đạo can say for sure that He was not Divinely ordained but was elected by the people. Therefore, when the Supreme Being established the Faith to unite living beings, He ordained that Being as a Reigning Divine Being so He will advocate for human beings to attain liberation.

Bần Đạo think that such ordination is the utmost manifestation of justice in the Court of God and in the Supreme Being’s decisions. Hớn Thọ Đình Hầu attained His Divine position with His spirit. This fact shows clearly to the children of the Master that death is not the end; it is the start of the real life. And life with the Master is more powerful and real than life on earth.

Questions for Contemplation

To follow up, below are several questions for our contemplation:

  • What kind of ruler or leader are we following? How well are they performing their duties towards their nation? How well do they perform their duties to the Creators?

  • How well are we fulfilling ours to our ruler and nation?

  • For those who feel the call of the Divine, how are we helping God usher in His Kingdom?

Please remember that the only real life is life with the Merciful Father and Mother!

Further Readings

ter Haar, Barend J. Guan Yu: The Religious Afterlife of a Failed Hero. : Oxford University Press, 19. Oxford Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 4 Jul. 2021 <https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780198803645.001.0001/oso-9780198803645>.