Religious SignificanceFurther information: Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Religion in China
In his usurpation of the throne from the Jianwen Emperor (r. 1398–1402), the Yongle Emperor was aided by the Buddhist monk Yao Guangxiao, and like his father Hongwu, Yongle was "well-disposed towards Buddhism", claims Rossabi. On March 10, 1403, the Yongle Emperor invited Deshin Shekpa (1384–1415), the fifth Karmapa, to his court, even though the fourth Karmapa had rejected the invitation of the Hongwu Emperor of China. A Tibetan translation in the 16th century preserves the letter of Yongle, which the Association for Asian Studies notes is polite and complimentary towards the Karmapa. The letter of invitation read, "My father and both parents of the queen are now dead. You are my only hope, essence of buddhahood. Please come quickly. I am sending as offering a large ingot of silver, one hundred fifty silver coins, twenty rolls of silk, a block of sandalwood, one hundred fifty bricks of tea and ten pounds of incense." In order to seek out the Karmapa, Yongle dispatched his eunuch Hou Xian and the Buddhist monk Zhi Guang (d. 1435) to Tibet. Traveling to Lhasa either through Qinghai or via the Silk Road to Khotan, Hou Xian and Zhi Guang did not return to Nanjing until 1407.
During his travels beginning in 1403, Deshin Shekpa was induced by further exhortations by the Ming court to visit Nanjing by April 10, 1407. Norbu writes that Yongle, following the tradition of Mongol emperors and their reverence for Tibetan Sakya lamas, showed an enormous amount of deference towards Deshin Shekpa. Yongle came out of the palace in Nanjing to greet the Karmapa and did not require him to kowtow like a tributary vassal. According to Karma Thinley, the emperor gave the Karmapa the place of honor at his left, and on a higher throne than his own. Rossabi and others describe a similar arrangement made by Kublai Khan and the Sakya Phagpa lama, writing that Kublai would "sit on a lower platform than the Tibetan cleric" when receiving religious instructions from him. Throughout the following month, the Yongle Emperor and his court showered Deshin Shekpa with presents. At Linggu Temple in Nanjing, he presided over the religious ceremonies for Yongle's deceased parents, while twenty-two days of his stay were marked by religious miracles that were recorded in five languages on a gigantic scroll that bore the Emperor's seal. During his stay in Nanjing, Deshin Shekpa was bestowed the title "Great Treasure Prince of Dharma" by Yongle. Elliot Sperling asserts that Yongle, in bestowing Deshin Shekpa with the title of "King" and praising his mystical abilities and miracles, was trying to build an alliance with the Karmapa as the Mongols had with the Sakya lamas, but Deshin Shekpa rejected Yongle's offer. In fact, this was the same title that Kublai Khan had offered the Sakya Phagpa lama, but Deshin Shekpa persuaded Yongle to grant the title to religious leaders of other Tibetan Buddhist sects.
Tibetan sources say Deshin Shekpa also persuaded Yongle not to impose his military might on Tibet as the Mongols had previously done. Thinley writes, before Deshin Shekpa returned to Tibet, the emperor began planning to send a military force into Tibet to forcibly give the Karmapa authority over all the Tibetan Buddhist sects, but Deshin Shekpa dissuaded him. But Hok-Lam Chan states that "there is little evidence that this was ever the emperor's intention" and that evidence indicates that Deshin Skekpa was invited strictly for religious purposes.
Marsha Weidner states that Deshin Shekpa's miracles "testified to the power of both the emperor and his guru and served as a legitimizing tool for the emperor's problematic succession to the throne," referring to Yongle's conflict with the previous Jianwen Emperor. Tsai writes that Deshin Shekpa aided the legitimacy of Yongle's rule by providing him with portents and omens which demonstrated Heaven's favor of Yongle on the Ming throne.
With the example of the Ming court's relationship with the fifth Karmapa and other Tibetan leaders, Norbu states that Chinese Communist historians have failed to realize the significance of the religious aspect of the Ming-Tibetan relationship. He writes that the meetings of lamas with the emperor were exchanges of tribute between "the patron and the priest" and were not merely instances of a political subordinate paying tribute to a superior. He also notes that the items of tribute were Buddhist artifacts which symbolized "the religious nature of the relationship." Josef Kolmaš writes that the Ming Dynasty did not exercise any direct political control over Tibet, content with their tribute relations that were "almost entirely of a religious character." Patricia Ann Berger writes that Yongle's courting and granting of titles to lamas was his attempt to "resurrect the relationship between China and Tibet established earlier by the Yuan dynastic founder Khubilai Khan and his guru Phagpa." She also writes that the later Qing emperors and their Mongol associates viewed Yongle's relationship with Tibet as "part of a chain of reincarnation that saw this Han Chinese emperor as yet another emanation of Manjusri."
The Information Office of the State Council of the PRC preserves an edict of the Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1435–1449) addressed to the Karmapa in 1445, written after the latter's agent had brought holy relics to the Ming court. Zhengtong had the following message delivered to the Great Treasure Prince of Dharma, the Karmapa:
Out of compassion, Buddha taught people to be good and persuaded them to embrace his doctrines. You, who live in the remote Western Region, have inherited the true Buddhist doctrines. I am deeply impressed not only by the compassion with which you preach among the people in your region for their enlightenment, but also by your respect for the wishes of Heaven and your devotion to the Court. I am very pleased that you have sent bSod-nams-nyi-ma and other Tibetan monks here bringing with them statues of Buddha, horses and other specialties as tributes to the court.
Despite this glowing message by Zhengtong, Chan writes that in 1446 the Ming court cut off all relations with the Karmapa hierarchs. Until that year, the Ming court was unaware that Deshin Shekpa had died in 1415. Before discovering this, the Ming court believed that the representatives of his sect who continued to visit the Ming capital were sent by him.
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