Eminent Monk of the Tang Dynasty: The Life and Miracles of Pan Liao Quan

Asian monk walking through grass toward a giant Buddha statue.
Pan Liao Quan, an eminent monk of the Tang Dynasty, lived a spiritual life marked by mysterious miracles. (Image: SantiPhotoSS via Shutterstock)

Pan Liao Quan (812-861) was a revered monk during the Tang Dynasty, whose life was marked by spiritual phenomena from the very beginning. Born in Sha County, Fujian Province, to Pan Dezhang and a mother surnamed Qiu, his early life already hinted at his future monastic significance.

The unyielding fist

A notable event occurred right at his birth: Pan Liao Quan was born with his left hand clenched into a tight fist — a gesture uncommon and symbolically powerful. Observing this, his father aptly named him “Quan,” which in Chinese translates to “fist.” This name not only reflected the physical state, but also seemed to portend the strength and determination that would characterize Pan Liao Quan’s later life.

However, this clenched fist also presented a mystery, one that would not be resolved until the intervention of a passing monk. Three days after Pan’s birth, a monk visited the family. Seeing the infant’s distress and continuous crying, the monk examined the tightly clenched fist.

Moved by compassion and sensing a deeper significance, he chanted the sacred phrase “Amitabha Buddha,” and with a stroke of a pen, wrote the character “了” (Liao) on the back of Pan Liao Quan’s hand. “Liao” often implies completion or fulfillment in Chinese, and as the character was inscribed, the fist miraculously opened. He was thus renamed “Liao Quan.”

Closeup of the fist of a little Asian baby.
Three days after his birth, the baby was renamed ‘Liao Quan’ when he finally opened his fist. (Image: doublelee via Shutterstock)

Pan Liao Quan’s father wanted to repay the monk for his kindness, but he refused. In that instant, auspicious clouds covered the sky and a golden light shone down as if the Gods and Buddhas were descending. The monk said: “This child will progress as he grows up, so take good care of him.” Baby Pan smiled at the monk as he proceeded to leave. The monk exclaimed: “I will see you again in seventeen years!” Elaborating further, the monk said: “He will establish a foundation and achieve enlightenment at the Wuzhi Peak of Yinna Mountain.” After that, the monk departed.

The enchanted circle

There are accounts stating that Pan Liao Quan showed supernatural powers in his childhood. For example, he once encountered a group of young cowherders near his home. The boys were responsible for watching over their families’ cows, a task that required constant attention and care to prevent the animals from wandering off or getting into trouble.

Seeing the children’s diligence, yet also their longing for leisure, Pan Liao Quan asked them: “Do you want to go out to play?” Eager for a break and intrigued by Pan’s presence, they enthusiastically agreed. Before they set off to play, Pan Liao Quan took a simple bamboo leaf and drew a circle on the ground around the cows. He then instructed the herders: “Close your eyes and follow me.” The children, trusting Pan, did as they were told.

While the children were away playing, Pan Liao Quan’s magical circle acted as a guardian. Despite the absence of physical barriers, the cows remained within the circle, peacefully grazing and not straying an inch beyond the line drawn by Pan.

After a day filled with joy and games, Pan Liao Quan and the children returned to check on the cows. With a hint of playful curiosity, Pan asked: “Look, are the cows full? Are they fat?” To the children’s astonishment and delight, the cows were not only still within the circle, but also appeared well-fed and content. The cows, having grazed in the circle throughout the day, were indeed plumper and healthier-looking than when the children had left them.

After a day filled with joy and games, Pan Liao Quan and the children returned to check on the cows.
When they returned, the cows were not only still within the circle, but also appeared well-fed and content. (Image: Paul Looyen via Shutterstock)

Monastic journey of Pan Liao Quan

At the age of 17, Pan Liao Quan became a monk and left Fujian. He initially resided at Chijie Temple in Dabu County, Guangdong, dedicating six months to his early monastic training. His quest for deeper spiritual understanding then led him to Gaoca Temple in Shouzhi Village, Sanheba, where he studied under a Master, furthering his knowledge and practice of Buddhism. Later, he resolved to set out on another journey to visit sacred places.

One day, he gazed westward at the Wuzhi Peak of Yinna Mountain in Meixian. The peak resembled fingers stretching out and piercing the clouds. Witnessing the dense forests, surrounded by thousands of peaks and lingering clear waters, he decided to go to the foot of the Wuzhi Peak to practice Buddhism. It was here, at this prophesied location, that he would seek and ultimately achieve enlightenment, fulfilling the prophecy made by the monk during his infancy.

The half-cooked, half-alive fish

According to local lore, one day while residing at the temple, Pan Liao Quan observed temple workers catching fresh fish from a nearby stream to prepare for a meal. As they began to cook the fish, Pan, adhering to his deep respect for all life, felt compelled to intervene. Understanding that taking life violated his Buddhist precepts, he advised the workers to reconsider their actions. Upon his urging they removed the fish from the pot, which had been half-cooked on one side, and returned them to the stream.

Miraculously, the fish that were returned to the water did not perish as expected; instead, they revived and continued to live. This incident led to the existence of a peculiar species of fish in the stream, known locally as the “Half-Red, Half-White Fish.” The side of the fish that had been exposed to the heat of the cooking pot turned a cooked, reddish hue, while the other side remained raw and white, typical of a living fish. It was quite common to see this unique type of fish in the streams of Yinna Mountain until recent times, when human overfishing took a toll on the species.

The Yangshuo hills in China.
The unique half-red, half-white fish could be commonly seen in the streams on Yinna Mountain. (Image: Ye Choh Wah via Shutterstock)

The snail without a tail

On another occasion, when devout believers came to the temple to offer incense, they discovered stone snails in the stream and decided to use them as a side dish. Upon preparing them, the believers removed the snails’ tails, planning to cook them shortly thereafter.

When Pan Liao Quan became aware of this, he intervened, reminding them: “Buddhist believers should abstain from killing.” The believers took his advice to heart and returned the stone snails to the stream, where they not only survived, but thrived. From then on, these snails, named Wudu snails — a term derived from the Hakka language meaning “without a tail” — have become unique and distinctive aquatic creatures in Yinna Mountain.

Culmination of life and enduring legacy

Pan Liao Quan practiced Buddhism in Yinna Mountain for over 20 years; praying for the well-being and warding off disasters for the local people, accumulating immeasurable merits. However, he felt guilty for not being able to promote Buddhism and gave himself the name “Ashamed.” At age 49, upon his nirvana, he left behind a verse: “Forty-nine years, no attachment; no entanglement. Today, I withdraw my hands and return to emptiness; with clouds parting and the moon in the sky.” After his passing, people honored him as “Ashamed Patriarch.”

Later, his disciples wanted to carve a statue in honor of their master. They faced a dilemma, since photographic technology was non-existent and no portraits of Pan Liao Quan were drawn during his lifetime. There was no way to start this statue despite them hiring a skilled artisan.

One afternoon, the craftsman was in a dream state when he saw an old monk appear before him. The monk said to him: “If you want to carve the statue of the Patriarch, just look at me.” The craftsman was about to take a closer look at the old monk when a sudden gust of wind arose, and the monk disappeared.

The craftsman woke up in astonishment, picked up his carving knife and, recalling the appearance of the monk he saw in his dream, meticulously carved it. When the elder monks in the temple saw it, they said it resembled the Patriarch. Since then, the Ashamed Patriarch has been enshrined in Shengshou Temple, allowing the world’s devout believers and worshipers to come and burn incense and pay homage. 

Carving wood with a chisel.
The craftsman woke up in astonishment, picked up his carving knife and began meticulously carving the image from his dream. (Image: Carlos andre Santos via Shutterstock)

Posthumous miracles and temple enigmas 

After Pan Liao Quan’s passing, there were also several miraculous occurrences. One year, a person from Chaozhou came to Yinna Mountain to pay respects to the Patriarch. He secretly took the statue with him to Chao-Shan to pray for rain. Afterward, he was reluctant to return the statue to the temple, leading to a dispute between the two locations.

The local officials came up with a solution. They placed the statue on a boat and said to the statue: “If the Patriarch wants to stay, the boat shall flow downstream, otherwise, it shall go upstream.” The boat started moving upstream even before the officials’ words were fully articulated, resolving the dispute.

Lingguang Temple, founded by Pan Liao Quan, also houses some mysteries. Firstly, behind the main hall of Lingguang Temple, the mountain is covered with lush green trees, but no leaves are seen on the main hall’s roof. What is the reason for this? The answer to this question still remains a mystery.

Secondly, before the temple was built, Pan Liao Quan planted two cypress trees with his own hands and now each are over 1,100 years old. These two cypresses are known as the “Cypress of Life and Death” — one is alive and the other is dead. The living tree stands proudly and is over 30 meters tall, with luxuriant branches and leaves. The other tree has been dead for over 300 years, yet it remains almost as tall as the living one, vanquishing both decay and decomposition.

It is well known that Guangdong Province has a humid climate, so how is a tree that died 300 years ago able to endure wind, sun, and rain, without decaying or decomposing?

The life and miracles of Pan Liao Quan continue to inspire and mystify, and Lingguang Temple, with its unanswered enigmas, stands as a testament to his enduring spiritual legacy. As the Ashamed Patriarch continues to be venerated at Lingguang Temple, his life encourages current and future generations to seek spiritual understanding, promote ecological preservation, and live with compassion towards all beings. In this way, Pan Liao Quan’s legacy is not just in the miracles he performed or the enigmas he left behind, but in the ongoing journey of discovery and spiritual practice that he inspires.

Translated by Joseph Wu, edited by Maria

Follow us on XFacebook, or Pinterest