Mogao Caves of Dunhuang

Meditation & Health No 3 - Table of Contents

Mogao Caves of Dunhuang

Caves of Unshakable Faith, and Transcendent Art

By Mizhe

A lone figure walked purposefully across the countless sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. The occasional tinkling of the rings on his monk’s staff broke the silence. Looking up to admire the sunset, he stopped and stool transfixed by an unexpected vision. On a distant mountaintop, there appeared thousands of Buddhas encircled in an aura of golden rays. The monk fell to the ground and prostrated, solemnly vowing to make the site a holy shrine. Soon after, the first Mogao Cave was carved out of the face of Echoing-Sand Mountain. It was 366 AD; the monk was Yue Zun.

World Cultural Heritage

Located twenty-five kilometers southeast of the center of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, China, the five levels of caves that stretch nearly two kilo-meters along the sandstone cliff were constructed over the course of a thousand years. Of the 735 surviving caves, 492 contain beautiful murals and sculptures, forming the largest and best-preserved collection of Buddhist treasures in existence. Many of the 2,000 colored sculptures and 45,000 square meters of murals are masterpieces of Buddhist art. The earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra from 868 AD, was discovered in the Library Cave among 50,000 manuscripts dating from the Fifth to early Eleventh Centuries.

A Shining Pearl on the Silk Road

The oasis town of Dunhuang, where three paths of the Silk Road converge, was the vital gateway to the Western Regions. The 11,000-kilometer trail spanned China, Central Asia, Northern India, and the Parthian and Roman Empires. Highly prized silk, tea and porcelain went westward in exchange for gold, spices and horses. However, the most valuable treasures transported on the Silk Road were artistic and religious ideas. Overcoming great peril, monks from India and China spread Buddhism into China and greatly enriched Dunhuang art.

Spanning a great distance and time – like the Silk Road – the architecture, sculpture and murals of the Mogao Caves reflect an evolution of art that readily incorporated the best ideas from different cultures and eras.

To Inform and Inspire

The Mogao Caves are synonymous with the murals. There are Buddha figures preaching dharma; images of donors; decorative paintings; sutra illustrations (Jing Bian) that make abstract sutras easy to understand; and the Jakata (Ben Sheng), stories of previous lives of the Buddha that teach the law of karma and serve as powerful reminders of the importance of moral living.

Murals effectively overcome language barriers for people of different cultural and social backgrounds. Through visual storytelling, they convey important Buddhist concepts; by portraying scenes of great beauty, they inspire people to strive for the paradise inherent in the Divine.

The Dance of Flying Apsaras

Flying Apsaras appear frequently in murals. Belonging to one of the eight sections of the demigods, which originated from ancient Indian mythology and Brahman teachings, they are the singing and dancing deities that make offerings to the Buddhas.

The style in which they were drawn evolved over time. The vigorous strokes and bold colors reflect earlier influences from India and the Western Regions. Gradually, the drawings became delicate and detailed; the facial features and figures became more Chinese; their flight became natural and graceful. Beginning in the Tang Dynasty, the Apsaras multiplied; their postures were more varied, and their expressions more lifelike. Portrayed as celestial maidens freely roaming the sky and scattering flower petals, their flowing skirts are like wings enabling them to fly, and their long fluttering sashes make the blowing wind visible.

Today, a sculpture of an Apsara playing a lute behind her back stands in the center of Dunhuang. This graceful Goddess symbolizes humanity’s admiration of, and aspiration toward, youth, beauty, freedom and happiness.

Music of the Pure Land

The twelve vows of the Medicine Buddha wish not only for spiritual enlightenment, but also for the satisfaction of people’s needs during their lifetime: that those who are starving get fed; those who are sick get cured; and those who are impoverished get care. Not surprisingly, the Medicine Buddha’s Eastern Paradise is the focus of the depictions of the Pure Land that make up a quarter of the murals.

The finest sutra illustration is located on the north wall of Cave 220 (Early Tang Dynasty, 618-705 AD). Seven evocations of the Medicine Buddha, flanked by Bodhisattvas and the twelve yaksa generals, stand on lotus petals that rest on a jeweled terrace. The water in the center pool is crystal-clear and rippled; the floating lotus flowers are in full bloom. Musicians of diverse appearance cheerfully play instruments from different regions of the world. On the stage in the central foreground, beside the multi-tiered candelabras, two pairs of dancers perform the spinning dance of the Western Regions. Their swirling hair and flying sashes hint at their light steps and quick turns. Above the Buddhas, luxuriously decorated canopies and banners swing in the breeze; Apsaras soar freely across the ethereal sky amid auspicious clouds and a shower of flowers.

The masterful composition of colon and lines makes the festival scene of the Eastern Paradise come alive with light, motion and music. It captures people’s idea of a Divine existence, their pious offerings to the Buddhas, and their yearning for a perfect life.

The Goddess of Mercy

Cave 3 (Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1386 AD) is known as the Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) cave. On the south and north walls are portraits of the thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Standing on a lotus platform, Avalokiteshvara’s eleven heads have the Third Eye of wisdom watching all directions. On the moon-shaped face, the slender and arched eyebrows, the downcast eyes, the thin and upturned nose, and the cherry-like mouth all contribute to an expression of dignity and compassion. The forty larger arms are naturally arranged to form an inner circle around the center of the body. The smaller hands form multiple layers of rings that look like a garland and emit rays of sunlight. Each hand has an eye in the palm showing the omniscient gaze. Light and elegant colon were applied to produce lifelike effects. The strong and smooth strokes create an effect of beautiful fluidity, exemplifying the high achievement of ancient Chinese art.

Avalokiteshvara wished for many arms and eyes to fulfill the great vow of delivering sentient beings from suffering. The thousand eyes see all the miseries and the thousand hands hold different dharma instruments so that each being can receive the best help. As the Universal manifestation of compassion, Avalokiteshvara became very popular during the Tang dynasty. It was known that “every family invoked the Amitabha Buddha; every household worshipped the Goddess of Mercy.”

The Artists and the Pilgrims

Most Dunhuang artists were poor and anonymous. Paying meticulous attention to each detail, they poured their faith, devotion and fervent wish for a better life into each brushstroke, and created the most benevolent, compassionate and breathtaking images.

This wonderful Buddhist art served to inform the masses of the Buddha’s teachings and to inspire them to reach for Buddhist ideals. The power of unshakable faith created this sublime beauty; transcendent art in turn inspired faith and devotion.

As if crossing a threshold, modern pilgrims enter the cool caves and leave behind the scorching desert heat and blinding light. Sacred and colorful images are revealed wherever candlelight shines; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas greet them with infinite love and compassion. The noise of the outside world fades away, replaced by pious chant. With each prostration performed, the delusions of the mind gradually dissolve and the vivid, blissful images of Heaven materialize.

Miraculous Longevity

The art of Dunhuang was primarily composed on a fragile medium — mud. Yet it has survived centuries of political turbulence and endured in a hostile desert environment. Even the national tragedy of losing treasures of the famous Library Cave to foreigners had a silver lining: The scattering of the Cave’s content around the globe has made Dunhuang art world-famous and given birth to Dunhuangology. Nowadays, modern digitization technologies are being employed to preserve and re-create these ancient treasures.

Sixteen hundred years ago, long after the last light had disappeared from the mountaintop, monk Yue Zun continued his reverent praying. On that chilly desert night, he was warmed by his vision of a Pure Land on Earth that would forever shine the brilliant beacon of unsurpassed beauty and faith.


Meditation & Health No 3 - Table of Contents