Mogao Cave 138 (Late Tang Dynasty, Qing Dynasty)

This article is provided by the Dunhuang Academy. All text and images published are authorized by the Dunhuang Academy.

Mogao Cave 138 was built in the late Tang Dynasty. The wooden eaves outside the antechamber were renovated in the Qing Dynasty. To the two sides of the entry to the front chamber were painted the Southern and Northern Heavenly Kings, respectively. Inside the antechamber, the south wall was painted with a sitting Buddha from the Yuan Dynasty. The upper part of the north wall was painted with a sitting Buddha with donor portraits on its two sides. The hallway features a truncated pyramid ceiling, which was painted with the thousand-Buddha-on-lotus-throne pattern. The two slopes were painted with dozens of portraits of the standing Medicine Buddha. The south and north walls of the hallway were painted with Danapati Bodhisattvas of Yuan Dynasty. The main  chamber is a large cave with a Buddhist altar at the center and an inverted-funnel shaped ceiling. To the south of the entry on the east wall was painted an illustration of the Vimalakirti Sutra and to the north the Gratitude Sutra transformation.  The south wall of the main chamber was painted with different sutra transformations. From the east, that of the Devata Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Vajra Sutra and Lankavatara Sutra. The north wall was painted from the east, transformation of the Maitreya Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Medicine Buddha Sutra, Gratitude Sutra, and Golden Light Sutra.

Mogao Cave 138 Central Altar.

On the east wall of the main chamber, above the entry is a clear inscription about the donor of the cave, “Supported by a nun of Anguo Temple with wisdom of Dharma”. The inscription of the 12th donor portrait facing westward on the north wall of the main chamber reads, “Wholeheartedly supported by the wife of Hexi Military Governor Zhang and later by Lady Yin of the Lord of Wuwei Prefecture”. The title inscription of the third donor portrait facing westward on the south wall of the main chamber reads, “Internal Management…the Imperial Minister of Yinqing…Yin of Shangzhu State…”. The last two title inscriptions indicate that this cave is extremely likely to be the “Yin Family Cave” constructed by the then prominent Yin family in Dunhuang. Near 60 donor portraits were painted on the lower part of the east wall and the east sides of the lower south and north walls. These donor portraits are mostly life-sized. All of them are plump in figure and dressed gorgeously with heavy makeups, appearing graceful and elegant. The colors used were bright and the painting technique was exquisite and skillful, making these figure paintings masterpieces from the late Tang Dynasty.

Portrait of a Danapati bhikkuni, Mogao Cave 138 north wall lower part.

On the central altar, there is a sitting Buddha stutue built in the late Tang Dynasty and was renovated in the Qing Dynasty. The rest are statues of the Goddess of Childbearing, her attendants, and the Guanyin with Six Arms. All were made in the Qing Dynasty. Thus, this cave is also commonly known as the “Goddess of Childbearing Palace”. Mogao Cave 454 built in the Song Dynasty was also called the “Goddess of Childbearing Palace” after it was rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty. This indicates that “Goddess of Childbearing” was popular during the Qing and Republican period. The “Goddess of Childbearing” originated from the Guanyin Bodhisattva in Buddhism which is a product of the sinicization of Indian Buddhism. The “Chapter of the Guanyin Bodhisattva” in the Lotus Sutra says, “…If a woman wishes to pray for the birth of a boy, she can have a boy of virtue and wisdom if she worships and pays respect to the Guanyin Bodhisattva; if she wishes to have a daughter, then she will be able to give birth to a good girl…” This is where the belief that “Guanyin can send children” was from for the Chinese folks. The folks believe that the Guanyin Bodhisattva is a goddess who is in charge of childbearing in the human world. Since the image of Guanyin has gradually turned feminine, so she was also began to be called the “Goddess of Childbearing”. “Guanyin of Childbearing” is deeply popular among Chinese women. It was believed that as long as a woman touches this statue, or chants the title of Guanyin in her heart, she will be able to have a son. That’s why the folks go to the Temple of Guanyin to burn incenses or enshrine an image of the Guanyin at home.

The most influential goddess in Taoism, who is in charge of childbearing in the human world should be Bixia Yuanjun. In northern provinces of China, Bixia Yuanjun is regarded as the Goddess of Childbearing. According to legends, she is powerful enough to protect farming, business, travel, marriage, cure diseases, and save lives. Particularly, she can make a woman to have a son, and keep the child healthy. Therefore, she was assigned with the duties such as sending a son, bringing blessing, and protecting the children. Women were very devout believers in this goddess. A temple of the goddess was built on the Tai Mountain, and many more were built everywhere. Other four goddesses in charge of sending child, hastening delivery, removing eye diseases, and recovering from smallpox were often enshrined together on the sides. This faith is still flourishing today, as many people travel from afar to the top of the Tai Mountain to pray to the goddess .

Portrait of a donor with a boy wrapped in blanket, Mogao Cave 138 east wall south to the entry

Due to the confluence of Buddhism and Taoism in China, another goddess called Cihang Immortal also emerged. Cihang Immortal is the Guanyin enshrined in Buddhism. There are two versions of her origin. First, according to the Taoist records in the “History of the Immortals”, there was a female immortal in the Chaoyin Cave of Luojia Hill, Putuo. According to legend, she self-cultivated there during the Shang Dynasty and attained the magic power of samandi. She vowed to lift all men and women out of their miseries. This female immortal often helped people with elixirs and Amrita, who was called Cihang Mahasattva among the Nanhai locals.

In Buddhism, she is believed to be the third daughter of Miaozhuang King, whose name was Miaoshan. Since Miaoshan could turn up at the right time to save people from troubles and miseries, so she was called “Cihang Immortal” in Taoism. Since she is good at helping the women and children, especially with women getting pregnant, she was enshrined as a goddess of childbearing in Taoism. She is thus worshiped by a lot of believers and followers in both Taoism and Buddhism.

According to Taoism, it’s believed that Cihang Immortal and the Guanyin Bodhisattva in Buddhism are in fact the same person. That is to say, Guanyin was from Taoism before turning into Buddhism, or she was aTaoist priest before becoming a Buddhist dharma protector. In Taoism, the Guanyin Bodhisattva is seen as Cihang Immortal, a disciple of the Primus, and one of the “Twelve Golden Immortals”. She is called “Cihang Immortal”, “Cihang Masattva”, or “Guanyin Masattva”.