Mogao Cave 148 (High Tang Dynasty)

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Mogao Cave 148 is located at the southern end of the gottos. Its cave form is that of the Nirvana cave. According to the tablet inscriptions in the antechame, the Tablet of Merits and Virtues of Lord Li of Longxi in the Tang Dynasty Erected upon the Building of the Cave and the Tablet of Merits and Virtues of Lord Li of Longxi in the Tang Dynasty upon Reconstruction of the Cave, this cave should’ve been built by the then prominent Li Dabin family in the Longxi region. It was then reconstructed several times in the late Tang Dynasty, the Western Xia Period, and the Qing Dynasty. The focus of Cave 148 is the huge sculpture of Buddha attaining Nirvana, as well as the many paintings of the Nirvana Sutra transformation.

Mogao Cave 148 Main Chamber

The floorplan of the main chamber of cave 148 is of a rectangular shape, with a longitudinally vaulted ceiling. On the Buddhist altar in the middle of the cave is the statue of the Sakyamuni attaining Nirvana, with his head at the south, feet the north, and face the east. The statue lies with both feet closed together, the right side of the body resting on the right hand. The whole statue has a length of 14.40 meters. In terms of size, it is the second largest Nirvana statue in the Mogao Grottoes. Behind the Nirvana statue are many statues of different Bodhisattvas, monks, and celestial beings, most are reconstructed in later dynasties.

Nirvana is a core concept in Buddhism. It refers to the highest attainment of Buddhist practice. In terms of etymology, “Nirvana” refers to the putting out of the flames of greed, hatred and ignorance of the human world in one’s heart. Attaining the state of Nirvana means abandonment and liberation from ignorance and desires. The experience of Nirvana can only be attained through correct and persistent Buddhist practices. As Buddhism spread and developed, the state of “Nirvana” was infused with more complex and philosophical implications. When a Buddhist practitioner passes away, it would be referred to as entering the state of Parinirvana or Nirvana out of deference.

Nirvana Sutra Transformation: Pleading for Relics, Mogao Cave 148 west wall

Surrounding the Nirvana statue are huge paintings of Nirvana sutra in strips, spanning the whole of the south, west and north walls. They depict the historical and fragmented mythological stories of Sakyamuni’s Parinirvana, based on the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. The set of murals is about 2.50 meters high, and 23 meters long. The paintins include 10 set of scenes, 66 storylines, and more than 500 human characters and animals, making them the largest painting of Nirvana Sutra among the Dunhuang murals. The entire painting was laid out in harmonious compositions, and is magnificent, vivid, and colorful, featuring elegant landscapes and refined architectures. It is pleasing to the eyes and a wonder to appreciate. It also has 66 title inscriptions written in ink, which provide precious first-hand data for interpretation.

Nirvana Sutra Transformation: Cremation, Mogao Cave 148 west wall
Nirvana Sutra Transformation: Eight Kings Dividing the Relics, Mogao Cave 148 west wall

There are also many other sutra transformation paintins in the cave, such as the “Medicine Buddha Sutra” and “Amitayurdhyana Sutra” transformations on the east wall of the main chamber, the “Maitreya Sutra” and portraits of Manjusri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva on the south and north walls. All of them are the largest scales among Dunhuang murals of the same themes. The “Gratitude Sutra” and “Devata Sutra” transformation on the ceiling of the hallway are innovative themes that first appeared in this cave among all Mogao Grottoes, and were later widely imitated in caves of later dynasties. The paintings in Cave 148 feature rich contents, exquisite technique and complex architectural compositions. The relative perspective of the background landscapes were treated with masterful skill and gorgeous colors. They boast important historical, artistic and religious values.