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Built in the High Tang Dynasty, Mogao Cave 172 features an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling. There is a Buddhist niche carved in the west wall with statues of one Buddha, two disciples, two Bodhisattvas and two Heavenly Kings and paintings of Buddha’s disciples inside. The caisson ceiling is decorated with a rounded-floral pattern with circular net and thousand Buddha motif painted on the background. On the south and north walls are illustrations of the Amitayurdhyana Sutra. And on the two sides of the entrance on the east wall are paintings of the Manjusri and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. Though the theme of this cave is simple, the murals are masterpieces. The most beautiful and eye-catching feature of this cave is likely the large illustrations on the south and north walls of the main chamber.
Sutra illustrations (transformations) are paintings created based on Buddist scripts. Artists transform sciptures that are difficult to understand into vivid paintings to promote understanding of Buddhism and to enable the general public to better approach it. The Amitayurdhyana Sutra transformations are one of the most common and important sutra illustrations among Dunhuang murals. However, to paint the same theme on both walls inside one cave was rare in the Mogao Grottoes.
There are a total of 89 Amitayurdhyana Sutra transformations in the Mogao Grottoes, ranking third after the Medicine Buddha Sutra and the Maitreya Sutra transformations. The illustration of Amitayurdhyana Sutra did not appear in Dunhuang until the early Tang dynasty. Though appearing relatively late, its earliest stencil paper originated from the Central Plains. It was thus already quite mature by the time it arrived in Dunhuang. By the High Tang dynasty, the number of such illustrations increased abruptly, and were complete in content and diverse in form, becoming the main theme of illustrations of heavenly paradise in Dunhuang. In terms of content, these illustrations all depicted the stories of Ajatashatru and the Sixteen Contemplations. Therefore, the illustrations of Amitayurdhyana Sutra are most definitive.
Such illustrations sprang up suddenly during the Tang dynasty, which was closely related to the development of the Pure Land School of Buddhism at that time. The Tang dynasty witnessed the peak of the thoughts of Pure Land of Amitabha in China and the formation of the Pure Land School. Many influential and eminent monks of the Pure Land School in China were active during that period, and many of them were devoted to promoting the “Amitayurdhyana Sutra”. Unlike other sutras, the Amitayurdhyana Sutra only briefly mentioned the “Dharma Assembly” in the preface, but described the story of Ajatashatru at considerable length. The text is about the Sixteen Contemplations, of which the Buddha explained to Lady Veidehi on how to see the Pure Land of the Amitabha Buddha and how to be reborn into that Pure Land.
The story of Ajatashatru goes like this. In the Kingdom of Magadha in India, the king had a son whose name was Ajatashatru. One day, abetted by an evil friend called Devadatta, the prince raised an army to launch a coup against his father and usurped the throne. He imprisoned his father and attempted to starve him to death. The king’s wife Lady Vaidehi covered her body with honey and flour, filled her necklace with grape juice when she visited her husband. Meanwhile, the king begged two disciples of the Buddha, Maudgalyayana and Purna, to ordain him to monkhood and preach the Buddhist doctrine. The survived 21 days by taking the food from his wife and listening to the Dharma. When the prince found out what had happened, he nailed his father to death and tried to kill his mother with a sword. He was dissuaded from doing so by his ministers, but threw his mother to prison. The imprisoned queen prayed to the Buddha. The Buddha and his two disciples Maudgalyayana and Ananda arrived to explain how to get rid of worldly troubles by visualizing the Pure Land. These visualizations are known as the “Sixteen Contemplations”.
According to the Sutra of Illuminating Bodhisattva (which has been lost), it was predestined that Prince Ajatashatru was to kill his parents. When the couple was young, they were eager for a son. A fortune teller told them that there was a monk meditating in the mountains, who would be born as their son. The king then cut off the food supply to the monk and starved him to death. After knowing the monk was reborn into a white rabbit, the king caught the rabbit and nailed it to death. The queen finally got pregnant and gave birth to a son. The prince would thus harm his parents out of karma. The king and queen had “reaped what they have sown”.
The Sixteen Contemplations are signature scenes in the Amitayurdhyana Sutra. They include: first, the vision of sunset; second, the vision of water; third, the vision of land;, fourth, the vision of trees; fifth, the vision of the pond of virtue; sixth, the vision of towers; seventh, the vision of lotus thrones; eighth, the vision of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; ninth, the vision of the real bodies of Buddhas; tenth, the vision of the real body of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva; eleventh, the vision of the real body of the Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva; twelfth, the vision of being transformed in the heavenly paradise; thirteenth, the vision of the vast void; fourteenth, the vision of the highest level; fifteenth, the vision of the middle level; and sixteenth, the vision of the lower level. Through these Sixteen Contemplations, the devotees will be able to understand and “be reborn into” the west paradise. In the Mogao Grottoes, the Sixteen Contemplations had always been expressed with the image of a lady kneeling and envisioning thirteen or sixteen scenarios from the early Tang dynasty to the Song dynasty (no more illustrations of this sutra were found after the Song dynasty). In iconography analysis, the content of the “Sixteen Contemplations” can be divided into three major groups: the various landscapes of the Pure Land (Contemplations 1-6); the images of the three Amitabha Buddhas (Contemplations 7-13); and the nine different levels of rebirth (Contemplations 14-16), which are simple and clear. In fact, the “Sixteen Contemplations” represent a virtual kingdom, in which there are palaces, gardens, zoos, lakes, the king (the Amitabha), civil and military ministers (Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattvas), and the celestial beings are divided into nine ranks, similar to that of the human world.
The murals on the south and north walls of Mogao Cave 172 are both in a triplet style. The Pure Land of the West was painted in the center, and the story of Ajatashatru and sceneries of the Sixteen Contemplations are on the two sides. These together form a full illustration covering the entire wall. The illustrations of the Amitayurdhyana Sutra in Cave 172 not only depict the content in a vivid and interesting manner, but are also diverse and colorful in painting techniques, bringing out aesthetic enjoyment and space for imagination.
For example, the “vision of the sunset” in the “Sixteen Contemplations” are to imagine the vision of a sunset. The work on the top is an excellent landscape. Since there are two Amitayurdhyana Sutra transformations, there are two “the visions of sunset”. The same content is painted quite differently in this same cave. The sunset scene on the south wall is quiet and elegant. It contains elements such as green mountains and flowing water, cliffs and a stream. Against such a background, a woman is kneeling at the bank of the stream, watching and envisioning the sunset in the distance. The stream flows as thin as a thread along a winding route from faraway. The sun is covered under a thin cloud, evoking a feeling of loss and nostalgia.
The same scene on the north wall, however looks quite different. There is a mountain with grotesque rocks with no grass, appearing lofty and steep. In front of the mountain is the ocean, with an islet in it. In the distance, the sunset is as red as blood, which reddens the mountain. At the seaside is a woman kneeling and listening to the tide. The tide hits the shore, retreating into the sea after rolling up snow-like waves. The image depicted a tidal surge of emotions. The tones are also different from the painting on the south wall, which mainly features mineral green. The south wall painting appears profound, and the north intense. They seem to form a contrast between harsh with soft, and at the same time complementing each other with radiance and beauty.
There are also many architecture complexes in the illustrations. Most of them are reflections of real Buddhist temples from the Sui and Tang dynasties, which offer us precious research materials.
Han ethnic Buddhist temples were first built according to government office layouts in the Han dynasty. Many officials and noble lords also offered patronage in converting existing residences into temples. Therefore, Chinese Buddhist temples had integrated the architectural forms of dwellings and adopted the traditional courtyard style. Generally speaking, palatial halls are at intervals along a south-north central axis, usually starting from the main entrance to the temple, which will be surrounded by corridors or pavilions.
The earliest Buddhist temples, however, were built following the Indian style, in which the stupa is the main part of the temple and usually built in front of the main hall. After the Jin and Tang dynasties, the hall where the statue of the Buddha was enshrined gradually became the main part of a temple, while the stupa was resigned to a secondary position. Sometimes, the stupa was even built outside the temple in a separate stupa courtyard.
The architectural style of Buddhist temples during the Tang dynasty, showed characters of the Han ethnic Buddhist temples. First, in terms of scale, most of temples did not surpass government buildings. In the capital city, they did not surpass the royal palaces; and in the prefectures and counties, they hardly surpassed the palace of a prince. As to their location, they usually serve as companions to royal palaces, or local government offices. In terms of forms and structures, Chinese Buddhist temples did not form their own system. Unlike churches in Europe which are entirely different from other types of building, but share common features with palaces, government buildings, and mansions. The artistic nature of Chinese Buddhist temples or pagodas usually appears demure, peaceful and natural, with the touch of humanity and a simple logic that is easy to understand. These religious architectures are filled with the rational spirit of humanism as advocated by Confucianism.
The prototype of Indian Buddhism is of pessimism. Although Tang dynasty Buddhism was considered as belonging to the Mahayana branch, it had actually become a Chinese style Buddhism filled with secular elements. The characteristics of Buddhist temples during the Sui and Tang dynasties was brilliant, enthusiastic, mild and modest. The Buddhist temples are usually not only religious centers, but also a public culture centers. With splendid architectures, glorious murals on the Pure Land of Buddhism and images of Bodhisattvas as beautiful as maidens in the imperial palace, they have also become a garden of artistic expression and appreciation. With rich Dharma assemblies and ceremonies, vivid sutra preaching for lay people and singing and dancing performances, the temples have become a place for gathering, attractive to the public. It was recorded in the New Tales of the South by Qian Yi in the Tang dynasty that “In Chang’an, theatrical stages are mainly concentrated at the temples like Ci’en, Qinglong, Jianfu and Baoshou.” Since peonies in the Ci’en Temple was very famous, “on the 15th day of the third month, people come to the two streets to appreciate the peony flowers, as carts and horses run about.” These added a touch of human life to Buddhist temples. Aside from the seriousness and mysticism of the religion, Chinese Buddhist temples are full of humanistic elements that associated with cultural spirits like that in the height of the Renaissance. Buddhism in India is somewhat similar to the cold, grim, ascetic nature reflected in Christian churches during the Middle Ages.
The murals and paintings of the Pure Land during the High Tang dynasty contained splendid landscapes in the temples. Both illustrations of the Amitayurdhyana Sutra in Cave 172 used perspectives overlooking the temple from a high point, revealing strict symmetry of the temple’s layouts. In the middle and lower parts of the murals are large terraces where the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and heavenly beings sit or stand. Below the terrace is a Seven-treasure Pond with green ripples and lotus flowers in full bloom. In the middle of the upper part are single-eave and hip-roofed halls, behind which are other high buildings. The architectures on the central axis are very prominent. There are side halls on each side of the main palace. Both sides further extend toward the left and right out of the corridor. The buildings are connected with the side hall on both sides, forming a concave plane. There is a turret on the roof at the corners. Bells and scriptures are stored in these turrets. The arch tops of the turrets add elegant curves to the building complex against the skyline. Through the turrets are vast and misty wilderness, which was painted without much ink, but has made the surrounding appearing wide and far-reaching.
These murals of Buddhist temples highlight the major characteristic of Chinese architecture, emphasizing the beauty of the complex. Each single architectural piece shows a clear subject-object relationship. For example, the front hall is usually the largest and the main composition element of the complex. It is offset by other buildings such as side halls, entrance halls, corridors and turrets. Each courtyard also shows a similar relationship. The main courtyard in front of the main hall on the central axis is the center, leading towards smaller courtyards. The architectural complex shows single-floor buildings and pavilions rising and falling alternately. The long, low and flat corridors set off the turrets on the height to form a beautiful skyline. The relative positioning of single buildings shows a rigorous organic relationship. For example, the horizontal axis lies in front of the front hall. The distance between the horizontal axis and the front hall is meaningful. It can not be too far as it would weaken the echo between the front and the side halls. Nor can it be too near, since it will make the front and the side halls appear too crowded. These relations form a rational network that incorporates each part into an integral whole.
The architectural composition is rational. The architectural scale is not too large. Even a Buddhist temple, one will not be stuck in a state of religious fanaticism, rather it is a place where one can feel peace and tranquility of the Pure Land of Buddhism. This character of the Buddhist temples during the Tang dynasty were inherited by later dynasties, maybe with the exceptiong of architectures in Tibetan Buddhism. However, Buddhist temples in the Tang dynasty were more splendid and magnificent than those in later dynasties, with simpler styles and easier bearings.
The murals in Cave 172 feature thick and gorgeous colors and grand scales. The artists were also careful and meticulous about details. Bucket arch is a structure unique to and extensively used in wooden architectures in China. They are used in the joints for structural support and decoration. It appeared in architectures at the end of the Shang and beginning of the Zhou dynasties. By the Han dynasty, groups of bucket arches were already used extensively in important buildings. The ruling class in ancient times used the number of layers of bucket arches to indicate ranking and building classifications. During the Ming dynasty, it was required that “bucket arches and colored ornaments are forbidden in folk dwellings”. For officials from the first to fifth ranks, they were allowed to paint bucket arches with the color of bluish green (according to the “Ranks of Houses and Appliances” in the Code of Great Ming Dynasty). It was also clearly required that bucket arches and colored carvings were forbidden in folk dwellings. Therefore, bucket arches were only allowed in imperial palaces, temples and high-ranking official mansion edifices. Artists based on palaces and temples from reality in painting heavenly paradises. They were familiar with the architectural classification of the Tang dynasty and clearly highlighted each component of the bucket arches. In addition, they revealed the great and broad styles of bucket arches in the Tang dynasty.
Though it was the same heavenly paradise was on both the south and north walls, skilled artists depicted different architectural forms and styles in the murals. The illustration on the north wall shows the Pure Land in the West, the Dharma assembly, the terrace and the pavilions, all of which are on a misty and vast lake. In the distance, a river seems to be falling from heaven, flowing with roaring waves. When the river flows to the center of the picture, it shows rippling momentum. At the Eight-virtue Pond, mandarin ducks are playing merrily in the water among green lotus leaves and blooming lotus flowers. The Upapāduka boys are sitting on lotus flowers, or inside the buds. On the terrace, peacocks spread their tails, white cranes look back, the Jivajivaka birds stretch their necks and sing, the parrots and the Kalavinka dance, reflecting the description of “all birds give out elegant music day and night”. The architectural layout and perspective used in this painting are particularly striking. The main hall in the middle is the focal point and was painted from an elevated perspective to appear tall. The side halls on both sides are lower than the main hall, and were painted with an overhead perspective to highlight breadth. The pavilions at the back are painted with a leveled perspective to appear far-reaching. Such painting techniques may not be consistent with scientific perspective techniques, but they make the halls, pavilions and terraces in the picture appear orderly. In addition, the heavenly musical instruments, the images of Buddha and apsara in the air show a strong sense of rhythm. A delightful and naughty apsara flies into a window and out of another one. Musical instruments with ribbons added liveliness to the solemn Dharma assembly. The long ribbons and thin clouds form contrasts to the straight lines of the beams, columns and eaves of the buildings.
The mural on the south wall is of its own charm, and is elegant, delicate and exquisite with graceful and quiet figures. The musical instruments that “give out melodious sounds on their own” flies gently in the air with a light and soft ribbon. Within the architectural complex is the main hall in the front with eaves and bucket arches on the top drawn in an elevated perspective, appearing white, holy and natural. The Bodhisattvas have dozens of hairstyles and headwears in the Dharma assembly scene, which is a unique style in the Mogao Grottoes.
Buddhist art in Chang’an had a great influence on the art in the Dunhuang grottoes. It was believed that many Dunhuang murals originated from sketches and drafts from Chang’an during the early Tang dynasty period. Therefore, the Dunhuang murals were not only a product of the local culture, but also the achievement of Chinese paintings during the Tang dynasty. These in the Mogao Grottoes represent a brilliant chapter in the ancient fine arts of China. The story paintings, landscape paintings and architectural paintings in Cave 172 are all artistic masterpieces of the Mogao Grottoes from the High Tang dynasty.