Mogao Cave 202 (Early Tang Dynasty)

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

Mogao Cave 202 was built in the early Tang dynasty. It was a standard palatial style cave for Buddha worshipping. It features a square floorplan and an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling. When it was first built, only the polychrome sculptures in the west wall niche and the Dharma preaching mural above the door on the east wall were completed. The rest of the cave was finished in the middle Tang dynasty. During the Song dynasty, the entry of the cave was renovated and the ceiling and murals inside the hallway were repainted.

Mogao Cave 202 interior

The main west wall niche houses a group of statues, the Buddha, his two disciples, two Bodhisattvas, and two Vajra Guardians. All of them were remodeled during the Qing dynasty. The center statue, the Shakyamuni Buddha sits cross-legged on a Semuru seat, appearing to preach the Dharma. He has a round face, a full body, a solemn but kind expression on his face, and wears a brown-red kasaya with a thick texture. The face of the Buddha was repainted to be covered with gold dust in the Qing dynasty. Behind the Buddha is a nimbus in the patterns of lotus flowers, honeysuckles, Nirmanakayas and flames with rich layers, giving the set a dynamic but solemn effect. The eldest disciple, Kasyapa, and the younger one, Ananda, are both standing on the two sides of the Buddha. Though they were rebuilt in the Qing dynasty, Kasyapa still looks full of wisdom, solemnity, and sophistication, while Ananda is natural, reverent, smart, and childish. In particular, Ananda’s kasaya collar was painted with a bright and eye-catching color combination of round red flowers and green leaves against a white background. The attendant Bodhisattvas beside the disciples appear gentle and have kind smiles. Their hair were combed into topknots, and their long scarves and gorgeous long skirts accentruate their graceful figures. The two Vajra Guardians are guardians of the Buddhist land. They are both naked in their upper bodies, and wearing a martial dress around their waist and standing barefooted. Their tense muscles and dynamic postures highlight strong physiques and musculature and imply abundant potential energy and constant flow of tension. They look as furious and fierce as a tiger or lion, while holding a Vajra in their hand, symbolizing solidity, sharpness and invincibility. These Vajra Guardians statues give a sense of majesty and solemnity.

Lotus Sutra Transformation, Two Buddhas in the Treasure Pagoda, Mogao Cave 202 west wall niche top

An illustration of the Lotus Sutra was painted at the top of the niche. The Buddhas of Shakyamuni and Prabhutaratna are sitting side by side in the middle pagoda. The Bodhisattvas emerging out of the sea as depicted in the “Chapter of Devadatta” and those emerging out of the ground as depicted in the “Chapter of Emerging out of the Earth” were painted on both sides below the pagoda. Connecting the statues inside the niche, they form a picture with three horizontal lines, continuing the preserved tradition of early horizontal scroll style painting composition.

The Lotus Sutra transformation inside the niche is also roughly divided into three levels. At the upper level are the transformed bodies of the Shakyamuni Buddha from ten directions gathered in midair. In the middle level is the Buddha applying his magic power to guide and lead the Bodhisattvas, the Four Heavenly Kings, the eight categories of supernatural beings to fly into the sky. The lower level are six Bodhisattvas arranged in threes on the left and right side, representing the Bodhisattvas emerging out of the sea and earth, respectively. The six monks in the middle are receiving instructions from the Buddha on the Lotus Sutra. The two Buddhas sitting side by side in the middle do not only occupy the largest portion of space, but also play the role to link each part of the mural. This composition style is a transition from a horizontal scroll style to a centripetal style in representing the Lotus Sutra. The Bodhisattvas emerging from earth on the right side seem to rise to paradise riding on clouds. The leading figure is offering her necklace and keyura. The middle one is worshiping with her palms together devoutly. And the last one turns around to look over the human world, seeming reluctant to part with it.

Above the statues of the Heavenly Kings inside the niche was two portraits of Bodhisattvas on each side. The north portraits are discolored from serious oxidization. The south ones can still been seen as wearing gorgeous long skirts covering slender figures. One has a palm facing upward and heading toward the Dharma assembly, while the other leaning with both palms clasped together in worship. These four Bodhisattvas are all riding on auspicious clouds, rushing towards the Dharma assembly.

In addition, it can be seen from the mural that during the early Tang dynasty the colors of murals were mainly black, brown and auburn, giving a composed, dignified and simple composition. However, the two colors black and brown may be the result of discoloration from other colors.

Mogao Cave 202 Caisson Ceiling

The caisson ceiling in Cave 202 was painted with coiled dragons and lotus flowers with folded petals. The four slopes are covered with a valance pattern surrounded by twelve musicians and dancers. Caisson ceiling is an important component of traditional Chinese architecture, which was generally used to decorate the highest point in the middle of the ceiling. It is formed by corbeling and crossing wood along the four sides, and then painted with color.

Dragons are mythical creatures worshiped by Chinese people that have unique artistic charms. The image of dragon was created by the Chinese some 5,000 years ago. Dragon was often taken as a symbol of imperial power, and has been used as traditional decoration throughout the times. The appearance of dragons in Buddhist grottoes is evidence of the Chinese adaptation of Buddhist arts.

The pattern of lotus flowers with folded petals painted around the coiled dragon highlights the dynamic and gorgeous visual effect of the ceiling. The valance were painted in layers on the four slopes, and feature square and rolling tendril patterns. The images of musicians and dancers underneath no longer appear as dynamic, light and graceful as those from the early and flourishing periods of the Tang dynasty, often dancing in midair with flowy ribbons. Instead, dancers in this cave are flying with thin and floating clouds that are highly decorative, and the style appears a bit clumsy.

Smaller Thousand Buddhas also cover the four slopes. There used to be a title inscription of the name of the Buddha on the upper right hand corner of each, but most have turned black due to oxidization. These smaller Buddhas come in pairs, of which one has a green back halor, a white kasaya and a black title inscription, while the other has a white back halo, a black kasaya, and a red title inscription. The pairs were painted alternatively, and appear to be in groups when viewed horizontally, but in lines when viewed sideways. Among the Thousand Buddhas is a Dharma preaching Buddha sitting within a pagoda, surrounded by Bodhisattvas and disciples. In front of the pagoda is a terrace and railings, increasing the perspective effects of the image.

Outside the niche are two illustrations of the Manjusri and Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas are on each side. Manjusri represents great virtue and luck. Among all the Bodhisattvas, Manjusri is ranked first in eloquence, who is in charge of virtue, and a symbol of highest wisdom. He is honored as the “Great Wisdom Manjusri”. He has attained Buddhahood long ago, but in order to assist the Buddha with educating and enlightening all living beings, he was willing to serve as a Left Attendant Bodhisattva instead. According to legend, the ashram where he appeared and preached was Mount Wutai in China’s Shanxi Province.

Samantabhadra Bodhisattva was in charge of virtues of reason and conduct. He is a symbol of Samadhi, namely the concept of Buddhism. So he is honored as the “Great Conduct Samantabhadra”. He is the Right Attendant Bodhisattva of Sakyamuni. According to legend, the ashram where he appeared and preached was Mount Emei in China’s Sichuan Province.

Since the Manjusri Bodhisattva embodies knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment, while Samantabhadra embodies reason, Samadhi and conduct, they represent the fulfillment of reasoning, wisdom, intelligence, and enlightenment of the Sakyamuni Buddha. They are above all Bodhisattvas, and often assist in the dissemination of Sakyamuni’s guidance and goodness.

When being portrayed in Buddhist arts, the Manjusri Bodhisattva is always riding a lion, while the Samantabhadra riding an elephant. The former originates from the translation of the Dharani Sutra during early Tang dynasty, which symbolizes the bravery and fearlessness of wisdom. The latter originates from the record of the Lotus Sutra in the Story of the Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. It states in the sutra that Sakyamuni said, after his Nirvana, if someone recited the Lotus Sutra, the Samantabhadra Bodhisattva would ride a six-tusked elephant to protect the reciter. Other than these symbols, the design also represented the power to subdue and conquer any beast and devil with infinite strength and spirit of wisdom and faith, parallel that to the purifying people’s minds and creating a peacful human world.

The images of Manjusri riding a lion and Samantabhadra riding an elephant in Dunhuang murals first appeared in Cave 220, which was recorded to be built in the 16th year of Zhenguan (642 A.D.). According to the records of Famous Paintings of the Past Dynasties, Yin Lin, a painter during the early Tang dynasty, painted an image of Manjusri riding a lion in the west chamber and an image of Samantabhadra riding an elephant in the east chamber in the pagoda at the Ci’en Temple in Chang’an. Since this layout follows the rule of symmetry, namely the symmetry between Manjusri and Samantabhadra, and the lion and white elephant, it was rapidly adopted on grotto entrances or niches, and was inherited all the way to the Guiyijun Regime period.

The belief in the Manjusri and Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas in Dunhuang murals are not limited to portraits (30), but also include Manjusri and Samantabhadra Sutra transformations (around 130) as well as in the Vimalakirti Sutra transformation (around 70). The latter two prevailed during the Tang and Song dynasties. The landscapes of the ashram of Manjusri at Mount Wutai and that of Samantabhadra at Mount Emei are often remarkable in the sutra transformations. All of these show the lasting fervor of faith in the Manjusri and Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas, second only to the Avalokiteśvara among all Bodhisattvas.

The portraits of Manjusri and Samantabhadra in Cave 202 were painted on both sides above the Buddhist niche, and feature a smaller scale and simpler content compared to later creations. The aforesaid illustrations simply featured the Manjusri riding a lion on the south and the Samantabhadra riding an elephant on the north, followed by five Bodhisattvas each. However, with the passage of time, serious detachment of the colors has occurred, and the details of the mural have become vague, and only the basic outlines can be seen.

Below the Manjusri and Samantabhadra are the Southern and Northern Heavenly Kings respectively. They each is wearing a helmet and an armor, treading on a goblin, appearing full of dignity and grandeur, reflecting military officers iamges of that time. Heavenly Kings are Dharma protectors, whose duty is to eliminate demons and guard the Pure Land. Therefore, Heavenly Kings generally tread on an evil spirit. The evil spirit often looks ugly and painful in struggle. They form striking contrasts with the tall and mighty Heavenly Kings, implying that evil will never prevail over justice.

Maitreya sutra transformation, Mogao Cave 202 south wall

An illustration of the Maitreya Sutra was painted during the Middle Tang dynasty on the south wall. The belief in Maitreya consists of two parts, the world where Maitreya has ascended and the world where Maitreya has descended.

In the belief in Maitreya Ascension, the former disciple of Sakymuni passed away before the Buddha and ascended into the Tusita Heaven to be a Bodhisattva. He would live there for 5.6 billion years before descending to the sahāloka to be the Buddha. The period when he stays in the Tusita Heaven is called the ascension of Maitreya. The Sutra on the Ascension of Maitreya is mainly a depiction of the various landscapes in Tusita Heaven, yet it did not record what Maitreya did during the long period. Those who believe in the world of ascension hope that they can see and stay with Maitreya in Tusita Heaven after their death and return with him to the sahāloka that has already been tranformed into a Pure Land after 5.6 billion years.

The belief in Maitreya’s Descendent is that after 5.6 billion years, the sahāloka changed from a filthy land to a pure one, where the ground is as flat as a mirror covered by all kinds of flowers and grass. People enjoy a lifespan of 84,000 years; women get married at the age of 500; crops are harvested seven times a year, and clothes grow out from trees like fruits. When one is going to relieve oneself, the ground will split and contain the excretions. Maitreya descended from heaven and was born into the family of a minister in Ketumati City. After he grows up, he would witness Brahman destroying a dhvajā and realize the uncertainty of life and become a monk to study Buddhism. After attaining Buddhahood, he convert numerous people to Buddhism.

This illustration of the Maitreya Sutra was painted during the Middle Tang dynasty on the south wall of Cave 202. Maitreya’s ascension accounts for 1/5 of the mural, of which the Maitreya is sitting in the middle of a palace preaching the Dharma, surrounded by Bodhisattvas and disciples. The picture is quite simple. The lower part of the painting accounts for the remaining 4/5 of the world where Maitreya descended to. The composition is of an interspersed style, of which the three Dharma assemblies by Maitreya were painted in the middle, arranged in a herringbone style. Maitreya was surrounded by disciples, Bodhisattvas, eight categories of supernatural beings and all holy beings on the left and right. The scenario of the dhvajā dismantlement comes before the first assembly, and the scenarios of the tonsure ceremony are on both sides. Maitreya’s birth, marriage and the entering the grave are painted in empty spaces among the three assemblies.

Clothes growing out of trees, Maitreya Sutra Transformation, Mogao Cave 202 south wall

Above the door on the east wall in Cave 202 is Shakyamuni preaching the Dharma from early Tang dynasty. On both sides are illustrations of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra from the Middle Tang dynasty.

The illustration of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Sutra was painted on the south above the door, adopting a scroll style composition. The illustration is relatively small, and the scene not sufficiently grand. In the pond is a large platform and lotus flowers. The Medicine Buddha is sitting in the middle on the platform, surrounded by Bodhisattvas and disciples listening attentively to his preaching. There are twelve Heavenly Generals, also called the Twelve Supreme Beings, on both sides. They are dependents of Shakyamuni and are charged with guarding the believers of the Medicine Buddha. They appear very prominent in the Dharma assembly of the Medicine Buddha in this illustration. By painting and highlighting plots of different worlds together, it demonstrated that the belief in Medicine Buddha was already deeply rooted among the Chinese people at that time, as they needed the protection of the Twelve Supreme Beings.

In the heavenly palace at the upper part of the illustration are two images of flying Apsaras giving out perfume and scattering flowers, flying and dancing freely, heightening the atmosphere. In addition, there are two groups of light trees as worships for the Medicine Buddha. On the sides, the contents of the “Nine Kinds of Violent Death” and “Twelve Great Vows” were painted in the form of vertical scrolls. In the middle and lower parts of the scroll on the south side, scenes of drowning, jumping off a cliff, and being chased by beasts can be discerned, though most have become blurred as the murals have detached from the wall.

Amitabha Preaching, above Mogao Cave 202 entry on the east wall

To the north above the entrance is an illustration of the Amitabha Sutra, in which the Amitabha Buddha is preaching the Dharma, surrounded by Bodhisattvas. The illustration is simple in both scale and content. The scene of Dharma preaching accounts for 2/3 of the picture. The Amitabha Buddha is in the middle, appearing dignified, with hands forming the Dharmachakra-Mudrā. He is sitting on a lotus throne and preaching the Dharma, while the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva are standing on his left and right side, further surrounded by disciples and Bodhisattvas attentively listening to the sermon. On the platform on both sides below the picture is a Buddha sitting upright, followed by dependents who have come to listen to the Dharma. The entire Dharma preaching scene is set against a rippling Lotus Pond, surrounded by carved railings. The scene lacks the grandure of early and High Tang dynasty paintings, which have jade edifices and towers of magnificent scale depicting the “Pure Land in the West”. This illustration, however, features a well-knit structure, which can be seen as an extension of earlier styles. It is a pity that colors have detached and the mural has already been blurry.

On both sides of the entrance on the east wall is a portrait of a Heavenly King from Middle Tang dynasty, namely the Southern and Northern Heavenly King. Heavenly Kings are gods in ancient Indian folks before Buddhism. After the establishment of Buddhism, they were incorporated as Dharma protectors. They are generals serving Śakra in the Mount Semuru, a holy mountain in the center of the world. According to Buddhist scriptures, the Four Heavenly Kings and their dependents lived at the Four Peaks of Gandhara halfway up the holy mountain of Sumeru, where they guard and protect Buddhist doctrines and defend the Four Great Regions at the foot of the Sumeru Mountain.

On the sides of the gate to Cave 202 are the portraits of the Virūḍhaka and Vaiśravaṇa. Virūḍhaka in the South got his name from his vows to promote the dignity and virtue of all beings, the growth of all creatures, and to defend the Jambudvipa in the south of the Buddhist Land and protect its people. Vaiśravaṇa in the North was also the leader of Yakshas, and Kubera, the God of Wealth. He earned his name for his guard of the ashram where the Buddha was preaching the Dharma, and listening to the preaching himself. He defended the Uttarakuru in the north of the Buddhist Land and protected the people there.

The two Heavenly Kings are both wearing helmets and armors, and have dark faces full of dignity and grandeur, reflecting styles of military officers from that time. From their faces, costumes and armors, they were essentially modeled in Chinese style. Their facial expressions are depicted in detail with serious frowns, as if remaining alert against an invasion of demons and monsters that could happen at any time. Their appearances are also similar to the common people, which makes them approachable. In addition, as there were no strict rules regarding their designs, their character modelings were unfettered. Their facial expressions appear richer, freer and livelier than the solemnity of the Buddha and the merciful expressions of the Bodhisattvas, allowing the artists to better express their feelings, emotions and wishes of the times. Heavenly Kings have appeared in large numbers in the Mogao Grottoes, in the forms of statues or portraits with various bearings, indicating that they were popularly worshiped and appreciated at the time.

Behind the Virūḍhaka on the south is his dependent kumbhāṇḍa, who is of green eyes and brows, topless, and has a white belt tied to the waist while wearing a pair of pants with a floral pattern. He is holding a long-pole flag, following on the heels of the Heavenly King. His headdress is quite special, making his hair bristling with fury. It might be made of feathers with flamboyant and distinctive ethnic features. The hair of the Yaksha behind the Northern Heavenly King is also bristling. He is topless, wearing a short skirt with white dots against a red background, holding a long-pole ceremonial banner, and is also follows on the heels of the Heavenly King.

The mural paintings in the hallway of Cave 202 all dated to the Song dynasty. There is a painting of “Ksitigarbha and the Ten Kings of Hell” in the center of the top. The south slope was painted with seven standing Medicine Buddha portraits, the north six more in addition to the Bodhisattvas. Seven sitting Buddhas were painted on the upper part of both the south and north walls, with male and female donor portraits below. Since there is no title inscription, the identities of these donors cannot be verified.

In the painting of the “Ksitigarbha and the Ten Kings of Hell”, the Ksitigarbha is the main figure, with five Kings of Hell each on the left and right. The Ten Kings of Hell are dressed in the styles of Chinese officials, with long robes and wide sleeves. They are either clasping their hands in devotion or holding a tablet before their chests. There is an altar table in front of all the Ten Kings to indicate their identities as judges. Due to a wooden frame being installed during later dynasties, this painting was partially damaged. Now the head of the Ksitigarbha has been broken, and the two Kings of Hell at the uppermost are completely covered.

The Chinese name of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (Di Zang) is a liberal translation, wherein the character “Di” means dwelling and the character “Zang” means hiding. According to Buddhism, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva accepted an entrustment from the Sakyamuni before he passed away. During the Buddha-less period after Sakyamuni’s passing away and Maitreya’s rebirth, Ksitigarbha vowed to release all creatures in the six realms of existence from purgatory and to salvage them from all kinds of sufferings. Just as the Food Supply Ceremony for Hungry Ghosts in the Collection of Yoga says, “The Bodhi will not be attained until all creatures are saved from suffering, and Buddhahood will not be attained before hell is empty”. According to the Sutra of the Ten Wheels of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, he “insisted on practicing ksamama and remained still like the land (di), and practicing meditation and contemplation as deep as being concealed (zang)”, so he was called “Di Zang” (God of Earth). Now that the God of Earth has assumed a great duty in salvaging and rescuing all beings and creatures, the believers and followers can be freed from suffering by reciting the name of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva devoutly.

One of the Ten Kings of Hell, Mogao Cave 202 Hallway top

Being a Bodhisattva, his appearance is different from that of other Bodhisattvas. He has received a tonsure ceremony to have his hair cut. He is a Sravaka Bhiksu wearing a kasaya, which is similar to the images of Buddhist monks often seen. In the murals of Dunhuang during the early and the High Tang dynasty, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva usually holds a string of beads, and his hands forming a mudra. Afterwards, the modeling of Ksitigarbha had some changes with the dissemination of the Ksitigarbha Belief. They started to appear wearing a hood and holding a string of Mani beads and a staff. Where the former means to satisfy the wishes of all beings and creatures, the latter represents caring for all sentient beings and creatures and strict Buddhist disciplines. Such an image of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is just like a monk roaming far and wide in an effort to save all people from suffering, thus appearing more approachable. The image of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva wearing a monk hood was common and popular, and has appeared in large numbers since the late Tang dynasty. He wears a hood woven with textile fabric on his head, and the hood hangs down to his shoulder.

As to the origin of the image of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva wearing a monk hood, there are no related records in Buddhist scriptures and literature, so it is unclear how such an image emerged. However, the story of Dao Ming, a monk of the Kaiyuan Temple in Xiangzhou, visiting the Nether World, was recorded in the article of “The Revival of Dao Ming after His Death”, Dunhuang Manuscript S.3092. According to the records, Dao Ming came across the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and saw that his “eyes were like green lotus, his face as round as the full moon, his feet on a lotus seat, a necklace of precious stones around his neck, and the golden rings on his staff giving out a clear sound”. Dao Ming did not recognize him, so the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva said, my images “featuring a bald head without any covering” was incorrect. Based on this account, it can be inferred that the portrait of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva wearing a monk hood was likely to start to get popular since the late Tang dynasty. However, it was confirmed in the Sutra of Ten Wheels that the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva was in the form of a monk, and the criticism in the Story of Dao Ming made no sense, but the image of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva wearing a monk hood has already been widespread, making it a strange instance in the study of Buddhist fine arts.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who try to enlighten the six realms of existence, especially the human world, such as the Amitabha Buddha, the Medicine Buddha, and the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. Compared with the Avalokitesvara belief, mostly to seek benefits for this life, or to be reborn into the Pure Land, the Ksitigarbha belief assumes the duties of maintaining the six realms of existence, connecting life and death, getting all the souls out of the purgatory and the circle of sin and saving the souls out of the hell. People pray to him to liberate all souls from suffering. Once the alive commit the dead to the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’s care, it can ease their restlessness and worry, allowing them to enjoy peace and comfort.

In the Sutra of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva unearthed from the Library Cave, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva was inspecting and supervising the judgement of the Yama in the Hell. The Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva was living in the southern glazed world, who was witnessing the suffering of all souls in the Nether World. He could not stand the sight, so he made a visit hell to inspect whether the Yama had misjudged any case. For those who have created portraits of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, chanted the Sutra of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and chanted his name before their death, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva greeted them personally to save them from falling into hell and salvage them out of sin, enabling them to be reborn into paradise. In this way, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva connects the realms of life and death through the liberation of souls, and was thus widely followed by all people. The content and emergence of the illustrations of the “Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and Ten Kings of the Hell” reflects that the Ksitigarbha belief was deeply rooted in Dunhuang during the late Tang dynasty and the Five Dynasties.