This article is a direct translation of the Chinese text from the Dunhuang Academy website with permission from the Dunhuang Academy. To read the article in Chinese, please click here. Images Courtesy of Digital Dunhuang of the Dunhuang Academy. 此文章为敦煌研究院授权其网站原文翻译。阅读原文中文版请点击这里。图像均由敦煌研究院授权发表。
Mogao Cave 220 is one of the most important early Tang dynasty caves. In 1943, after peeling off paintings of thousand Buddhas from the Song dynasty, the Dunhuang Academy exposed the well-preserved early Tang dynasty murals in the cave, together with ink inscriptions indicating the year 642 A.D. on the front and right walls, which provided evidence for the year of the mural paintings.
This cave has a truncated pyramid ceiling, one niche on the main (west) wall, a whole wall of the Amitabha transformation illustration on the left (south) wall, a whole wall of the Medicine Buddha transformation illustration on the right (north) wall, and the Vamilakirti transformation illustration on the front (east) wall.
Inside the main niche sits one Buddha and two of his disciples, all have been repaired in later generations. The paintings inside the niche ceiling are mostly gone. Those remained still have bright colors with clear red outlines attributing to many years being covered under the Song dynasty paintings. The painted Bodhisattvas illustrated the gorgeous, detailed and peaceful artistic style of the early Tang dynasty.
The Amitabha Transformation Illustration on the left wall was painted base on the Western Paradise described in the “Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra”. It is the earliest-appearing and largest-in-scale pure land transformation illustration in the Mogao Grottoes. According to the Sutra, the Western Pure Land is a place “free of illness, disasters or worries; has no soldiers, slaves, bullies, hungers, or courtiers; doesn’t levy grains, wheat, wines or cloths…It has only fragrant flowers in the morning and Buddhist chants in the evenings.”
The transformation illustration is composed of three parts: the bottom section is the earth, the middle section is the water, and the top section is the sky. On the platform in the middle of the glittering Seven Treasure pond sits Amitabha on the lotus seat, with Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattvas standing next to him on his two sides. In the background are flapping flags and high palaces, all with bright colors. The Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattvas both wear silk garments and colorful wraps, stand in a concentrated and solemn manner. The painted characters showed the appreciation of plumpness and fullness in the Tang dynasty aesthetics. The white skin color has turned brown over the years, naturally making the colors more dynamic and giving a sense of historical simplicity. Surrounding the Amitabha Triad are many deity relatives, totaling 150, organized close to each other yet with certain hierarchies. The earth on the bottom is fenced around by seven treasure fences, has buildings in pairs opposite each other, and is covered with gold sands. The middle section is of music and dances with musicians playing the music, dancers dancing, parrots and peacocks tapping with the beat, showing a scene of ultimate happiness.
The Seven Medicine Buddha on the right wall was painted according to the “Medicine Buddha Sutra”. The main characters are the seven Medicine Buddhas. The Medicine Buddha is the Buddha of the Oriental Pure Land of Lapis Lazuli. They are the Doctor Kings that heal all illnesses. He has two attending Bodhisattvas, the Suryaprabha (Sunlight) and the Chandraprabha (Moonlight), and twelve Medicine Heavenly Kings, protecting all from illnesses and hardships.
The mural painting has the seven Oriental Pure Land Medicine Buddhas in the center stage, eight Bodhisattvas standing next to them. The stage in the middle of the pond is made of red and blue luxurious lapis lazuli. Next to the fence are leaning Bodhisattvas holding lotus flowers in one hand and worshipping the Buddha with the other hand. The water is glittering in the pond and the lotus flowers are blooming. Next to the center stage are heavenly guards and deities. On top of them is the naked Asura with three faces and six arms. On the bottom are naked and angry looking guardians. The Heavenly Kings in the mural paintings wear armors and crowns. The crowns are decorated with animals, now distinguished as snakes, rabbits, tigers and other animals that correspond to the twelve zodiac signs. Above the seven Medicine Buddhas are apsaras flying, and in the front are streams and spring waters flowing. In front of the Medicine Buddhas are Chinese style light towers and western style light wheels that light up the large music and dancing scene of the land. The two music bands on each side have a total of 28 people, sitting on two square mats. These musicians are of different skin colors who play Chinese traditional instruments, western ethnic percussion and wind instruments, and foreign plucked string instruments, total of 15 different types. Two pairs of dancers are dancing under the light, one pair is dancing with waving scarves with hairs flowing in the air, as if twirling; the other pair is raising the arms and lifting the feet, tapping and jumping. They are probably dancing the foreign twirling and leaping dance.
The Vimalakirti Transformation Illustration was painted based on the “Vimalakirti Sutra”. This classic Buddhist sutra tells the story of the layman practitioner Vimalakirti debating with Manjusri Bodhisattva. The mural’s main content is “Manjusri Bodhisattva visiting the sick Vimalakirti” that depicts the most vivid scene in the Sutra.
On the right is Vimalakirti, being ill; on the left is the Manjusri Bodhisattva visiting the sick layman practitioner and three preaching Buddha images. Vimalakirti holds a fly-whisk, sits inside the net, leans forward, and shows signs of illness, but his gaze is bright, arguments strong, and spirits high, making a vivid portrait of him. Beneath the nets are princes from different countries with different facial expressions, skin colors, and costumes; each with unique features, showing different ethnic groups (in the region) before the Tang dynasty. The Manjusri Bodhisattva was asked by the Buddha to visit the ill Vimalakirti. The Bodhisattva sits solemnly with a peaceful expression, which forms a sharp contrast with the impassioned Vimalakirti. On the bottom are emprors and courtiers who come with Manjusri. These portraits are comparable to the early Tang dyhasty painter Yan Liben’s portraits of the past dynasty emperors, and even better in the use of colors and portrait diversity.
The hallway of this cave was covered with paintings from the Tangut Empire period. After moving the entire hallway, the mural paintings from the Tang dynasty were exposed. Those paintings have clear outlines and colors like new. The left wall has a Buddhist niche, inside has paintings of the preaching Sakyamuni, the Medicine Buddha, and the Maitreya. In the center of the right wall, there are paintings of Manjusri Budhisattva. Manjusri Bodhisattva holds a Ruyi in his right hand and mounts on his lion . The lion attendant holding the rein wears a red hat, a red robe, and wool boots. Above him is inscription writing “offering Khotan king…”. The Khotan King reining the lion for Manjusri demonstrates the Khotanis worship of Manjusri Bodhisattva. Because Dunhuang is closely tied to Khotan, which has marriage relationships with the ruling Cao Family in the area, it is of no surprise to see Khotani Buddhism idols appear in Dunhuang. Next to the Manjusri Bodhisattva are portraits of the Avalokitesvara and Manjusri Bodhisattvas standing. Underneath are donors, the noble Zhai family of Dunhuang. The donor Zhai Fengda is a famous person during the Cao Reign.
The mural paintings in Cave 220 are of high artistic quality. The majestic scenes, magnificent colors, and vivid portraits are impressive. They reflect the openness and prosperity of the Tang dynasty and reveal the curtain to the Tang dynasty glory.