Mogao Cave 23 (High Tang Dynasty, 704-780 A.D.)

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

Mogao Cave 23 was built in the height of the Tang Dynasty (704-780 A.D.). It is one of the representative caves at Dunhuang from that time. The Tang Dynasty standard inverted-funnel-ceilinged cave is located on the bottom level of the cliff face. On its front facing (west) wall there is carved a wide open Buddhist niche. The cave’s caisson ceiling features round flower patterns. The statues in the niche and paintings on the west wall together show the Buddha and his dependents. After reconstruction during the Qing Dynasty, the statues and paintings had lost their original appearance in the Tang Dynasty. The east, south, and north walls of the cave and the south slope of the cave’s ceiling were all painted with illustrations from the Lotus Sutra, which made this cave a “Lotus Sutra Cave”. The east slope of the ceiling was painted with the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra transformation. The west ceiling slope was painted with the Maitreya Sutra transformation. And the north ceiling slope  was painted with one Buddha accompanied by 50 Bodhisattvas.

Mogao Cave 23 west wall Buddhist niche.

The Lotus Sutra is one of the important classics of Mahayana Buddhism. Although it’s relatively short, its content is rather important. Seng-rui, a disciple of Kumarajiva said in the Epilogue to the Lotus Sutra, “The Lotus Sutra is a secret Dharma kept by the Buddhas, and is the king among all sutras.” Then he continued, “It contains profound and far-reaching truths, which are indeed great enlightenment encompassing the ancient and present times.” According to records from the history of painting, the Lotus Sutra transformation first appeared in the Sui Dynasty. This kind of illustrations in the Mogao Grottoes also began in the Sui Dynasty and reached peak popularity in the height of the Tang Dynasty. According to a preliminary investigation, there were 15 chapters of illustration of the Lotus Sutra during the peak of Tang Dynasty. Fourteen of such could be found in Mogao Cave 23. Some of them are very beautiful, such as those depicting the parables of “Herbs”, “Stupa”, and “Expedients”.

The “Parable of Herbs” is to promote the Buddhist wisdom of equality, which nourishes all beings like a timely rain. According to the Buddhist scripture, “The rain falls everywhere onto all soils, all trees, and herbs in the mountains and valleys. Nourished with the rain, all trees, crops, sugar canes, and grapes usher in a harvest”. In Cave 23, the artist created an image full of rural life scenes. In the picture, the rain is drizzling from the dark clouds in the sky. A peasant is plowing hard in the field, whipping his ox. Another peasant is sitting on the ridge of the farmland with his little son. While the father and the son are holding a bowl, a third female figure is looking at them. This small scene in the field is rather poetic.

Mogao Cave 23 north wall mural painting of farming scenes.

Underneath the “Parable of Herbs” is another painting describing the Buddhist verses of the “Expedient” chapter, “people are playing musical instrument like drums and horns, some children are piling sands to make a stupa”. In this painting, one can see a person kneeling before the stupa, another is dancing, and six people sitting on the floor playing musical instruments. Nearby, children are piling sands into a stupa delightfully. These pictures tell people that there are various convenient ways to become enlightened, such as “erecting a stupa, building a temple, piling sands into a stupa, painting, offering flowers, making sculptures, performing music, worshiping and chanting the name of  the Buddha”. The two murals together form a beautiful comic strip of “farming in the rain” and “celebrating the harvest”. These pictures intended to shorten the distance between the land of Buddhism and the human world, to turn the imaginary land of Buddhism into a visible paradise on earth, and eventually to expand the influence of Buddhism among common folks.

Underneath the chapter of the “Expedients” is painted a big mansion. In the house, an elderly is sitting, and another person standing in front of the stairs. The inscribed title reads, “Father knows the son…All my premises and servants…” This is obviously consistent with the scripture, “Father knew his son’s mind and intended to offer his wealth to the son, so he gathered their clan members… The father announces to the audience, this is my son…Everything I own, including the premises and servants will be passed on to him. He can use them as he wants.” This is the chapter of “Understanding”, which is based on the “Parable of a Poor Son”. The story goes like this: A poor son was separated from his father since early childhood and became a beggar. Many years later, the poor son came to a city. The father had become a rich man in the city, but he was frustrated since there was no son to inherit his wealth. The father recognized the son, but the poor son did not recognize the father. Upon seeing his father, the son ran away. The rich man sent someone to hire the poor son to feed his horses in return for a high pay. With this opportunity, he tried to foster affection with the son. They got acquainted with each other gradually, and claimed their family connection. In the end, the son inherited the family wealth. In this story, the elderly was compared to the Buddha, the poor son his disciples, and the wealth the Lotus Sutra. The picture depicted the Buddhist texts fairly faithfully.

To the right of the chapter of “Expedients” is painted the “Preface”. Buddha  is teaching the Dharma sitting cross-legged on the Griddhakuta Hill. The light emitting from between his eyebrows is shining on the Oriental Lands. The Buddha is surrounded by Bodhisattvas, Sravakas, Demi-gods, Semi-devils, Bhiskus, Bhikusnis, Upasakas, and Upasikas. The scene is grand and spectacular, attended by a great audience of different characters, including the solemn Buddha, the graceful Bodhisattvas, the devout sravaka disciples, and the majestic heavenly kings. The characters in the “Oriental Lands” are especially elegant and natural, making the “Land of Buddhism” appear attractive and perfect. This piece can be considered as a masterpiece from the height of the Tang Dynasty.

The middle section of the south wall was painted with the chapter of the “Stupa”, which is a very interesting story. “When Sakyamuni was teaching the Lotus Sutra, a stupa protruded out of the ground and hang in the air. The stupa was gorgeously decorated with all kinds of treasures and glazed in gold and silver. A Bodhisattva asked to take a look at the Prabhutaratna Buddha in the stupa. Sakyamuni rose to mid-air, opened the door of the stupa with his right hand. The Prabhutaratna Buddha shared half of his seat with Sakyamuni. Sakyamuni also applied his magic power to fetch his attendants to the air. This story contains rich mythological elements. The illustrated chapter on the “Stupa” in the cave is highly artistic. At the middle of the stupa’s base, a stairway like an imperial road extends to the stupa. The stupa spans three rooms, with opening in the middle, through which Sakyamuni and Prabhutaratna Buddhas can be seen sitting inside. The picture is clear and magnificent. The Bodhisattvas, the demi-gods, semi-devils, and Bhisku monks, etc. surrounded the stupa in an oval circle, like a myriad of stars surrounding the moon. Underneath the audience is boat-shaped auspicious clouds, as if the audience is floating in in the air riding on the boats. The image appears elegant, and is consistent with the scripture that “Sakyamuni applies his magic power to lift the audience in mid-air”. In the space above the audience, eight groups of hills were painted. The hills appear very far away visually. This painting is like condensing thousands of miles of sceneries into a small space of inches. The stupa is towering into the sky. Sakyamuni, his ten manifestationsh, and his attendant Bodhisattvas are all riding the boat-like auspicious cloud, traveling from distant lands of the Buddhism to gather above the Griddhakuta Mountain. People can feel as if wind is blowing over the wall.

Mogao Cave 23 south wall mural painting of the chapter of the “Stupa”.

The chapter on the “Goddess of Mercy” was painted on the south roof and the west side of the south wall. The 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the “Goddess of Mercy” was once circulating as a stand alone edition, called the Guanyin Sutra, which was valued by monks and laymen alike. The sutra says, “If the millions of beings are suffering from distress, as long as they keep chanting the name of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva wholeheartedly, the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva will hear their prayers immediately and relieve them from the distress.” Therefore, people worship the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva devoutly. They copy the Guanyin Sutra, paint illustrations from the Guanyin Sutra, create the Guanyin statues or portraits, and chant in praises of the Goddess of Mercy. The image of Guanyin appeared quite early among the Dunhuang murals, but independent illustrations of the Guanyin Sutra did not appear until the heyday of the Tang Dynasty.

The south ceiling slope and the west side of the south wall of Cave 23 are painted with illustrations of the Guanyin Sutra. Guanyin is in the middle, surrounded by her 33 manifestations, scenes of her relieving all beings from their suffering, and scenes of the “three poisons” (greed, anger and stupidity). The 33 manifested bodies of Guanyin mean that she can be incarnated into 33 different images of deity or human figures to relieve living beings from their sufferings. The manifestations include images of: the Buddha, the Pratyekabuddha, Sravaka, Lord Brahma, Sakro devanam indrah, Isvara, Mahesvara, great general, King Vaisramana, prince, elderly, lay Buddhist, official, Brahman, Bhisku, Bhikkhuni, Upasaka, Upasika, female elderly, female lay Buddhist, female official, female Brahman, boy, girl, Deva, dragon, Yaksha, Gandharva, Asura, Karura, Kinnara, Mahoroga, and Vajra-dhara.

The Guanyin Sutra also claims that, as long as you chant the title of  Guanyin, you can be exempted from all disasters such as flood, fire, theft, beasts, insects, thunder, or criminal punishments. There are many descriptions of exemptions from difficulties in the Guanyin Sutra, such as from fire, drowning, demons, criminal punishments, ghosts, prison, theft, falling, cliff, and thunder.

The scene of imprisonment painted on the west side of the south wall shows a prison which is round inside and square outside. The prison is built of rammed earth. Inside the walls, there is a prisoner in shackles, who is gazing with worry. When he chanted the title of Guanyin, his shackles fell, and the door of the cell was opened. The guards relaxed their vigilance. Although this depiction is the artist’s imagination, the painting provides precious image record of prison style during the peak of the Tang Dynasty.

Next to the scene of imprisonment is a picture about merchants falling into trouble. A ship is sailing on the ocean with a high mast and full sail. Two ghosts are standing on the shore, eyeing the ship covetously. A boatman is rowing the ship calmly while the five merchants are standing on the ship with their palms together devoutly praying by chanting the title of Guanyin. Doing say, they can be saved from the trouble of being taken by the ghosts. The painter vividly contrasted the merchants’ composure and the ghosts’ ecstasy upon seeing their prey.

Mogan Cave 23 south wall Guanyin Sutra Merchants in Trouble mural painting.

Above the imprisonment scene is another picture of fire showing characters are protected from burning by chanting the title of Guanyin.

The east side of the south ceiling slope is covered with the three scenes of greed, anger and stupidity, as depicted in the Lotus Sutra. According to Buddhism, the roots of all troubles in the world are greed, anger, and stupidity, which are also called “three poisons”. The Guanyin Sutra says, as long as one chants the title of Guanyin, one can be freed from the “three poisons”. In the picture, greed is represented in a man wearing a green robe chatting casually with a woman in a room. Outside the room, some people are fighting in public, and someone is standing motionlessly looking at the floor, representing anger and stupidity, respectively.

The east side of the south wall is painted with the “Parable of a Magic City”. The theme of the chapter is to preach that only the “One Buddha Vehicle” advocated by the Lotus Sutra is the way to attain Buddhahood. So the scripture says, “There is not a second way to escape a life of misery. The Supreme Vehicle is the only way to attain this purpose.” However, to attain the “Annutara-samyak-sambodhi”, one has to go through a lot of difficulties. Usually, one will backout along the way due to hardships, so the Buddha need to “explain the Dharma” and guide all living beings temporarily with sravaka and Pratyekabuddha so as to let the living beings attain the “One Buddha Vehicle” ultimately.

In order to promote this theory, the sutra tells a story about the “magic city”. The story goes like this: a group of people was traveling long distance hunting for treasure. Before they could reach their destination, they had to travel for a distance of 500 yojana (1 yojana = 11.2 km) and pass “dangerous paths and terribly desolate and uninhabited places”. After covering a distance of about 300 yojana, they felt tired and frightened. The idea of going back began to emerge in their mind. At this time, a wise tutor conjured a magic city completed with pavilions, gardens, and running water where they could have a rest. These travelers entered the city and found all kinds of valuables in it, so they abandoned the idea of moving forward. The tutor made the magic city vanish, and told everyone that this was only a place for a short rest and they should move on rather than stop there. Finally, they reached their destination and obtained the treasures. In fact, the treasure was the Lotus Sutra.  

This illustration was based on this story of the magic city. The illustration has been painted with a Chinese courtyard. Outside the courtyard is a high rammed earth wall. Two men are walking on the path in front of the wall, seeming to welcome some guests. In the courtyard, a woman, might be the hostess, stand at the door. There were three rooms, beautifully furnished. The travelers are sitting at a low table, talking and eating with glee. The small black dots on the ground are treasures. According to the scripture, the ground was paved with seven treasures. The servant was very busy preparing foods. Some guests are lying on the ground resting due to fatigue from travel. Outside the enclosed wall, riders are galloping along the mountain path, indicating that the travelers resumed their journey after rest. This is the only case of depicting the “magic city” this way among all Dunhuang murals.

Mogao Cave 23 south wall east side “Magic City” section.

The south side of the east ceiling slope was painted with the “Chapter of Parable”, which is the most commonly read chapter from the Lotus Sutra. In the picture, a mansion caught on fire. Three children are playing in the mansion. The father is saying to them that the house has caught on fire and asking them to get out at once. But the three children played deaf ears to their father’s words, and continued to play. The father brings three gorgeously decorated carts and tell them that, “There are three carts, each pulled by an ox, a deer, and a goat. If you can leave this house, you can get the cart.” Upon hearing this, the children quickly ran out of the courtyard. At this time, many demons and ghosts are running about in the courtyard, riding on monster beasts.” This is a typical parable in the Lotus Sutra, which is full of darkness, pain, despicable and dirty things. The three naughty children symbolize human beings living in this world, who remain stubborn and reluctant to leave this world despite the various dangers. The carts pulled by an ox, a deer, and a goat represent the Greater Vehicle (Mahayana), Medium Vehicle, and Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana). The father is an incarnation of the Buddha. The Lotus Sutra uses this story to symbolize the career of guiding people out of the sea of suffering with the “Three Vehicles”.

This is also the central thought of the Lotus Sutra, “Integration of Three Vehicles into One”. Here, “Three Vehicles” refer to the Vehicle of Sharavaka (the one enlightened by listening to the teaching of the Buddha), the Vehicle of Pratykabuddha (the one attaining Buddhahood through self-cultivation following the doctrine of Buddhism), and the Vehicle of Bodhisattva (also known as Greater Vehicle, the one cultivating himself with Six Paramitas to benefit himself and others and lift all living beings from a life of misery). The so-called “Integration into One” means the Three Vehicles will be integrated into One Vehicle, namely the Greater Vehicle (Mahayana).

The east wall of the cave was painted with the chapter of the “Past Life Stories of the Medicine Bodhisattva”. In his past life, the Medicine bodhisattva was called the “Bodhisattva for All Living Beings”. In the past, the Bodhisattva for All Living Beings studied hard and made big progress by listening to the Sun and Moon Pure and Bright Buddha’s teaching of the Lotus Sutra. The Bodhisattva first manifested the samadhi of all his Rupakaya and then burned his own body to worship the Buddha. Afterwards, he was reincarnated into a baby born into the family of King Jingde, when the Sun and Moon Pure and Bright Buddha attained Nirvana, the  Bodhisattva collected the Buddha’s relics and enshrined them by erecting 84,000 stupas. However, he was unsatisfied with this, and burned his arms to worship the Buddha. This Bodhisattva was then the Medicine Bodhisattva at the Lotus Sutra Dharma Assembly.

Burning one finger to worship the stupas is worthier than worshiping with treasures like a state or city, or a wife and children. Furthermore, any giving was nothing when compared with accepting the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra ranks first among all sutras and classics. Those who could accept this classic will also be ranked top among all living beings. The Lotus Sutra can salvage all living beings, making those feeling cold get warmed up by fire, those naked getting clothed, merchants attract buyers, sons find mothers, travellers crossing the river get boats, people who are ill receive treatments, those in darkness get light, people get a king, merchants reach the sea, and torches light up in the darkness.  The east wall of the cave is painted with four scenes, the Sun and Moon Pure and Bright Buddha reaching Nirvana, the Bodhisattva for All Living Beings burning his body as offering to the Buddha, stupas being erected, and the Bodhisattva burning his arms to worship the Buddha.

Above the cave entry on the east wall is the painting of the chapter on the “Sadāparibhūta Bodhisattva”. In the past, there was a “Bhīşma-garjitasvara-rāja Buddha”. After he passed away, a Bodhisattva Bhiksu monk would bow and praise whoever he saw passing by, “I dare not look down upon you. All of you deserve Buddhahood”. People took his words as humiliating, so they often beat and scolded him. The monk suffered the beating and scolding, but continued to praise everyone, so he was dubbed “Sadāparibhūta”. Before he passed away, he heard the Lotus Sutra in the void and acquired great magic power. In the cave, the painting is of a monk kneeling in front of an audience. The scene of beating and scolding is consistent with the Sutra texts.

To the upper left hand side of the “Sadāparibhūta Bodhisattva” was painted with the chapter of “Tathāgata’s Magic Power”. This chapter writes that the Buddha has boundless magic power, but “everything including the Dharmas of the Buddha, the magic power of the Buddha, the secrete scriptures collected by the Buddha, and all profound things of the Buddha have been revealed and explained in this Sutra”. In the painting, there is a room of Buddhist sutras, and a small table is placed in the center. A monk is sitting right in the middle, chanting the sutras. Near the table sits a Upasika, who is listening to the sutras. Outside the room, two persons are walking towards the chamber, with one of them pointing at the room.

The east slope of the cave is painted with the chapter of “Zokuruin”. A Buddha is standing on a lotus flower, along with two Attendant Bodhisattvas. In front of the Buddha kneels another Bodhisattva. The Buddha stretches his left hand to rub his head. Rubbing the head is a form of Zokurui, which means “giving instructions while rubbing the head”. The chapter starts with “At that time, the Sakyamuni rises from his throne, and applies his great magic power to rub the head of the Bodhisattva with his right hand”. After rubbing his head for three times, the Buddha began to speak. Rubbing the head is the only content of this chapter that can be depicted in the form of painting.

To the north of the entrance, on the east wall is a painting of the chapter of the “Past Life Stories of Subhavyuha-raja”. The chapter mainly preaches that Mahayana is changing the non-Buddhists, making them convert to Buddhism and accept the One Buddha Vehicle of the Lotus Sutra. The King of Light and Majesty was a non-Buddhist, who believed deeply in Brahmanism. His wife Vimaladatta, and his two sons Vimalagarbha and Vimalanetra, however, are all cultivating along the Bodhisattva Path for a long time. They set up various expedients according to the Buddha in an effort to inspire and influence the King to convert to Buddhism. In the end, the King gave up his throne and led his wife, two sons, and other relatives to convert to Buddhism. The mural dates back to the height of Tang Dynasty, but the is quite simple.

The compositions of murals in this cave is very distinctive. They adopted a centripetal layout. In the center, the scene of the Griddhakuta Dharma Assembly is surrounded by stories from the Lotus Sutra. This layout should have been influenced by the centripetal Pure Land illustrations from Chang’an and Kaifeng. Such a large centripetal illustration may have been introduced from Chang’an to Dunhuang in the 14th year of Zhenguan (640 A.D.), as the Tang army, led by Hou Junji, pacified Chotscho and opened up the Silk Road.

In short, the murals in Cave 23 showcases the contents from the Lotus Sutra, which feature vivid pictures of high values. Therefore, the cave is called the “Lotus Sutra Cave”. The customs and living scenes revealed by the murals are to certain extent beyond the framework of religious publicity, but allowed us to understand the social phenomena in history while being delighted by the pleasure from artistic appreciation. Knowing the content from the Lotus Sutra is of great significance for us to comprehensively understand and correctly evaluate the artistic achievements of ancient China in this cave.