Mogao Cave 321 (Early Tang Dynasty)

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Built in the early Tang dynasty, Mogao Cave 321 has an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling on a square floorplan. The main niche on the west wall contains a combination of statues and paintings of the Buddha, his disciples, Bodhisattvas and Heavenly Kings. These statues were renovated in the Qing dynasty, and thus no longer appear as they were in the early Tang dynasty. A preaching Maitreya Buddha was painted at the niche top . On both sides outside the niche are painted portraits of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva. The caisson ceiling was painted with a rounded flowers. The four ceiling slopes were decorated with Thousand Buddhas. The entire north wall is an illustration of the Amitabha Sutra, while the south is that of the Daśacakra Kṣitigarbha Sūtra, or the Ten Wheel Sutra. Above the entry on the east wall are three Dharma preaching murals, to the south of the entry is a portrait of the Ambassador Buddha and to the north, the Eleven-headed Guanyin.

Bodhi tree and a pair of aspasaras, Mogao Cave 321 west wall niche top

The caisson ceiling was painted with a round flower in the center. Artisans grouped eight flowers into a single round flower. In the heart of the round flower, eight buds combine in the form of scattered points. The blooming petals are wrapped by the large round flower. The flowers at the four corners are fringed irises, very delicately and skillfully painted. The extensions of the iris add spirit to the composition. The round flower was drawn with bright color contrast. It is white inside and red at the peripheral, with the colors of cyan, green and red emerging alternately in the round flower. As a result, the colors create a visualization of multiple layers of eight. The first is the central circle; the second the four-petal flower; the third a circle of eight pomegranates; the fourth a circle of symmetrical cloud patterns; the fifth a circle of flower petals; the sixth a circle of eight symmetrical lotus flowers with pointed petals forming another round flower; the seventh a circle of buds and petals of flowers; and the eighth continuous circles of petals.

Western Pure Land Transformation, Mogao Cave 321 north wall

The top one third of the Western Pure Land Sutra transformation on the north wall features a blue background representing the sky. In the blue sky, clouds are floating, heavenly flowers are falling, and heavenly musical instruments are playing. Musical instruments include ancient zither, pipa, and fangxiang percussion instruments. Even though they are not played by anybody, they give out melodious music in the sky. While Buddhas come from all directions riding on auspicious clouds to attend the sermon, flying Apsaras appear calm, carefree and easy. The painters have skillfully applied the round, smooth and delicate lines to depict the spirit and artistic conception of the flying Apsaras. Though their skin color is discolored due to oxidization, their elegant modeling can still be observed. The existence of these flying Apsaras enlivens the picture.


In the middle of the picture, the Amitabha Buddha sits upright with kindness and solemnity. Both of his hands form the mudra of teaching. The Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattvas stand on his sides. Other Bodhisattvas attending the sermon are either sitting or standing. Some of them are listening carefully to the sermon with their heads lowered, while some are resting against the railing, absorbed in meditation or looking into the distance.

The lower part of the painting shows a terrace on water. In the middle are music and dance performances. Msicians play different instruments, such as the pipa, flute, reed pipe and clappers, with two dancers dancing in the middle. This reflects the scene of peace and joy in the Buddhist world. There are no stories in Western Pure Land Sutra transformations, but wonderful things in the Western Paradise. These murals used artists’ imagination and creation to satisfy the sincere wishes of the people to live a happy life without pain and suffering.

Daśacakra Kṣitigarbha Sūtra (Ten Wheels Sutra), Mogao Cave 321 south wall

The illustration of the Daśacakra Kṣitigarbha Sūtra, commonly called the Ten Wheels Sutra, on the south wall used to be thought as illustrations of the Lotus Sutra or the Ratnamegha Sutra. The discovery of the inscriptions from the Ten Wheels Sutra in the early 21st century confirmed the current title of the painting.

The contents of the transformation illustration include Sakyamuni preaching the dharma, Ratnamegha, treasure pearls, Buddhas from ten directions, Admiration Bodhisattva, Pure Heavenly God, three fairies, incarnations of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva relieving the misery of the people, Ten Wheels, Life of Buddha as Elephant King, criminals and elephants.

The title inscription consist of three lines of text, which can be interpreted except for some blurry characters, “At the time, the Ksatriya King often dined and entertained the nationals without suspicion and observed the laws together, which was the fourth wheel.” In the “Chapter of Asking about the Business” in Volume 2 of the Ten Wheels Sutra, the same lines was mentioned. Here, the “wheel” refers to method, which means wise kings could govern the nation in ten different ways to achieve happiness, mutual trust and harmony with his people. The Buddha also applies ten ways to form mutual trust and harmony with his followers and enlighten all living creatures.

In this illustration, there is also the scene of five monks shooting an elephant, which represents the story of the “Life of Buddha as the Elephant King” in the “Chapter of Ksatriya Chandra Showing Wisdom” in Volume 4 of the Ten Wheels Sutra. Once upon a time, a king ordered five people to go up the snow-clad mountain to fetch tusks from the six-tusked White Elephant King. The hunters disguised themselves as monks wearing kasaya in an attempt to approach the Elephant King. The mother elephant saw their bows and arrows told the Elephant King, ‘They must be hunters, as they have bows and arrows. Will all of us be killed soon?’” Seeing these people dressed in a kasaya, the Elephant King did not believe. In the end, the Elephant King was shot by a poisoned arrow. Before dying, the Elephant King learned that their intent was to take his tusks, so he pulled them out and gave them to the five men. The Elephant King was Sakyamuni. When Sakyamuni finished the story, he said, “In the past, I’ve seen animals pursuing the Supreme Way. Upon the sight of kasayas, animals show admiration and sacrificed their lives for the Dharma. But today’s people have no admiration for Buddhists. This is indeed the decline of Buddhism in this degenerated time.”

As the Ten Wheels Sutra became popular, illustrations of the sutra also appeared. According to records in Volume 3 of Famous Paintings of Past Dynasties, the Eastern Buddhist Hall and the Mountain Pavilion Hall of the Jing’ai Temple in Luoyang were painted with the Ten Wheels Sutra transformation. The temple was ruined in wars of the late Tang dynasty. Thus, illustrations of the sutra were only preserved in Dunhuang, in Mogao Caves 321 and 74.

The Ten Wheels Sutra is closely related to the beliefs of the Three-Level School, also called the School of Universal Dharma, and the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. Some scholars think that Cave 321 was a cave of the Three-Level School, which was a special sect established by monk Xin-Xing in the Sui dynasty. The so-called “Three-level” meant Xin-Xing’s categorization of all living creatures into three levels. This “three-level” evolved from the “Saccadhamma”, “Pratirupakah” and “Dharma Ending” of Buddhism. It was believed that people at each stage vary in their foundation. At the Saccadhamma level, people practice and observe the one road of Buddhism. At the level of Pratirupakah, people practice and observe the third road of Buddhism. When people are in the Dharma Ending level, they “become evil in understanding and behavior” and should “study all real and true Buddhism”. Therefore, the Three-Level School is also called the School of Universal Dharma. The three-Level School had widely absorbed contents from all sutras, advocating for ascetic practice, taking one meal a day, practicing Buddhism upon meeting anybody, an “inexhaustible storehouse” for alms giving and Buddhist rites, and sky burials to return the body to birds and beasts. The Three-Level School adopted many doctrines from the Ten Wheels Sutra, such as the belief in Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and the degeneration of the Dharma.