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Mogao Cave 428 is located on the third floor of the Mogao Grottoes. It is the largest central stupa grotto among all Mogao Caves. The cave was built in the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581 A.D.). The main chamber of the cave has a a central pillar standing on a square floorplan. There is one niche on each side of the central pillar.
On the east wall, to the south of the entrance, there is a painting of the Prince Mahasattva Jataka. To the north side of the entrance is the painting of the Prince Vessantara Jataka. The cave’s south wall was painted with Dharma Preaching and Vairocana Buddha’s image in Dharma’s Realm, and so on. The west wall was painted with the Five Dharmakaya stupas and Nirvana, etc. The north wall was painted with Dharma Preaching and the Vanquishing Mara, and many more. The content of the paintings in this cave is quite exquisite.
One of the attractions of the cave is the Jataka stories in comic strip forms on the east wall, namely the Prince Mahasattva Jataka. Jataka stories are stories of Buddah’s previous lives of sacrifice. The accumulation of good deeds enabled Siddhartha Gautama (the name of Sakyamuni before becaming the Buddha) to eventually attain Buddhahood.
The Prince Mahasattva Jataka was an important theme of early murals in the Mogao Grottoes. The painting adopted a horizontal comic strip layout, with the plot developing from top to bottom following an “S” shape. The story goes like this: One day, the three princes of the Baodian State went for an outing. They ran into a tigress with seven cubs who were about to die from hunger. The scene aroused strong compassion in the heart of the youngest prince, who decided to give up his life to save the tigers. But the tigers were too weak to eat him. He then stabbed his neck with a sharp bamboo and jumped down the cliff to feed the tigers. After hearing what had happened, the King and the Queen rushed to the scene and was heartbroken. People enshrined the remains of the Prince and erected a pagoda to worship him.
To the north side of the entrance on Cave 428’s east wall is the painting of the Prince Vessantara Jataka. The plot of the story was divided into three sections, progressing in a “Z” shape from top to bottom. The story goes like this: Prince Vessantara of the Yava-dvipa was very benevolent. An enemy state bribed the Brahmins to beg the prince for the ever-victorious white elephant, which the prince gave generously. The king was furious after learning about it and expelled the prince from the state. The prince left with his wife and children in a carriage. He encountered another group of Brahmins who begged for his horses, carriage, and clothes, which the prince also gave. The family arrived at the remote mountains to live in seclusion. But another Brahmin came to ask for his two sons to serve as slaves. Reluctantly, but in order to keep his promise, the prince gave away his sons. The Brahmins took the two sons to Yava-dvipa to be sold. The king learned of this, redeemed his grandchildren, and let the prince return. The characters and dresses in this story painting are all of the Central Plains (traditional Chinese) style, with the plots being separated and yet connected by landscapes. The characters’ activities blend into the background and fill the images with breaths of life. This is a new painting development different from early story paintings, and was influenced by traditional Chinese paintings.
The second painting on the east side of the north wall in Cave 428 is an illustration of the story of the Vanquishing Mara. According to Buddhist scriptures, when Sakyamuni was about to become a Buddha from his self-cultivation, the demons were so frightened that the Mara Papman gathered his troops to fight him. They waved a sword and released poison snakes and beasts to attack him, but all failed to hurt him. Later, the Mara Papman asked his three beautiful daughters to seduce him with their beauty, but the Buddha turned them into ugly witches with his magic power. In this painting, the Sakyamuni Buddha is sitting upright in the middle, looking calm, while the demons around him are ferocious looking, each waving snakes and weapons. And on the ground in front of the Buddha, the Mara Papman has been conquered. The composition of this picture is concise with highlighted characters, thick colors, and a sharp contrast between movement and stillness, beauty and ugliness.
The north side of the west wall was painted with the earliest nirvana painting in the Mogao Grottoes. The picture depicts a scene of Sakyamuni Buddha passing away peacefully under two Asoka trees, with all the disciples standing around him. According to Buddhist teaching, the Buddha, like all ordinary men, suffer from the miseries of life, such as birth, aging, illness, and death. However, since he has obtained the truth of life, he is free from all the worries and troubles, liberating from the cycle of reincarnation. Nirvana, therefore, refers to a state of mind in which one no longer falls into stubbornness or annoyance. It is thus a state more than the end of the Buddha’s life. In this picture, the lying Buddha does not hold his head with the right hand as depicted in the Gandara style, nor does he rest his head on his right arm. He is, instead, in a semi-reclining sleeping posture, which was influenced by the traditions of the Central Plains.
What is particularly striking in Mogao Cave 428 is that there are about 1,200 donor portraits in the cave, making it the cave with the most donors in the Dunhuang grottoes. These portraits indicate that the building of this cave was made by people from all walks of life in Hexi area during the period in the Northern Zhou Dynasty. According to the Tablet of Li Kerang at the Mogao Grottoes (the tablet erected in the first year of Shengli) and other historic records and documents, Yu Yi, the Jianping Lord from the royal family of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, once commissioned the building of a large cave in the Mogao Grottoes. From 565 to 576 AD, he served as the governor of Guazhou. The first donor portrait inside the cave was also dressed in the clothes of nobilities. It was thus speculated that the owner of the cave would be Yu Yi.