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Mogao Cave 72 was built during the Five Dynasties Period. It is one of the early grottoes built by Commissioner Zhang, the head of the Return-to-Allegiance Army (Guiyijun) regime. Several paintings depicting Buddha’s incredible phenomena (Gantong) in the cave are of extremely rich research value.
The cave is a typical inverted funnel-shaped-ceiling cave. On the west wall, there is a tent-shaped niche with a truncated pyramid top. The center of the caisson ceiling of the cave was already damaged, but the surrounding arts are preserved showing exquisite patterns of fretwork, rolling tendrils and necklace-like curtains. The four slopes of the ceiling was painted with images of the Buddha going to the Dharma assemblies.
Inside the west wall niche, the statues are from the Five Dynasties Period, including the Buddha, two disciples and two Bodhisattvas, repainted during the Qing dynasty. The top features painted round flowers against a checkered background. On the west slope of the niche top, there are eight paintings of incredible phenomena from the dissemination of Buddhism and two attendant Bodhisattvas. The south and north slopes have five paintings of these same topics, as well as an attendant Bodhisattva and a transformed being. The east slope was painted with eight Medicine Buddhas and two attendant Bodhisattvas.
The ninth section from the south of the niche’s west slope has an illustration of the following scene: a Buddha is standing with his head lowered and looking down, his right hand forms a mudra in front of his chest with the palm facing inward, his left hand hangs down with the elbow bent to form a mudra of supreme generosity (varada). On the floor below the Buddha stands a man dressed in secular clothes, whose right hand reaches up as if to pick something. The inscription reads, “In central India, a poor man caught sight of a pearl on the forehead of a Buddha, and decided to steal it. The Buddha offered the pearl to the thief ”.
The story goes like this: there was a temple in central India where a tall statue of Buddha was enshrined. At that time, there was a humble scholar who was stuck in a difficult financial situation. Upon seeing the pearl on the forehead of the Buddha, he felt an impulse to steal it. He pretended to worship the Buddha every day, but was to measure the height of the Buddha statue. When night came, he built a ladder in an attempt to climb to the Buddha’s forehead to take the pearl. But no matter how tall he built the ladder, he could not reach the jewelry on the Buddha’s forehead. The poor scholar spoke to himself, “I’ve heard that all Buddhas are of great mercy, and will grant whatever is requested. However, this statue of Buddha is so stingy, it seems as if he treasures this pearl like it was his life. Is what the Buddhism promoting not true?” Shortly after he finished reflecting on this, the Buddha bent down to offer the pearl to the thief. Images of Buddha about this story can also be found in Dunuang Manuscripts, such as S2113V-a, P3352, and S5659.
The fourth section from the south on the west slope of the niche is painted with a portrait of a standing Buddha dressed in a white kasaya, whose right hand forms a Dharmachakra mudra (mudra of teaching) in front of the chest and left hand hangs down to hold the kasaya. The inscription reads, “A holy image of the White Maitreya in Southern Hindu”. Story about this image is also found in “The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions” and “Local Records of Sakyamuni”.
Hundreds of steps away from the Great Stupa of ancient India’s Gandhara was a white stone statue of Buddha. He had a height of “one zhang and eight chi” (about 3.59 meters), standing facing the north. The Buddha statue often showed wonderful phenomena and even emitted light several times. Sometimes, the Buddha was seen walking around the Great Stupa at night. Near the Great Stupa, a group of bandits trying to get into the stupa ran into the huge Buddha statue. The bandits were frightened and ran away, and the Buddha statue returned to where it had been and stood there as usual. The bandits then rehabilitated and went about the town to tell their encountering with the Buddha.
The portrait in Cave 72 is a white stone statue of a standing Buddha, which is consistent with the story. But literary records did not say it was the statue of Maitreya Buddha. Also, Gandhara is in north India, which is inconsistent with the inscription saying South Hindu. It’s also recorded in Dunhuang Manuscripts that “The holy image of a white Maitreya Buddha in the Southern Hindu ” (P3352, S5659), “There was a holy image of a white Maitreya Buddha in South Hindu. The Buddha was sitting, and was white” (S2113V-a). They all refer to this type of holy image. The Frenchman Paul Pelliot, who visited Dunhuang in 1908, also copied an inscription from Mogao Cave 76, “Holy image of the Maitreya appearing in southern Hindu(?)”, which indicates that there was also such a holy image in that cave. It has become unidentifiable today.
The top of Cave 72’s south wall was paintined with a valance, the middle a miraculous image of Liu Sahe, also known by his Buddhist name Huida. His deeds were mainly recorded in literature such as the “Biographies of Eminent Monks” v.13, “Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks” v.25, “Records of the Triad of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha in China”v.3, and “Collected Pearls in the Dharma Garden” v.86. Among the Dunhuang Manuscripts , there are three more on the “Karmic Story of Liu Sahe” (P3570, P2680, P3727).According to these, Liu Sahe was a native of Lishi, Xihe in Binzhou (today’s Taiyuan, Shanxi), or a native of Jihu in Dingyang, one of the three cities in the northwest Xianyang according to another version. Liu was fond of hunting in his youth, but when he was 31, he suddenly fell ill and entered a state of coma. During his coma, he saw various scenes of suffering in hell, but was eventually inspired by the Gunayin, the Goddess of Mercy, and returned back to life seven days later to share what he had seen and heard during. From then on, Liu Sahu became a monk. He went to Danyang, Kuaiji and Wujun in the south to make a pilgrimage to the Pagoda of Ashoka. He excavated Buddhist relics buried by Ashoka under the three-story pagoda of the Changgan Temple in the capital during the Eastern Jin dynasty. He paid respect to the gold Buddha statue in the Changgan Temple. Later, he traveled eastwards to Wuxian County, where he worshiped the stone statue of Buddha at the Tongxuan Temple. He then went to Kuaiji, where he worshiped the Lang Pagoda. After that, he traveled to eight prefectures on both banks of the Yellow River, where he preached Buddhist doctrines to the folks on high pagodas during the day and slept in a cocoon at night to calm and hide himself, so he was also known as “Saint Su”.
By the first year of Dayan under the Emperor Taiwu of the Northern Wei dynasty (435 A.D.), Liu Sahe traveled to the northeast of the Fanhe prefecture in Liangzhou and made the prediction that there would be a stone statue coming out of the cliff. If the statue had a rounded appearance, then the times and people would be blessed. If it had a net-like appearance, then the people would suffer in the chaos of times. Finally, he arrived at a rocky ravine, seven miles west of the county seat of Jiuquan of Suzhou, where he ended his life and his bones were shattered like sunflower seeds.
In Mogao Cave 72, the portrait of the saint monk Liu Sahe is opposite that of another saint monk, Qiuzhou, making the only portrait pair of the two saint monks in Dunhuang today. In addition, there are many single miraculous images of Buddha in Liangzhou, as foretold by him in Dunhuang.
Additionally, the upper part of Cave 72’s north wall was painted in a valance pattern, while the middle a portrait of the Maitreya Sutra. Above the cave’s entrance on the east wall is also paintings in valance patterns, while the south and north are painted with illustrations of the Raudraksa’s Battle with Sariputra.