Art and Practice in a Fifth-Century Chinese Buddhist Cave Temple

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    Art and Practice in a Fifth-Century Chinese Buddhist Cave TempleAuthor(s): Stanleyk AbeSource: Ars Orientalis, Vol. 20 (1990), pp. 1-31Published by: Freer Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian Institution and Department of the Historyof Art, University of MichiganStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 05:38

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    STUDIES OF BUDDHIST ART HAVE OFTEN FOCUSED ON THE TASK of aligning imagery with Buddhist texts. Buddhist art, however, functioned not only as an illustration of written text but as an integral element of ritual prac- tice. This essay will explore the relationship between Buddhist art and practice in Cave 254, an early Chi- nese Buddhist cave temple from the Mogao cave site near Dunhuang in northwest China. Mylarger interest is to perceive the art and architecture of a complete religious sanctuary in terms of those who designed, produced, and used the space and its decoration. Practice and function are only a part of this inquiry. They are, however, central to the intentions of those who created Cave 254 and essential for an understand- ing of the art and architecture of such a cave temple.

    Mogao Cave 254

    Cave 254, constructed sometime between C.E. 475 and 490, is the most completely preserved fifth-centu- ry cave at the Mogao site. As such, it offers us a unique opportunity to analyze an early Chinese Buddhist sanctuary as a whole. In Cave 254 we are presented with elements of painting, sculpture, and architecture in their original context as interrelated components of a single endeavor, a sharp contrast to other extant early Chinese Buddhist art, which consists for the most part of individual images and image groups lacking their original context or caves with major elements that are incompletely preserved.

    Cave 254 is a large, rectangular excavation with a central pillar extending from floor to ceiling in the rear section (Fig. 1).1 The ceiling is divided, a trans- verse gable section in the front and a flat section in the rear around the central pillar. Niches containing sculpt- ed images are located on all four faces of the central pillar, under the apex of the gable ceiling on the front side walls of the cave, and along each of the rear side walls (Figs. 2-4). Painting originally covered every surface in the cave: the sculpture, the inside of the niches, the central pillar, walls, and ceilings.

    The most striking characteristic of the cave is its symmetry. It is divided along an east-west axis from the center of the door to the rear wall, with each half of the cave almost perfectly mirroring the other in the placement of niches, sculpture, architectural forms, and registers of painting. The symmetry of the

    cave strongly suggests an overall plan that was execut- ed in its entirety, and this in turn reinforces the view that all major elements in the cave are contemporary.

    Cave 254 features a square central pillar, located in the rear half of the cave, that contains the largest image (1.9 meters in height) in the cave in its front (east) niche (Fig. 2). Each of the remaining three faces contains two niches, one carved above the other. The pillar is essentially a cube of unexcavated stone, with its surface broken only by the image niches and the projecting ledge that encircles the circumference of the pillar.

    The main icon in the cave is the seated Buddha with ankles crossed in the front face of the central pillar (Fig. 5). This image and the main image of Cave 268 are the only Buddhas with crossed ankles in the early Mogao caves. Many scholars believe the cross-ankled position of the legs generally indicates Maitreya.2 In fact, the identification of the image is far from certain. Of the extant fifth- or early sixth-century Chinese Buddha images with crossed ankles, only one is named by inscription, and that one is identified as a Maitreya Buddha.3

    A leading Japanese scholar of the Mogao caves, Higashiyama Keng6, has proposed that Buddhas with crossed ankles in the early Mogao caves, including Cave 254, are images of Sakydmuni as the present Buddhajuxtaposed with images of Maitreya bodhisat- tva, the future Buddha.4 The proposal is based to a large extent on an iconographic pattern found at the central Asian site of Kizil, most clearly in Kizil Cave 80.5 The lunette above the main niche features a Buddha with ankles crossed (Fig. 6).6 The painting in the opposite lunette above the doorway, now largely ef- faced, once held a Maitreya bodhisattva with ankles crossed. Higashiyama suggests that Buddhist worship- pers entered Cave 80 and in the front room viewed an image of gakyamuni along with narrative paintings related to his career and previous lives. They then moved into the left tunnel to circumambulate the main icon, encountered the parinirvana scene in the rear room and were confronted with the depiction of Maitreya bodhisattva in Tusita Heaven in the lunette above the door upon returning to the main room via the right tunnel (Fig. 7). Devotees were thus exposed to a synoptic recapitulation of Sakyamuni's life that concluded with a view of the future Buddha Maitreya waiting to descend from Tusita Heaven. The argument

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    for identifying the cross-ankled Buddha as gakyamuni is supported by the numerous representations of inci- dents from the life of Sakyamuni on the ceiling that depict gakyamuni in the cross-ankled posture (Fig. 8).

    The imagery in Cave 254 is consistent with the Sakyamuni Buddha/Maitreya bodhisattva theme found in Kizil Cave 80. All of the narrative paintings in the cave depict events involving gakyamuni: Mara's As- sault from Sakyamuni's life story (Fig. 9), the Conver- sion of Nanda (by gakyamuni) avadana (Fig. 10), and the Tiger jataka and gibi jataka representing the good deeds of gakyamuni in previous incarnations (Figs. 11 and 12). Significantly, these paintings are placed in front of and at the same level as the cross-ankled Buddha. A pair of attendants to the Buddha image (Figs. 13 and 14), two bearded ascetics painted on the back wall of the image niche, also appear to refer to Sakyamuni's career. The one to the left of the seated Buddha is holding a bird (Fig. 13) while the one to the right holds an indistinct object above his head (Fig. 14). The two figures are not uncommon in fifth- century Chinese Buddhist art and probably represent the brahmins Vasu on the left and Mrgasirsa on the right.7 Vasu was a King of Kosala who sacrificed ani- mals. He was converted by Sakyamuni and is shown holding a bird, symbolic of preserving life. Mrgasirsa practiced the art of "skull spells," in which he tapped the skulls of the dead in order to ascertain their future life and is therefore depicted holding a skull. He was also converted by gakyamuni.8

    In contrast to the imagery associated with Sakyamuni in the lower section of Cave 254, the upper parts of the cave are dominated by celestial imagery and cross- ankled bodhisattvas. The unequivocal identification of the bodhisattva with crossed ankles as Maitreya strongly suggests that the upper portions of the cave are related to Maitreya bodhisattva and Tusita Heav- en. The most plausible general explanation of the imagery in Cave 254 is that the front face and lower niches of the central pillar represent the world of ;akyamuni while the upper part of the cave, which

    features four images of a bodhisattva with crossed ankles, represents Maitreya bodhisattva in Tusita Heav- en.9

    Buddhism at Dunhuang

    The practice of Buddhism at the Mogao site can be best understood in the context of a type of regional Buddhism, which I will refer to as "Liangzhou Bud- dhism," that developed in the area of present-day Gansu province during the fifth century.10 The central figure in Liangzhou Buddhism was the Indian monk- translator Dharmaksema (385-433), who arrived at

    the Northern Liang capital of Guzang in 412 and translated texts under the sponsorship ofJuqu Meng- xun until 433.11 Tsukamoto Zenryla summarized his contribution as follows:

    Dharmaksema's achievements were extraordinarily great as a pros- elytizer among the simple peoples of North China, to whom he brought not the theoretical, philosophical Buddhism of the Wei- Tsin era with its Prajfiaparamitl doctrine of insubstantiality, but a practical, concrete religion with an emphasis on the mystical powers of the Buddhas, the gods, and the mantras. His translations furthered the development of the ritual of penance, exerted an influence on Buddhist art, and spread the knowledge of Buddhist tales among the people.12

    It should be noted from the outset that the work of Dharmaksema and Liangzhou Buddhism as a whole shaped many important characteristics of Buddhist practice in northern China during the fifth century. The Northern Wei conquest of the Northern Liang dynasty had important historical consequences in this regard. The Shilaozhi states that with the transfer of residents from the capital of the Northern Liang to Pingcheng, "sramanas and Buddhist practices both went east, and both the images and the doctrine prospered more and more.""3 Therefore, Buddhist practices found in the area of Pingcheng after the relocation are often thought to have been transplant- ed from Liangzhou.14 This is particularly true for those practices identified with the leader of Northern Wei Buddhism, Tanyao, who was active under the North- ern Liang dynasty and is thought to have been includ- ed in the mass relocation to Pingcheng.15 Thus, the relationship between Liangzhou Buddhism and the Buddhism of northern China as a whole after 439 was complex and intimate.

    An important aspect of Liangzhou Buddhism was thaumaturgy. At Dunhuang, the importance of magic and its efficacy was no doubt heightened by the expe- riences of travelers crossing the great expanse of desert to and from the western regions. When the famous monk-pilgrim Faxian reached Dunhuang and faced the Taklamakan desert in 400, he reported: "in this desert there are evil spirits and hotwinds that kill every man who encounters them. No birds fly there and no beasts roam. As far as the eye can see, no road is visible across the desert, and only the skeletons of those who have perished there serve to mark the way."16 Con- fronted with these conditions, travelers and local res- idents alike recognized that "the desert was animate, the Silk Road alive with phantoms, and protective spiritual power was no idle, abstruse notion."17

    Dharmaksema was one of many Buddhist monks of this period who were adept at thaumaturgic practices. He was well versed in the use of dharanz (incantations or spells), which were often employed for the benefit

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    of his patron, Juqu Mengxun.'8 Not surprisingly, a number of dhZrani texts are to be found among Dun- huang manuscripts of the fifth and sixth centuries. The Stein collection alone contains five examples of one such text, the Dafangdengtou luo nijing, which was translated at Zhangye under the Northern Liang some- time between 402 and 413.19Another Dunhuang manu- script, with a Northern Liang regnal date correspond- ing to 422, contains a collection of dha rant and a list of days that are "suitable for the remission of sin."20

    Penance and confession were also importantaspects of Liangzhou Buddhism. Dharmaksema, it is record- ed, once became aware of demons entering the North- ern Liang capital. He told Juqu Mengxun that he would first purify himself and celebrate the uposatha, a twice-monthly Vinaya practice in which transgressions against the monastic precepts are confessed, then recite dh7irani to expel the demons. After three days of invoking dharani the demons were defeated.21 Rituals of confession and penance based on the uposatha, as we will see, were basic to many of the Buddhist practic- es associated with Cave 254 and even extended to practices taught to common lay adherents.

    A concern with karmic action, arguably the central issue for early Chinese Buddhists, was the basis for many of the practices associated with Liangzhou Bud- dhism. The donation of images, votive stiupas, and sutras was made with a sense of "karma-optimism," a genuine conviction that such donations were both meritorious and efficacious. That this was a major interest for most Buddhist adherents, clergy or lay, of elite or common backgrounds, is clear from the textu- al evidence. An edict recorded in the Shilaozhi, undat- ed but placed between entries dated to 472 and 473, states that

    Men in both the interior and outlying areas are raising up merito- rious works and erecting reliquaries and temples.... And yet the ignorant outdo one another, and the poor and rich vie with one another.... If one has a pure and pious mind, even though engaged in heaping earth and gathering sand, one's accumulated merit shall not perish. But they wish to create a cause for gaining merit while not yet knowing the effect of harming life.22

    The goal of acquiring merit in order to better one's future incarnations or to influence positively the situ- ation of deceased relatives and teachers is a recurring theme in Buddhist inscriptions throughout northern China. A typical example, the colophon to a Dun- huang manuscript from the early sixth century, records the donation of the text by a nun, who prays that

    the merit accruing from this deed may first of all reach her teachers of the past kalpa and her parents of seven previous incarnations, and thereafter the beings of every descrip...


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