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Mogao Cave 14 (Late Tang 848-907AD)
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Figure 1: Central pillar of Cave 14

This cave has a central pillar with a large niche on the front (east) side and a flat ceiling around it (Figure 1). The front part of the cave has a truncated pyramidalzaojing, with a crossedvajra (thunderbolt) in the centre, surrounded by Thousand Buddha motifs on the south, north and east slopes, with a Buddha sitting in a pavilion in the centre of each slope.

Figure 2: Stupa and wrestler, west slope

On the west ceiling slope (above the main niche in the central pillar) is a hugestupa with a wrestler standing in front (Figure 2). The bottom part of this mural is seriously damaged, so it is very difficult to identify the main theme of this painting.

Vajrayana was an esoteric and highly symbolic practice in India. Since it flourished in the Tang dynasty in China until the 10th century, it is also called Tang-mi (Tantrayana of the Tang). According to Vajrayana Buddhism, the abstract Truth is beyond the concrete Form, but ordinary people cannot understand the Buddha’s all-encompassing wisdom. Therefore the use of rituals and objects using expedient methods are needed to bring devotees to enlightenment within this life (instead of numerous future lives) with the help of a guru and through proper training. Each deity is a potent symbol and a meditational deity for tantric practitioners with its own mantra and rituals.

The initial esoteric teaching was given by the universal Buddha Vairocana and passed onto the second patriarch Vajrasattva (meaning Diamond One). Vajrayana Buddhists are required to take Vajrasattva practice in order to purify their minds. He is depicted with a thunderbolt in his right hand and a bell in his left, symbolizing compassion and wisdom respectively.

Figure 3: North wall (front part)

Avalokitesvara is the most popular Bodhisattva in Mahayana as well as in Vajrayana since he personifies compassion. The depiction of Cintamanichakra on the north wall (the middle image in Figure 3) is one of his innumerable manifestations. He has a Buddha (Amitabha) in his crown as usual. He is six-armed, symbolizing his ability to help liberate suffering beings in the six-realms (all categories of sentient beings). He raises his first right hand to his cheek in a pensive pose (meaning he sympathizes with the suffering beings); a chakra (wheel) is in his first left hand (meaning he can spread Buddhism far and wide); and his third left hand holds a Cintamani (Mani Pearl), a metaphor for fulfilling all beings’ wishes. He sits in thelalita pose in a very relaxed and elegant manner, looking at the sentient beings serenely. His body, wearing a fine textured dhoti, curves softly and naturally. The then fashionable jewellery is pointed, ornate and heavy compared with those painted in the earlier period.

Figure 4: Amoghapasa, south wall  

Symmetrically on the south wall is Amoghapasa (Figure 4), another form of Avalokitesvara. Wearing a deer-skin garment with his right shoulder exposed, he holds a trident, staff, two lotus, a branch and three vases in his eight hands; sitting supply, but erectly, in a lotus position.

Figure 5: Thousand-bowled Manjusri, north wall  

Manjusri, who personifies wisdom, is also well known in Mahayana Buddhism. One of his Vajrayana forms, thousand-armed images (Figure 5), has appeared since the 8th century in Chinaand is always paired with Avalokitesvara (mostly in the thousand-armed form) in Mogao. According to the esoteric texts, he also has the same vows to shelter suffering beings. In this cave, they are symmetrically painted on the east side of the south and north walls.

Here, Manjusri is depicted thousand-armed and thousand-bowled (a bowl in each hand). His images in this form are now quite rare in Chinese art, mostly preserved in Dunhuang. He sits on a lotus throne on top of the cosmic mountain Sumeru which is being twisted by two serpent-bodied deities with the sun and the moon beside. A      Buddha (Sakyamuni) is in his crown and each of his bowls. There are seven bands of arms implying his thousand (innumerable) efforts which look like his mandorla. The three inner bands are painted larger and the Buddha inside each bowl is visible; while the other four bands are smaller and the Buddha inside each bowl is not depicted.

In general,depiction of iconography in Vajrayana has very strict rules on the images’ colour, crown or hairdo, serene or wrathful appearance, number of eyes and heads, number of arms and objects held in them, and so on. The same Buddha, Bodhisattva or deity might have different forms according to various practices.

The art form of these images is the result of the continuous development of that from Mahayana in the Tang style. The Bodhisattvas are noble in form and painted in light and soft colours, unlike the Tibetan style which was influenced by late Indian and Nepalese art using strong and heavy tones.