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The Religions in Dunhuang
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Various religions have flourished in China because Chinese system was able to accommodate widely divergent systems of thought and belief. It is a tradition founded in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), which developed the concept that they should think and practice whatever it is good for life (for oneself, the country and the world).

Over the past two millennia, through missionaries, pilgrims, caravans and armies, several religious traditions were transmitted via the Silk Road to China. In Dunhuang, besides the Buddhist and Daoist manuscripts, many other religious artifacts were also found, such as bronze crosses and linen fabric with texts from the Old Testament in Syrian language written by the Nestorian Christians.

In the ancient time, Chinese belief was based on the cumulative folk wisdom of its history. The Chinese practiced ancestral worship in addition to numerous other gods. It was believed that the Lord of Heaven supervises all gods looking after different departments, much as the governmental system on earth. The system was able to embrace other kinds of beliefs as well. Buddhism was the first of the great missionary faiths spread into China.

The contents of Dunhuang Grottoes are mainly Buddhist. The religions are listed below in order of their degree of artistic influence. No attempt has been made to discuss the over all theological or philosophical tenants of the respective traditions except where it affects the artistic expression.


                    ·      A. Buddhism

                              1.  Theravada

                              2. Mahayana

                              3. Vajrayana

                   ·      B. Daoism

                              1.  Philosophical Daoism

                              2. Religious Daoism

                   ·      C. Confucianism

                   ·      D. Hinduism

                   ·      E. Others

                              1.  Zoroastrianism

                              2. Manichaeism

                              3. Nestorianism

A. Buddhism

Buddhism was established in India by Siddartha Gotama (ca. 550 BC), a prince in northern India who gave up his family and earthly possessions to search for the meaning of life at the age of 29. He reached enlightenment, founded Buddhism six years later, and preached until he was 80. He is called the Buddha (the Enlightened One) and/or Sakyamuni (the Saint from the Sakya Clan).

At the Buddha’s time, there was no image worship. In different occasions the Buddha spoke against adoration of his Rupakaya (physical body): “One who perceives dharma perceives me”. For more than five centuries after him, he was represented by symbols and never in human form. His magnificent presence was originally represented by footprints, his birth by a standing woman, his enlightenment by a bodhi-tree, his doctrine by a dharma wheel, and his death or nirvana by a stupa. With the introduction of Buddhist statuary in the 2nd century AD, scenes from his life became popular in Buddhist art. The most frequently chosen scenes are: The Conception (his mother Queen Maya has a dream of the Buddha-to-be riding an elephant descending from heaven), The Birth (the newborn baby prince is showered by water sprayed from the mouths of the nine serpent gods), The Four Encounter (the young prince meets the aged, the sick people, a corpse and a mendicant monk; during which he understands the sufferings of life and that they are possible to get rid of), The Great Departure (he leaves the palace to become a mendicant), The Enlightenment (he subjugates the demon king Mara, the temptation and vexation; and reaches enlightenment under the bodhi-tree), The First Sermon (also called Turning the Dharma Wheel for the first time; he preaches to his first five disciples) and The Nirvana (his demise).

Initially, and until the 3rd century BC, Buddha's followers simply recited the doctrines in various dialects. After that, they were written down in Pali and then later in Sanskrit. Many different interpretations of Buddha’s teachings are documented in these canons. By the 12th century many of the Sanskrit scriptures were lost due to a drastic decline of Buddhism in India and exist only in their Chinese and/or Tibetan translation. Fortunately fragments are still being discovered, mostly in Sanskrit or Central Asian languages (Sogdian, Thkhari, Khotanese, etc.)

There are many different schools in Buddhism:

(I) Theravada

The oldest extant branch is Theravada (literally the Elders’ Teachings), a.k.a. the Southern Buddhism (of India), which is closer to the original teachings of the Buddha than the other forms. It is prevalent in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia. Buddhism stresses that life is suffering and that this suffering is based on ignorance. The only way to liberation is through wisdom, thereby extinguishing all pains from samsara (the endless cycle of birth-and-death). This liberation is considered nirvana (which means: liberated from existence; eternal bliss; demise). One who can remain in nirvana is called an arhat (literally the worthy one), another name of Buddha. Buddhism denies the authority of a superior being. Sakyamuni is not God — he is a saint and a supreme teacher. Anyone can become an arhat by self-effort, such as having the right thinking and behavior, and, most importantly, by practicing meditation without supernatural aid. The practice of meditation requires constant commitment, therefore entering monastic life is considered the ideal way.

(II) Mahayana

Mahayana (literally the Great Vehicle/Path) is a later form of Indian Buddhism, a.k.a. the Northern Buddhism (of India), which split from Theravada around the first century BC and had its own scriptures compiled in Sanskrit. Some thought that the traditional teaching only focuses on monastic disciplines and strict adherence to the teachings of Sakyamuni, thus was considered inflexible and difficult for anyone other than a priest to achieve. Practice is related to life in the world. As a result, Mahayana Buddhism increased in popularity with the laity.

The Mahayanists emphasize universalism or salvation for all. They claim that through their belief and practice, all people would be transported by a huge (maha) raft (yana) over the sea of suffering life to the shore of enlightenment with great compassion, and unfairly call the Theravada Hinayana (literally the Little Vehicle; means the followers can help only themselves so they cannot reach the perfect enlightenment). Therefore, becoming a Bodhisattva (and then a Buddha) is the Mahayana followers’ goal and being an arhat is not yet perfect.

Compared to the Theravada, the Mahayana sees the Buddha (as well as other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas added) as savior and seeks support from divine powers. Therefore, metaphysics is an important focus; belief in Pure Lands is very prevalent; and Hindu gods and ceremonies (worshipping, repenting, interceding and offering) were gradually assimilated. The Mahayana form was advocated by the great master Nagarjuna (c.150-250 AD) and is prevalent in China, Korea, Japan and other places in Asia. Since their sages (especially Confucius) had considered the nature of social order, the Chinese were not strongly influenced by foreign ideas in this area. They were attracted by the spiritual aspects with their cosmic implications from Buddhism. Within the many Buddhist sects developed in China, Chan (禪, Dhyana, literally meditation), Tiantai (天台) and Huayan (華嚴,Avatamsaga) are typically Chinese interpretations of this foreign religion, while the Pure Land practice might be the most popular since the afterlife looks more attractive to the average devotee. Pure Land is a paradise for the sentient beings who want to strive toward enlightenment and to be free from the difficulties of life on earth.

In China, one of the best known scriptures is the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika Sutra, Chinese: 妙法蓮華经 or in short 法華经; means the Lotus of the Wonderful Law). It proclaims metaphysical concepts and the unity of all vehicles (paths) to salvation. The famous chapters are: Gateway of Universal Salvation (普門品), Parable of the Conjured City (化城喻品), Parable of the Three Vehicles (三車喻品), Parable of the Mansion in Fire (火宅喻品), etc. In Dunhuang, a past Buddha Prabhutaratna (Sanskrit: abundant treasures) very often appears together with Sakyamuni to praise the teaching of Lotus Sutra, to emphasize one universal and supreme path to salvation, and to symbolize the infinite Buddha nature. From this sutra, the Bodhisattva of Compassion — Avalokitesvara, known in Chinese as Guan-shi-yin (觀世音) or in short Guan-yin (觀音), literally “watch the cries of the world”, became the most popular Bodhisattva worshipped in Mahayana Buddhism. He has many of manifestations, and one of the most popular forms in China is as a woman wearing a white robe. Therefore he was also popularly known as "Goddess of Mercy". The chapter about him circulates as a separate text known as the Guanyin Sutra. In some areas, he is better known than the Buddha. The teaching of the Lotus Sutra had profound influence on the philosophy and art in China and therefore is one of the most influential in Dunhuang.

In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is originally a term for the stage Sakyamuni achieved before he attained enlightenment. Later, with the introduction of Buddhist statuary, they flank the Buddha statues as attendants, holding fly whisk or water bottle. With the development of the Mahayana pantheon, numerous Bodhisattvas emphasizing different characters are embraced. In Mahayana Buddhism, it refers to the sentient beings who practice to be a Buddha while helping others at the same time. The great Bodhisattvas could reach enlightenment but prefer to delate until all the sentient beings are free of suffering. Therefore, they are worshipped as same as the other Buddhas with different focuses (different functions or means to help people). Besides Guan-yin, the most popularly worshipped Bodhisattvas are Manjusri, Samantabhadra and Ksitigarbha.

Another scripture Sutra of Golden Light (Suvarna-prabhasa-uttamaraja) was popular in China since the 6th century. It includes the philosophy of Buddha’s nature, the methods of confession and the benefits of reciting/spreading this sutra. One of the benefits is that the country would gain protection from the Four Heavenly Kings. This belief caused people to increase their faiths in the Heavenly Kings in Central Asia, especially the Khotanese, before they converted to Islam. The philosophical part of this sutra later merged with the Lotus Sutra and the confession ceremony is a monastic practice, therefore it is not as well known as the other sutras.

In the early 7th century, the Huayan Sect flourished in China, but declined after the period of persecution (841-845). Huayan Sutra (華嚴經, Sanskrit: Avatamsaka, the Garland or the Flower Adornment Sutra) was written in stages, contains somewhat metaphysical topics, like the interdependency of all phenomena (dharma). It describes a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms, mutually containing each other. Unlike the various parables in the Lotus Sutra, the profound metaphysical concepts in Huayan are very difficult to illustrate. Therefore this sutra is not very common in Dunhuang.

Maitreya is the Buddhist Messiah worshipped by all Buddhist schools. According to the historical Buddha’s prophecy, he will be the next Buddha, so he is called Buddha or Bodhisattva depending upon the scene in which he appears. He inhabits the Tushita Heaven and will descent to Earth in the future then the world will become perfect, all beings will gain final liberation by attending one of his three assemblies under the Dragon-flower trees. Many people, including the King who will abdicate the throne, will enter monastic life. In Dunhuang, the descriptions of the perfect world are everywhere: people can enjoy longevity; produce abundance harvest with minimal farm work; pick clothing from trees (weaving and tailoring not needed), etc.

Besides Maitreya’s Utopian kingdom, there are many different paradises established by various Buddhas and are flavored by the Buddhists. The most famous ones are that of Amitabha and Medicine Buddha. Amitabha (literally infinite light and infinite life, he is also called Amitayus for the latter meaning) establishes a paradise west of us to accommodate all suffering beings who concentrate on chanting his name wholeheartedly. Medicine Buddha has a similar world at our east although the practice is slightly different. Belief in Pure Lands is very prevalent in Mahayana which indicates that the Buddhists turn their interest into universal salvation instead of self-help.

In Dunhuang, the conversation between Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and a lay Buddhist Vimalakirti is also a popular theme. Here the hero is Virmalakirti who reaches enlightenment without monastic practice and always teased the arhat monks for doing inappropriate practices. As described in the sutra, he is sick but no monk would visit him on behalf of the Buddha since they have no confidence in winning the inevitable debate with him. Finally Manjusri goes and has a dharma discussion which shows that both of them are full of wisdom.

This is part of the Mahayanist thought and also a turning point in Buddhism, which claims that a layman can achieve enlightenment through the secular or even luxurious life with different degrees of spiritual involvement; and his achievement can be superior to that of an arhat of the Theravada followers.

(III) Vajrayana

Vajrayana (literally the Diamond Vehicle/Path, also known as Tantrayana), the third (last) phase of Indian Buddhism, was formally developed around the 6th or 7th century by incorporating Tantra, a very old Indian religious practice, into Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric and highly symbolic. A distinctive feature is the use of ritual (such as the practice of mudra, mantra and visualization) as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations. In order to access esoteric knowledge, the practitioners require an initiation (empowerment) from a guru, the spiritual teacher. Learning the teachings in Theravada and Mahayana is the foundation for the Vajrayana practices. Though Vajrayana is widely known in the West as Tibetan Buddhism, it is actually also popular in Japan, and still being practiced in other parts of China and Nepal. They are all originated from India, but developed differently.

There are many different schools in Vajrayana Buddhism:

·       Tang-mi / Han-mi (the Tantrayana of the Tang dynasty and of the Han people):

Vajrayana Buddhism was first introduced to China as early as the 2nd century and flourished with the arrivals and the works of the three prominent masters, Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra in the 8th century. Amoghavajra stayed in the Hexi (west of the Yellow River) area to promote Vajrayanist teachings around 755, thus Tang-mi had some influences in Dunhuang. Towards the 10th century, it mostly merged into other Mahayana schools .

·       Shingon (literally, True Word, which is the Chinese translation of mantra): The Japanese monk Kukai founded this sect after studying in China and bringing the scriptures and practices to Japan in 806.

·       Tibetan Vajrayana

Padmasambhava (Sanskrit: Lotus-Born) is said to have brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century and assimilated the local beliefs. The Tibetan masters received their teachings in India and Nepal until the decline of Buddhism there in the 13th century; therefore the style and the practices are very different than that of Tang-mi or Shingon, and the ritual contents are about one quarter greater. Part of the additional contents is to embody even more deities to their pantheon, as well as the practice of the Tantric scriptures to worship Shakti (a divine feminine creative power) through sexual intercourse or, alternatively, through visualization.

In Tibet, Vajrayana has developed into many lineages (such as Ningma, Sakya, Kargyu, Gelug, etc.). During the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), Mongolian became Vajrayana followers and the scholars from the Sakya lineage played an important role in politics. Therefore there were some Vajrayana influences in the Dunhuang caves constructed in this period of time.

·       Others

A Vajrayana lineage from India is still being carried forward by the Bai, a tribe in Yunnan, China. Another lineage is also practiced by the Newar, a tribe in Nepal, who continue to use Sanskrit scriptures. Their Buddhist art, called Newali style, has great influences in Tibet.

B. Daoism

Daoism (Taoism) is one of the main philosophies and/or religions in China which has influenced the Far East for over two millennia and the West for over two centuries. Dao literally means “the path” or “the truth”. Originally there were Philosophical Daoism (Daojia 道家) and Religious Daoism (Daojiao 道教): Philosophical Daoism imparts the thoughts of Laozi (老子, the 6th century? BC) and Zhuang-zi (莊子, the 4th century BC). Their names are also used to identify the two composite texts about their thoughts, written and rewritten over the centuries with various additions from anonymous writers. Both texts flow from reflections on the nature of the truth and related concepts on the way of life. Their manner, especially Zhuang-zi’s dialectic method, influenced the Chan School (禪宗, a Buddhist lineage) later around the 6th century. Daoism includes the idea of an ideal political system (pluralism and laissez-faire government) which was developed in combination with the ideas from Legalists (法家), a philosophical school established between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. In general, the philosophical Daoism has deeply influenced the methodology of the intelligentsia in the Far East.

Religious Daoism was established in the 2nd century AD and matured in the 5th century AD. Daoists lay claim to lineages dating back to Laozi. Their final goal is to seek immortality through practice. During the long history of its development, it embraced the gods and goddesses from Chinese folk belief into its pantheon. More importantly, it also adopted the philosophy and institutions (priests, monasteries, etc.) of Buddhism. It has multiple lineages, and some of the practices became linked to meditation, martial arts, alchemy and even sexual practices. In the earliest stage of Buddhism in China, the missionaries applied the local terms and concepts to deliver the Buddha’s message. That is why the Buddhist pantheon features some immortals from Daoism.

C. Confucianism

According to the traditional definition in the West, religion should include God or gods. That’s why some people said Buddhism is just a philosophy and Confucianism is an ethic. Nowadays, religion is taken in its widest sense — it is a way of life woven by people’s ultimate concerns, in this sense both Buddhism and Confucianism are religions. However, the Chinese are not much concerned about how their moral teachings are categorized. They still respect Confucius as the greatest educator and Mencius as the second sage.

Confucius (孔子551–479 BC) lived at a time when social order had deteriorated to a critical point. He developed a complex system of moral, social and political practices to recover the social order, starting from individual practices through education. He refused to discuss the afterlife, since the present is the focus. To do one’s best is to treat others properly. Human relationships (ren 仁) mean mutual respect between rulers and subject, father and son, husband and wife, and so on. Everybody can be a sage if he does his best on it. In politics, his ideal is a government by election and a good welfare system.

Mencius (孟子372–289 BC) continued to promote his doctrines by extending discussion on obligation (yi 義) and human nature. He suggested that an inappropriate ruler who did not fulfill his obligations should be replaced.

Confucianism deeply influenced many countries in Asia even the Enlightenment in Europe during the 18th century, but their ideal governmental system has never been realized in their homeland.

In Dunhuang, evidence of the influence of Confucianism is scarce in the grottoes. However, Confucianism had been orthodox teachings in China. As a foreign religion, Buddhism adapted, compromised and spread by expressing doctrine and beliefs with traditional local concepts or terms. It is believed that the Sutra of Requiting Blessing Received, which emphasizes on filial piety, was composed by the Chinese.

D. Hinduism

Hinduism, of the Indian subcontinent, is the oldest living religion in the world. It is formed of diverse traditions and has no single founder, not a monolithic religion in the strict sense but a religious category containing dozens of separate philosophies amalgamated. The three main Gods in Hinduism are Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Siva (the Destroyer). These gods have innumerous manifestations; therefore, Sakyamuni and Jesus are included among them. The basic belief in Hinduism is: man’s relation to the Gods could be governed by ritual verbal gesture (a kind of prayer) through the intermediary of the priests (Brahmins). Together with the view of the samsara; each soul becoming re-embodied in a higher or lower creature depending on the worth of its karma (deeds) in the previous life. The direction of thought is not towards the outside, but inwards to the very core of the self, it is there that union with Gods is ultimately achieved. Buddhism shared some ideas and characteristics with Hinduism, like samsara, karma, etc; with same or different interpretations. From Mahayana period on, especially in Vajrayana, the Buddhist pantheons have embedded more and more Hindu gods and goddesses; and employed their practices as well.

E. Others

Zoroastrianism is an ancient Iranian religion, founded by Zoroaster who is believed to have lived and taught in the first millennia BC, in the east of the Caspian Sea. Not much is known about his personal history. Zoroaster’s main teaching is to replace the numerous ahuras (gods) of the traditional Indo-Iranian beliefs with just one supreme God, Ahura Mazda. According to Avesta (the holy book of Zoroastrian, but a significant portion has been lost), the Creator Ahura Mazda is all good. Good and Evil are in contradiction, with Evil trying to destroy His creation, and Good trying to sustain it. Human beings always struggle between these eternal opposites. Zoroaster rejects all but one of the forms of sacrifice practiced by the Indo-Iranian, and keeps only sacred fire — the symbol of truth. Zoroastrian was the main religion of the Persian Kings for two centuries until they were conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The Greeks tolerated the other religions and so did the succeeding rulers the Parthians. Zoroastrian reached its zenith in the Sassanian dynasty (the 3rd-7th centuries) and the main features of ritual were established. Elaborate ceremonies are carried out to ensure the purity of sacred flame of Ahura Mazda, which is the most important duty of the priests. The faith spread into India and all the way to China. When West Asia was conquered by the Arabs around 650 AD, most people gradually converted to the religion of the Arabs, Islam. The minority Zoroastrians moved to India (known as the Parsees, the Persian word for ‘Persians’), while some still remain in remote desert cities.

Manichaeism is a religion founded by Mani (c.216-276 AD) who was born in Persia; a synthesis of Zoroastrian dualism between light and dark, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics and superficial elements of Christianity; The doctrines of Mani are based on the opposing “two Principles” — the struggle between Light and Darkness; Spirit and Flesh, Good and Evil. Mani claimed to present the complete version of teachings that were corrupted and misinterpreted by the followers of his predecessors Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus. However, as it spread, it embedded new deities from these religions into its pantheon that helped promote its scriptures. Manichaeism was ruthlessly persecuted by the Christians in the West since the end of the 5th century. It spread widely in the Roman Empire but had largely died out by 1000 AD. At its height it was one of the wide spread world religions. Some scholars believe it was known in China in the late 6th century.

From the West, Christianity was transmitted to the Silk Road in Central Asia around 50 AD and rapidly expanded. Christians practice a widely differing range of beliefs depending upon age and origins of its principal leaders. First there is the God of the Jews, creator of world and lawgiver, invisible and almighty. Then, about two thousand years ago, comes the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, Jesus (Christ, the anointed one), whom some Jews regarded as the saviour announced by the prophets, while other did not. Jesus’ doctrine was addressed to all men, not only to Jews. He was regarded as the incarnate son of God; fallen mankind can achieve everlasting life after death through the mediation of him and his sacrifice upon the cross. During the next four centuries there gradually developed the basic framework of Christian theology to give some kind of rational account, using Greek metaphysics as a basic. An orthodox line of Christian belief arose after the 4th century when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. One difficulty of this doctrine was to explain the relation of God the Father and God the Son (the Conjunction between divine and human). In the 5th century, Nestorius, the founder of Nestorianism, challenged the mainstream Christianity with its definition of the nature of Christ. He denied that Christ could be simultaneously human and divine. Christ was defined as both divine and human, acting as one, but not joined together. He was outlawed in the West at the Council of Ephesus in 431. He and his followers fled eastwards to the Sassanian Empire, and their belief spread through the Silk Road. It is believed the Nestorianism was the earliest branch of Christianity spread into metropolitan China in the 6th century and quickly spread, but its followers were mostly non-Han and not easily assimilated into Chinese culture. Their activities mainly relied on the support from the government; therefore it declined after several periods of persecution in China.

In the 7th century, Islam arose and became the dominant religion in most of the countries spanned by the Silk Road. It was largely responsible for the decline of Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Central Asian Buddhism and other local religions of this area. However, it had little effect in Dunhuang art as it advocated a prohibition on the depiction of images.