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Mogao Cave 103 (High Tang 705-781AD)
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Figure 1: Parable of the Conjured City chapter & bright green Landscape, south wall

The style of this cave, containing an assembly hall, is popular in the Tang. The four sloping faces of its truncated pyramidal ceiling are decorated with the Thousand-Buddha motif, but it is the prominent Tang murals that make this cave special.

Since the Early Tang, the trend was to have a jingbian on a whole wall instead of the Buddha’s life story or jataka tales. The paintings on the south wall are illustrations of eight chapters out of 28 from the Lotus Sutra. This sutra advocates that there is only one universal path to Buddhahood, and it is one of the most popular sutras in China.

The Parable of the Conjured City chapter describes the story of a great multitude (the beings) wishing to traverse a steep, difficult and bad road (the sufferings in life) to reach a cache of precious jewels (the enlightenment). Their guide (the Buddha) is perceptive and wise. Midway, when the multitude gets exhausted, disgusted and frightened, they want to turn back. The compassionate guide conjures a city as a make-believe destination to let them stop and have a break, so they can proceed to the real destination (enlightenment) when they recover. In the Sutra, the Buddha is skillfully convincing the lesser beings (i.e., Theravada followers) that reaching their goal to become an arhat is just like arriving at the conjured city, but it is not the final destination.

However, the paintings (Figure 1), which depict beautiful views instead of terrifying roads, seems to indicate that the multitude are enjoying the hike. The colours in the scenes are not as rich as before. They are light and simple,

which is one of the Tang characteristics. The landscape drawing style is remarkable, using the ink-outline technique and yun-ran with green and blue. These paintings are very rare examples, since the authentic works of the grandmaster of this famous “Bright Green Landscape” school in the Tang no longer exist anywhere else.

Figure 2: Vimalakirti, east wall

Another prominent painting is that of the rich layman Vimalakirti, also executed in the ink-outline technique (Figure 2). He is sitting in a curtained bed with a fan in his hand. He looks very energetic and powerful, showing his profound understanding of Buddhism as he is debating with Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, who is located on the other side of the entrance wall. Manjusri sits calmly, showing the contrast between them. Depicted below is the audience: a middle aged Chinese emperor and his attendants below Manjusri (Figure 3), and princes from different Central Asian countries below Virmalakirti (Figure 4). The depiction of the crowns and garments of the Chinese officials, which were designed by the great Tang Emperor Taizong (Li Shi-min), together with the illustration of the princes in different manners and appearance, provide valuable information about contemporary clothing.

The colours in these paintings are light, which enhance the ink outlines. The depictions and brush style are very vigorous.

Figure 3: Manjusri & Chinese emperor, east wall

Figure 4: Princes from Central Asian kingdoms

On the north wall is a depiction of the Western Pure Land, the most popular jingbian in Dunhuang (84 in total). Amitabha and his flanking Bodhisattvas are in the centre of the paradise, surrounded by numerous grand buildings arranged symmetrically with a lotus pond in front. There are musicians and dancers performing on the terraces above the pond.

In the vertical margins on both sides of the painting of the paradise are the story of Prince Ajatasatru and his mother’s meditation. Ajatasatru usurps the throne by imprisoning (and finally killing) his father, King Bimbisara. His mother, Queen Vaidehi, secretly brings food to the king, but is discovered by their son and also imprisoned. She calls on the Buddha for help and asks for a paradise where she can be reborn. The Buddha appears and teaches her the 16 ways of visualization, which provides devotees a simple method of meditation and the hope of rebirth to a paradise.

The scenes on the vertical margin run in sequence from the bottom upwards. It is also a new style to express supplemental meaning about the main theme.