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Mogao Cave 23 (High Tang 705-781AD)
Author: Published:2014.3.11 Views:

This cave has a truncated pyramidal ceiling with a lotus motif in the zaojing (square inset ceiling).

The murals on the walls mainly depict the narrative scenes relating to the Lotus Sutra. The interpretation of the philosophy in the Buddhist sutra is presented very skillfully in the paintings in this cave.

Figure 1: Farmers working in heavy rain and children building stupa, north wall

Surrounding the central scene are different chapters of the sutra. One of them is the famous scene “The Farmers Working in Heavy Rain” (Figure 1), which depicts the Parable of the Herbal Medicine Chapter. The sky is cloudy and it is raining hard. One farmer is whipping the cow to plough as the other one is carrying the harvest on his shoulders. The cow was painted using the yun-ran technique, which was in vogue at this time. Below the cow, two farmers (perhaps father and son) are enjoying a meal delivered by a woman who watches them eat. It is a vivid depiction of village life at that time.

At the lower-left corner, children are building a stupa with sand while playing. According to the Lotus Sutra, even a person spending just a short moment doing good deeds, such as building a stupa to worship, will attain Buddhahood. Other children are playing music and dancing. The scene appears to show the children celebrating a festival or harvest, which may actually reflect the artist’s intent.

Figure 2: Sakyamuni Preaching in Vulture Peak, north wall

At the centre of the north wall is a scene of Sakyamuni Preaching in Vulture Peak, one of the popular places where he preaches (Figure 2). The Buddha, in a red robe, is depicted as an intelligent master, more like a human being than an unreachable deity. The green and blue landscape at his back shows a view of the mountain. Flanking the Buddha are the two great Bodhisattvas, Manjusri and Samantabhadra, riding a lion and an elephant, respectively. Many other Bodhisattvas are emerging from the ground. In the sky, the clouds appear as a canopy over the whole scene, creating a very elaborate composition.

Figure 3: Prabhutaratna and Sakyamuni sitting side-by-side in a stupa, south wall

In the centre of the south wall, Prabhutaratna (the long-extinct Buddha) and Sakyamuni (the present Buddha) sit side-by-side in a stupa (Figure 3). It emphasizes the importance of the doctrine of the Lotus Sutra by the approval of a past Buddha. It also symbolizes the infinite nature of Buddha. This has been a very popular scene in the caves since the Northern Wei, but it is quite rare to be presented as the main theme on a whole wall. The depiction of the two Buddhas is outstanding, as is the painting of the stupa. The body of the stupa looks like a Chinese pavilion. On top is another stupa, a style which is often seen in murals in the Tang caves.

On the north side of the east wall are many stupas and buildings. However, no conclusion has been reached on which sutra is being depicted here. Although the painting has been fading, its fine outlines with mild and light colours are still visible. It weaves a calm and quiet scene.