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Mogao Cave 217 (High Tang 705-781AD)
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Figure 1: Mahathasma, west wall

This cave has a square layout, truncated pyramidal ceiling, and a niche with a wide opening. The murals, including those inside the niche, are spectacular and represent the achievements of High Tang art.

The colour of the Bodhisattvas that are located on both sides (outside) of the niche has oxidized, but that does not seem to have had any impact on their beauty. On the south is Mahasthama (or Mahasthamaprapta; literally, the extreme strength) (Figure 1). In Chinese Buddhism, he is the Bodhisattva representing the wisdom of Amitabha Buddha, and usually flanks Amitabha together with Avalokitesvara. He wears multiple items of clothing and sashes, all having different patterns, demonstrating the light and thin texture of silk (some are even transparent). His jewellery is very detailed but does not appear excessive. The images of Bodhisattva at this time exude a very noble demeanour. They have mustaches and are dressed in elaborate attire, but look feminine and delicate.

The ink outline of a monk in the niche wall expresses his lively appearance. His eyebrows and eyelashes are painted sharply, while his mouth is half-open as if he is about to say something. The shading with ink and colour is very realistic.

In the central panel on the south wall is a preaching scene (Figure 2). Light radiates from the Buddha’s urna (the white curl between his eyebrows) and usnisa (the fleshy protuberance on his head), and encircle his body three times, represented by three white circular lines. Some studies have concluded that this is an illustration of the Parable of the Conjured City Chapter in the Lotus Sutra. However, other studies suggest that it is of the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra, which helps people purify all evil karma (deeds) and eradicate karmic obstruction.

Some scholars insist that on the east side of the central panel is the depiction of how Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra was introduced to China in the Tang. Starting horizontally from the top-east corner, Indian monk Buddhapala makes a pilgrimage to Mt. Wutai, the sacred home of Manjusri. He meets an old man (Manjusri’s manifestation) who tells him to return to India to get the sutra. On the second register, an Indian city is depicted. Then the monk on horseback is back in China, and (on the third register) offers the sutra to the emperor and receives 30 rolls of silk as a reward (three rolls shown in this picture as symbolic of 30). The landscape of Mt. Wutai is gorgeous.

Figure 2: Usnisa Vijaya Dharani sutra or Lotus Sutra jingbian, south wall

According to thissutra, one of the benefits of reciting the mantra in the sutra is to liberate the deceased from suffering by being reborn in the Pure Land. In the middle of the west (left) side of the central preaching scene, a person is sprinkling sand that was blessed with this mantra onto the deceased. This is the only example of such a scene in Dunhuang, and has never been seen in the depictions of Lotus Sutra in other caves.

Figure 3: Landscape, south wall

Regardless of which sutra is being illustrated, the landscape painted in this mural is very famous (Figure 2 top-right; enlarged in Figure 3). If it is to illustrate the Parable of Conjured City of the Lotus Sutra, it should have a depiction of terrified people travelling in the mountains, exhausted and disappointed (people are afraid of the long and difficult period of practice required to attain enlightenment). Their leader (the Buddha) conjures a city (as a make-believe destination) for them to recover, so they can continue (the Buddha sets up a temporary goal for the narrow-minded Buddhists, then guides them to go on to the real enlightenment). If the mural is an illustration of the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra, it should have a depiction of the Indian monk Buddhapala being told by Manjusri to return to India, to bring this sutra back and to translate it into Chinese. No matter which depiction it is, the roads should be difficult to travel. However, the scenes here are painted for aesthetic purposes. There are hills, rocks, cliffs, trees, florets, waterfalls and geese. Such a beautiful spring scene was painted in ink-outlines, with darker and brighter greens applied. It seems the multitude enjoy hiking here.

Figure 4: Western Pure Land, north wall

The depiction of the Pure Land on the north wall is spectacular and well organized (Figure 4). Pavilions, cloisters and a central hall are connected to form an architectural complex. They are symmetrically arranged in three registers. On the middle register is the Buddha, with many flanking Bodhisattvas, preaching on a platform in the centre of the painting shown in a level view. On the upper register is, in a view from below, the complex architecture that is as large as a palace or a big monastery (the grandest buildings in people’s minds), with flying celestials expressing the magnificent nature of Buddha’s world. The lower register depicts, in a bird’s-eye view, offerings and entertainment to express the joyfulness when people are reborn there. Two dancers are performing at a fast tempo, with flying sashes indicating their strong and quick movements.

The panoramic scenes are complicated, without appearing disorderly. It is an astute design with uninhibited dynamism.

On a vertical margin beside the Pure Land painting (Figure 4, right) is “Queen Vaidehi’s Meditation,” in which the details of the 16 methods of visualization are depicted. Devotees practicing the methods would be reborn in Amitayus’s Pure Land.

Figure 5: Universal Gate Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, east wall

On the east wall is the Universal Gate Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which describes the salvation of Avalokitesvara when the suffering beings are calling on him. The scenes depict Guan-yin appearing when the people are in peril (Figure 5).

In general, the cave is very special because of its painted images (Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and laities performing different activities), architecture, landscape and contemporary customs. It provides valuable information for understanding society of the High Tang.