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Xuanzang and the Buddhist "Conquest of China" by Daniel C. Waugh

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Very likely your mental images of early China would include the Great Wall and the now famous army of terracotta soldiers discovered a quarter of a century ago by a farmer who was digging a well north of the present city of Xi'an. We talked about the Great Wall (*) last time, although in a configuration not so familiar to you, a strucutre of tamped earth and reeds, not a crenellated stone edifice. As you recall, our subject was its importance in the history of Chinese relations with the Inner Asian nomads and the development of the Silk Road. I wish to begin today with Xi'an, not so much for its terracotta army (*), but rather for its centrality to the story of Xuanzang, one of the great travellers of all time, and to the history of the spread of Buddhism in China. Our focus tonight will be on Buddhism, whose transmission along the Silk Road provides perhaps the most striking of all evidence regarding cultural exchange across Eurasia. My approach will be to piece together various aspects of Buddhism as we travel with Xuanzang, rather than offer a conventional exposition of beliefs and history, which can be obtained from any textbook. Along the way we will discover many other interesting facets of the history of the Silk Road.


Under the Han Dynasty (2nd century BCE-2nd century CE) and later in Sui and T'ang times (6th century CE-9th century CE) the city we know as Xi'an was called Chang'an and was the capital of China. The terracotta army of the first ruler to unify China is only one bit of evidence about the importance of Chang'an as an imperial center. Many other royal tombs in the region which likely conceal equally stunning artifacts still await excavation. As a recent National Geographic article indicates, several lifetimes will probably pass before some of these archaeological projects can be completed. Yet there are many interesting sights for those who would visit Chang'an/Xi'an today. The Shaanxi Provincial Museum has an extraordinary collection of Chinese art, well displayed. There is a historic core of the city, enclosed within the impressive Ming-era walls of the late fourteenth century (*)--here is the southern gate, from the top of which the wall seems to extend forever (*). The Ming-era bell tower (*), now dwarfed by the modern city (*) is at the center of what at its apogee in the early decades of the T'ang was probably the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world, with something on the order of one million inhabitants.


A Tang poet, Ban Gu wrote about it:

In the nine markets they set up bazaars,
Their wares separated by type, their shop rows distinctly divided.
There was no room for people to turn their heads,
Or for chariots to wheel about.
People crammed into the city, spilled into the suburbs,
Everywhere streaming into the hundreds of shops.[Knechtges trans.; quoted by Xiong]

And another T'ang poet, Lu Zhaolin, conveys a sense of the luxury associated with the imperial presence:

Chang'an's broad avenues link up with narrow lanes, where one sees
Black oxen and white horses, coaches made of seven fragrant woods.
The emperor's jade-fit palanquin sweeps past the mansions of princesses,
Gold riding whips in an unending train point toward marquises' homes.
The dragon biting the jeweled canopy catches the morning sun,
The phoenix disgorging dangling fringes is draped with evening's red clouds. [Owen trans.; quoted by Xiong]

A visitor today will see the Great Mosque, whose structures are no older than the end of the Ming period (late sixteenth century) (*) but whose founding is supposed to date to the eighth century. To the casual observer, the complex resembles a Chinese temple (*), with the Muslim declaration of faith, "God is one," written in Chinese (*). Even today Xi'an is home to a large Muslim community (*). Quite understandably, the mosque was located near the Western Market, which was, in a sense, the terminus of the Silk Road. Middle Easterners and Central Asians, among them perhaps a wine merchant such as the Semitic one depicted here (*) in a ceramic from the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, were active in Chang'an during the T'ang era. This is one of the many splendid objects from the SAM collection which will be featured in our virtual (on-line) Silk Road Art exhibit which will open in late March.


Chang'an was also the home of other faiths, one of them being Nestorian Christianity. A rock stele with a long inscription, which I can show you only from this overhead (*), once stood in a field outside the city walls and has now been moved into a museum of such inscribed stones. The text on it relates the early history of Nestorianism, brought to Chang'an in the seventh century by Syrian monks. (*) Considered a heretical sect by mainstream Christianity, Nestorianism spread throughout Asia. This painting discovered in a Nestorian ruin at one of the cities on the north of the Taklamakan Desert likely depicts a Palm Sunday service. Alas, shortly before a German archaeological expedition arrived at that site, a local inhabitant, suspecting the manuscripts contained evil, dumped a load of ancient Nestorian texts into the nearby river. Some fragments have been preserved, among other places at Dunhuang, where there was a Nestorian community. Among the Nestorian bishoprics was one at Samarkand. As we shall see next time, the faith enjoyed a certain favor at the court of the Mongol khans in the thirteenth century.

Of much greater importance for our story is Buddhism, which flourished in Chang'an during much of the Sui and Tang era. Among the many important Buddhist monasteries was the Daci'en (*), whose main temple you see here (*) in the shadow of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda (*). In the early eighth century, the pagoda towered as high ten stories (seven of them survive), and a contemporary poet noted, apparently with somewhat mixed feelings:

Upthrusting, it weighs down the holy domain,
Towering as though of demon's work.
Its four corner eaves blot out the bright sun,
Its seventh story rubs the blue sky's vault. [Owen trans.; quoted by Xiong]

The pagoda was first constructed in 652 CE at the request of none other than Xuanzang (*), whose triumphal return to China with the treasure trove of Buddhist manuscripts he collected in India enabled him to establish in the monastery an important translation school. The pagoda was to house the library. The form of the pagoda itself is indebted to Buddhism, since it seems to have evolved out of Buddhist stupas, concerning which we shall learn more in a few minutes.

That reception for Xuanzang in 645 CE, hailed by his biographer as "the most splendid event since the death of the Buddha," was in sharp contrast to his furtive departure sixteen years earlier, when as a young monk he defied the orders of the emperor and headed off along the northern branch of the Silk Road in his quest to learn in the homeland of Buddhism. This map (*) shows the full extent of his remarkable 10,000-mile journey. In its initial stages, he was following in the footsteps of Zhang Qian, who, as you recall last time, had traveled into the Western lands in the time of Han Emperor Wu Di (*) in order to obtain intelligence information and secure an alliance against the nomadic Xiongnu. The depiction of Zhang Qian's mission in a Tang Era painting at Dunhuang illustrating the history of Buddhism in China is misleading from the standpoint of chronology--very likely the arrival of Buddhism should be dated substantially later, in the first century CE. However, the image points to the important fact that the routes through Central Asia were for a long time the principal channel through which Buddhism flowed into China.

From Chang'an, the route led through the Hexi Corridor, a tongue of land to the north of the Qilian mountains (*) and south of the dangerous frontier of the Mongolian desert. Although in Xuanzang's time Chinese control extended much farther into the oases to the west, by the end of the fourteenth century, the gateway to the west was at Jiayuguan, where the Ming built an impressive fortress (*) and some sections of the Great Wall (*). Xuanzang would have been able to visit the nearby monastic complex at Wenshu Shan (*) (that is, Manjusri Mountain, Manjusri being an important Bodhisattva), with its spectacular panorama of the Quilian range. Although some of the temples have been restored in modern times (*), much of the rest is largely in ruins (*). In a place such as Jiayuguan, watered by the mountain streams (*) Xuanzang would have found himself in lush oasis, but only a step away from a much harsher landscape where today one can occasionally see a wandering camel (*). As he headed off in the direction of Hami, on the northern route around the Tarim Basin, Xuanzang nearly lost his life in the desert. Sustained by his prayers, perhaps to the Bodhisattva patron of travelers in distress, Avalokiteshvara, he survived to find a spring at an oasis.


One of the most significant contributions of Xuanzang's account of the Western Regions is his extended description of how in all of the remote oasis cities Buddhism was flourishing. There are remarkable cave temple complexes, such as Bezeklik (*) and Kizyl (*), some of which he visited (*). The Tarim Basin oasis towns often were the home of the translators who were responsible for the creation of what became a very large corpus of Buddhist scriptures in Chinese. Perhaps the most famous of these translators was Kumarajiva, a monk from Kucha on the Northern Silk Road, who worked in the then capital of Northern China Luoyang in the early fifth century. He was a contemporary of another of the famous pilgrim monks, Faxian, whom we quoted last time and will meet again. Xuanzang dwells at some length on Kucha with its abundant natural wealth and flourishing Buddhist community:

The soil is suitable for rice and corn..., it produces grapes, pomegranates, and numerous species of plums, pears, peaches, and almonds...The ground is rich in minerals--gold, copper, iron, and lead and tin. The air is soft, and the manners of the people honest...There are about one hundred convents in this country, with five thousand and more disciples...Their doctrine and their rules of discipline are like those of India, and those who read them use the same (originals). [Beal trans.]

This last observation may help to explain why in the local caves the images have distinctly Indian features (*) and why a place like Kucha could be such an important source of translators. It seems as though many of the local monks were reading their scriptures in Sanskrit, but that, presumably, was not their native language. At the same time, given their contacts with China, they had both the language and means to act as the conduits for the Buddhist literature coming up from India. Xuanzang describes his visit to the monasteries in the nearby mountains, religious processions in the city itself, and local legends connected with the faith. Just outside the western gate of the city were two large Buddha statues, each about 90 feet high.

After leaving the northern oases, Xuanzang went through the passes of the Tien Shan mountains probably to the west of the imposing peak Khan Tengri (*), from whose slopes one gains a full appreciation of the challenges of the range to any but the well-equipped mountaineer (*). The route led to the fertile and comparatively warm plains around Lake Issyk Kul (*) in the northeastern part of today's Kyrgyzstan (*). There, even today, one can see traces of the historic presence of hunters and nomadic herders in the petroglyphs (*) and stone statues commemorating ancestors (*). To the west of the lake he came upon the encampment of the Khan of the Western Turks, whose kingdom was one of the most important of the nomadic empires to straddle the Silk Routes. The Khan received the monk attired in a robe of green satin, with a long silk band around his head, and accompanied by a retinue also dressed in silk brocade.

It is worth noting that one group of these Turks, who had first lived in the Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia, would eventually settle north of the Caucasus and are known to us as the Khazars. Some time in the century after Xuanzang, the Khazars would convert to Judaism, probably on account of the signifant trade contacts they had through to the Medterranean world, trade which was controlled in the first instance by Jewish merchants.

Xuanzang's route led on through Tashkent and Samarkand. Of course his visit to those cities antedated the appearance of Islam in Central Asia, but they had long been important centers on the Silk Road, the local culture being heavily influenced by that of Iran. Defended by an impressive fortress (*), Samarkand was the home of the Soghdian merchants who were found all along the Silk routes into China and down into northern India. One of the great experts on the Soghdians, Dr. Boris Marshak of the Hermitage Museum, will be lecturing about them on April 11 in our spring series at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The local religion in Samarkand seems in the first instance to have been related to the Zoroastrian traditions of Iran, as attested by fire altars (*) and images on ossuaries (bone caskets) which have been excavated in the region. At the time of Xuanzang's visit, Buddhism in fact seemed to have been a persecuted minority religion, even though in earlier centures it had undoubtedly been very important there. Xuanzang noted of Samarkand that "the precious merchandise of many foreign countries is stored up here. The soil is rich and productive, and yields abundant harvests...The inhabitants are skilful in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries."


Xuanzang was now entering the lands that at one time had been the heartland of the Kushan Empire, a very important state whose territories encompassed the mountains and fertile valleys of Eastern Afghanistan. (*)--The views here are near Jalalabad. (For these and most of the other Afghan photos I thank Marilyn Hoogen, who was there with the Peace Corps in the early 1970s.) Kushan control (*) extended way down into the North Indian plain. Their influence was felt both across the Oxus (Amu Darya) and in the oases of the southern Tarim Basin in western Xinjiang. We noted last time how the language and writing system of the Kushans seems also to have been that in places such as Niya, now buried in the sands of the Taklamakan. Given their importance, the Kushans are still little known to most people and devilishly difficult to study. There are huge controversies over such basic things as the reign dates of the most important Kushan rulers. Their empire seems to have flourished in the first through fourth centuries CE.

When we look at Mario Bussagli's picture of the great Buddha statue (*), which, until the Taliban, dominated the valley at Bamiyan and which Xuanzang had the privilege of seeing in all its glory not long after it was carved, we should remember that it was earlier, under the Kushans, that many parts of Afghanistan first boasted Buddhist centers. Xuanzang's account is full of traditions about the activities of Kushan king Kanishka (probably he ruled around 100 CE) and his much earlier north Indian predecessor, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, both of whom are revered in Buddhist history for their roles in spreading the faith. This famous gold coin of Kanishka's (*) has on one side an image of the ruler and on the other, which you see here, an image of the Buddha, who is named in the inscription in the Bactrian language of North Afghanistan written in Greek letters. The relic casket shown here (*) has an image of Kanishka and an inscription referring to him. This is one of many physical objects which help corroborate the legends recorded by Xuanzang and others.

After passing through the mountains (*) on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad (*) Xuanzang crossed the Khyber pass. This was the era when camels had the right of way (*) and were not required to stay off the main road (*). He descended into the region of North Pakistan we know as Gandhara (*). He then headed north into some of the mountain valleys where there were many Buddhist centers and through which routes led across the passes into western Xinjiang. Even today in the Hunza, Gilgit and upper Indus Valleys, at least parts of which Xuanzang visited, we can get some sense of the history of what have been termed the "capillary routes" of the Silk Road.

(*) Here you can see the breathtaking scenery of the main part of the Hunza valley, with the nearly 26,000-foot spire of Rakaposhi gleaming in the morning light (*). Far below, on a high cliff over the river is the old fortress/residence of the local rulers at the village of Altit (*). Below it along the river is a huge boulder carved with a range of images (*), some left by local hunters, some by travellers who inscribed their names and noted having safely arrived at this river crossing. These are the graffiti of the byways of the Silk Road, many of them recording specifically Buddhist names in one or another Indian language or script, and some written in the Iranian language and script of the Soghdian merchants, whose network extended this far from their homeland near Samarkand. There is even the occasional Chinese inscription (*), the one here dating from the fifth (?) century and seeming to relate to an embassy which had been sent to north India.

One of these river crossing sites, downstream along the Indus, has a particularly rich collection of images and inscriptions (*). There are scenes of worship at stupas of complex design, and depictions of events recorded in the so-called jataka tales about the previous incarnations of the Buddha (*). The Chinese pilgrim monks such as Faxian and Xuanzang made a strenuous effort to visit the locations recorded in such accounts, and they often summarized the tales when they wrote of their travels. The image here is the Sibi Jataka, about a prince who was even willing to sacrifice his own flesh to save the life of another living creature, one of those meritorius acts on the road to Buddhahood. In the early fifth century Faxian wrote of how

Sakra, Ruler of the Devas, in a former age, tried the Boddhisatva [that is, the Buddha-to-be] by producing a hawk in pursuit of a dove, when the Bodhisattva cut off a piece of his own flesh and with it ransomed the dove. After Buddha had attained to perfect wisdom, and in travelling about with his disciples arrived at this spot, he informed them that this was the place where he ransomed the dove with a piece of his own flesh. In this way the people of the country became aware of the fact, and on the spot reared a stupa, adorned with layers of gold and silver plates. [Legge trans.]

When Xuanzang descended from the mountain valleys along the Indus to the Gandharan plain (*), he arrived at Taxila, which had been an extremely important urban center under the Kushans. Following here in Xuanzang's footsteps, we can see there today the remains of flourishing towns and Buddhist monasteries. The evidence uncovered by archaeologists in this region offers striking proof of the ways in which Indian tradition encountered the Hellenic traditions of the west, the legacy of Alexander the Great who had passed through Taxila some ten centuries before Xuanzang. The map (*) here illustrates the route of his conquests, all the way to India. One of a succession of bustling commercial centers in the vicinity of Taxila was Sirkap (*). Its most famous temple preserves an interesting carved frieze (*) whose architectural framing is similar to that on a stunning gold reliquary from the Kushan era (*). The images on the reliquary are in an arcade which combines classical columns with the Indian ogee or pointed arch. The images themselves embody cultural syncretism: the Buddha in the center is flanked by the Indian deities Brahma and Indra, and their sculptural style was influenced by Hellenic art. In fact there are many artifacts from the region of Gandhara whose imagery and style is that of the Greeks and were influenced by the Hellenized culture of Bactria, the region to the northwest of Gandhara where Alexander's successors ruled (*). However, as we would expect along the Silk Road, we generally encounter not just a single culture but a symbiosis. Hence rulers' coins could have images of Greek deities. For example (*), our same Kanishka who issued the coin with the Buddha on the reverse, issued this one. His name and title are in Greek, and on the reverse is an image of Apollo in the form of the Iranian Mithra and identified with the Greek "Helios," the sun. We find local deities (*), here the Kushan Goddess Ardochsho with her cornucopia of plenty, on a coin inscribed in the Bactrian language but with Greek script. And, we find Indian deities (*)--here Shiva, emblematic of virility, standing with an erect phallus in front of a bull.

Buddhist artifacts and architectural remains are particularly abundant at Taxila. Some of the monasteries, such as Jaulian (*) are still impressive for their closely fitted masonry. Many of the monasteries preserve remains of stupas both large (*) and small. Stupas generally were erected to denote some important historic Buddhist site (recall Faxian's account I quoted earlier) or built to house Buddhist relics. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka was credited with erecting thousands of stupas, a feat which was later commemorated in the paintings in the Mogao caves at Dunhuang (*). To find an intact stupa from the early centuries CE, such as this one at a Taxila monastery (*) is rare. The form, with its parasols, is emblematic of the Buddhist conception of the cosmos, with the various levels of the heavens. Those who built stupas generally placed in them relics or copies of Buddhist scriptures, often in inscribed pots, such as this famous one (*) with a long Karoshthi-alphabet inscription from a site in Afghanistan. The inscriptions record the names of the donors, valuable information for our understanding of patronage. Thanks to this practice of burying such pots inside stupas, some of the earliest physical copies of Buddhist scriptures, dating from around the first century CE, have survived to our day. This material, I should note, is the subject of pioneering studies being done here at the University of Washington by a team of scholars and graduate students working with Professor Richard Salomon of our Department of Asian Languages and Literatures. Professor Salomon is one of the world's leading experts on the early scripts and languages of Northern India and the early spread of Buddhism.

Stupas are important in our history for another reason. Some of them (*) contained the seven precious objects (*) which were considered to be appropriate commemorative donations. The list could incude gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, pearls, and coral. Silk was extremely important not only as the equivalent of currency if one wished to provide a financial contribution but also for ritual functions. One of the forms of veneration was to drape temples and stupas in silken banners (*). These banners from Dunhuang (*), which would have been hung for the many Buddhist religious festivals, are typical for the widespread use of silk. The donors achieved merit by commissioning the paintings, which included images of themselves or their ancestors. As Buddhism spread, then, in a real sense it provided a stimulus to development of some of the trade in the easily transportable precious objects that were among the staples of the Silk Road.


Before we and Xuanzang leave Gandhara it is important to note the region's critical role in the emergence of a standard Buddhist iconography. As seems to be the case with other religions (Christianity being an obvious example), the question of artistic representations of holy figures was problematic--can one in fact represent them in anthropomorphic form? This Kushan sculpture (*) shows only a symbolic representation of the Buddha. However, we know that what is depicted here is the Buddha's first sermon because of the gazelles (or deer) in the foreground. Most of the early representations of the Buddha or bodhisattvas, the holy figures who postpone their entry into Buddhahood in order to help people in this world, very much reflect classical (i.e., Greek) sculpture (*). The example here is a second-century Kushan statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, who is the Buddha of the Future. This image likely is modeled on a quite realistic statue of a Kushan prince. It embodies fusion of Hellenistic and Indian forms. Gandharan images of Jataka tales (*)--here is our familiar Sibi jataka--show obvious Classical influences in sculptural style and detail. Even when we begin to get our more familiar iconography of the Buddha (*), such as this Gandharan image, the treatment of the folds of his robe (to single out perhaps the most obvious feature), very much shows the legacy of the draping of garments on classical sculpture.

Of course by the time Xuanzang passed through Gandharat iconography was already solidly established. It is interesting though that he made a point of assembling a complete collection of copies of particularly famous representations of the Buddha and took them back with him to China, where in turn they were copied along with the legends about how they had first miraculously appeared.

After leaving Gandharag went on to the heartland of Buddhism in Northern India (*). I will not dwell on his travels and study there, about which you can read in Sally Wriggins' entertaining and well informed book. The important thing to note is that Xuanzang wanted to be sure to visit all the sites connected with the life of the historical Buddha, born a prince by the name of Siddharta Gautama in the fifth century BCE in the Himalayan foothill town of Lumbini. He abandoned his privileged life and set out on a quest to achieve enlightenment. This critical moment in his life, the "great departure" (*), is frequently portrayed in Buddhist iconography, the example here being from the fifth-century caves at Yungang in China. Siddhartha tried extreme asceticism (*), as graphically illustrated in this famous third-century Kushan sculpture. He achieved enlightenment when sitting under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, in the Ganges plain. He preached the law in the Deer Park at Sarnath, near the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) on the Ganges; an event which is commemorated in the widespread images of the wheel of the law flanked by deer (*). The example here is from a Buddhist monastery in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Siddhartha Gautama died at Kusinagara, an event commemorated in the images of the Parinirvana--his passage into Nirvana--such as this magnificent huge late Tang statue in Mogao Cave 158 (*), around which on the walls are dramatically painted images of his disciples even mutilating themselves (*) in their grief.

When Xuanzang finally left India, he brought back to China not only his personal knowledge of having studied Buddhism at its source but a treasure trove of Buddhist manuscripts. He was so heavily laden that one of the local rulers even provided him with an elephant to ease his travel. We would like to think that the eighth-century Tang paintings (*) illustrating the Lotus Sutra parable of the Imaginary City might in fact be representing Xuanzang's journey home. After near catastrophe when his boat capsized in crossing the Indus, he wound his way through the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains, probably coming out onto the Sarikol plateau in southwestern Xinjiang here (*). He traversed this broad plateau at about 11,000 feet (*) to reach Tashkurghan, long a fortified outpost of local Chinese administration which commands a view (*) of the nearly 25,000-foot peak Mustagh Ata. When passing through the mountains to its south (*) in order to reach the edge of the Taklamakan desert, Xuanzang's elephant drowned in a flooded river gorge as he fled bandits. This was one of the places where the British archaeologist Aurel Stein studied carefully Xuanzang's account, since he was trying identify all the places which Xuanzang mentions.


Somehow, his precious load of manuscripts intact, Xuanzang made it back along the Southern Silk Route to the Jade Gate (Yumen Guan) (*), whose Han-era fortifications had probably been refurbished by the Tang garrisons, and arrived at Dunhuang (*). His predecessor as an important translator, Kumarajiva--you will remember that he was from Kucha on the north side of the Taklamakan--had also passed through here. The so-called White Horse Pagoda (*), a structure built probably much later in Mongol times, commemorates his faithful horse who had accompanied him in his travels and then expired on the way home (*). The painting is a modern one, incidentally.

We have no concrete information as to what Xuanzang did at Dunhuang, but an exchange of letters with the emperor seems to have assured his warm reception there. He surely would have spent time at the Mogao caves, the most important of all the monastic complexes near the city (*), whose oasis is barely discernable in its desert surroundings when seen from a nearby mountain. You have already seen examples of the painting and statuary at this World Heritage site. Since they tell us so much about the development of Buddhist art in China (and, indeed, many other aspects of the history of the Silk Road), I wish to spend my remaining time exploring what those caves reveal.

I would urge you to attend our spring series lecture April 25 in the Seatle Asian Art Museum by the leading expert on the art of these caves, Professor Roderick Whitfield. Also, be sure to visit between March 12 and April 10 in the Jacob Lawrence Gallery and Burke Museum here on campus our photo exhibit which will include the work of the official photographer at Mogao, Wu Jian. Wu Jian's photos are as stunning as the images of the cave interiors I show here, photographed by Segio Otsuka for Professor Whitfield's major publication on the caves.

We might begin our story in 1907 with the event which first brought the treasures of Mogao to the attention of Europe. In a curious way, this is also a story about Xuanzang. The dramatis personae are the famous explorer and archaeologist, Aurel Stein (*), whom we have already met, and a Daoist monk Wang (*) who had assumed responsibility for the caves and was trying desperately to raise funds to "restore" them to something of their former glory after long decay and neglect. Wang's remains would later be interred in this stupa (*) which stands today in front of the ticket office for admission to the caves. Stein's interest had been piqued by a rumor (based in fact) that Wang had discovered a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts. In Stein's account the key to persuading Wang to show him the manuscripts was to play upon the Daoist monk's veneration of Xuanzang, whom Stein claimed was his "patron saint" too. Thus was revealed the "hidden library," which had been sealed probably in the tenth century in the cave whose entrance is to the right in Stein's picture (*). By contributing to Wang's renovation funds, Stein then purchased what he found to be of interest. A photograph (*) taken a year after Stein had already shipped off to London the lion's share of the manuscripts and b in the cave by candle light, surrounded by still substantial piles of treasures, many of which then followed him back to Paris. On a later trip, Stein obtained even more treasures, which Wang seems to have set aside in anticipation of his return. Although the Chinese have since condemned what they see as the looting of their treasures, probably it was fortunate the material made its way into the hands of European museums. Had it been left at Mogao, there is no telling whether it would have survived. The British Library, which houses the Stein collections, is now involved in a massive project to make all that material and Dunhuang manuscript collections located anywhere in the world available via the World Wide Web. Although the project is still in its early stages, it already offers some very interesting material, including an array of Stein's photos and maps.

The hidden library materials include more than a dozen languages and scripts (*). There are numerous copies of Buddhist sutras: the pride of the British Library Dunhuang collection is the oldest dated printed book, a copy of the Diamond Sutra published in 868 CE. There are documents about the local administration and religious institutions in Dunhuang for several hundred years of its history. Among the silk paintings (*) are fragments with Sasanian Persian decorative motifs and banners with images such as this one (*) of the historical Buddha preaching on Vulture Peak. You can find lovely pictures and additional information about this Dunhuang material in the book published by the Getty Institute which we ordered for our course.


Our earliest evidence about the Mogao caves refers to the fourth century CE. Caves containing nearly intact paintings and statuary are known from the fifth century and on for nearly 1000 years. Even in isolation, they would provide almost an unbroken record of the development of Buddhist art in China for a millennium. Of course they did not develop in isolation from what was going on in Central China or what had earlier been happening in the oases of the Tarim Basin.

The caves are along an east-facing cliff (*), carved into the fragile conglomerate such as you see here (*). The interior surfaces were then smoothed with several layers of increasingly refined mud plaster to provide a surface which could be painted. In many instances, when the caves were re-dedicated, they were re-plastered and painted anew (*), a process that for us has the virtue of preserving the fresh colors of the original layers. Given the absence of good stone for carving statuary, the sculptures are constructed on a wood and straw frame, around which layers of mud plaster would gradually be built up (*). To my mind, this challenging process of sculpting makes the delicate results seen in examples such as this one from the late seventh century all the more impressive.

In examining the iconography of the caves, let us start with the idea of the Buddhist cosmos, represented here (*) schematically in a drawing I have copied from a National Geographic of several years ago. You can see the location of the cave, with its meditating or preaching Buddha in the pillar of the cosmic mountain, above which rises the several heavens. Mogao Cave 303 (*), carved probably in the mid-580s, offers a rather literal rendition of this cosmos. Many of the other sixth century caves at Mogao are of this pillar type, one of the most impressive being Cave 428 (*), whose design includes the evocation of a gabled temple ceiling (*), painted as though it had patterned silk panels between the beams. Reiterating the cosmic theme of the iconography is a striking image of the "Cosmological Buddha" (*) on the cave's south wall. One of Wu Jian's photos in our exhibit will enable you to examine this image closely.

Perhaps the most stunning example from Mogao of the religious syncretism which characterizes the early history of Buddhism in China is to be found in Cave 285 (*), carved and decorated even earlier, in the late 530s. It is unusual for Mogao, since it is one of the few caves there with the Indian vihara design--that is with small meditation caves connected to the main chamber. The Indian connections of the cave are dramatically evident in the figures which flank the central niche (*). On your left at the top is a six-armed Siva, below him Kumara and then the familiar elephant-headed Ganesha. At the top on the right is Narayana-Deva, also venerated as Vishnu, and below him Indra. Both Siva and Vishnu hold disks representing the sun and the moon. Flanking images on this same wall (*) show chariots drawn by phoenixes and panthers; above the one on the left you can glimpse part of the chariot of the sun.

The ceiling decoration of Cave 285, which represents the cosmic vault of the heavens, is perhaps even more remarkable in its imagery. The thunder god is beating his drums (*), and a Daoist immortal flies in on the back of a phoenix (*). On the east slope of the ceiling (*) two wrestlers support the stem of a flowering Buddhist jewel of the lotus. Approaching it on either side are Fuxi and Nüwa (*), well known deities from earlier centuries who are associated with the heavens and are depicted on coffin lids. Here, since the disks on their bodies seem to represent the sun and moon, as Prof. Whitfield suggests, they may well have been given a Buddhist interpretation as Bodhisattvas sent by the Buddha Amitabha "to create the sun, moon, and the twenty-eight star mansions."


The Buddha Amitahba was believed to preside over the Western Paradise, to which the increasingly numerous Chinese adherents of the branch of Buddhism we know as the Mahayana aspired. In Mahayana Buddhist belief, which offers ordinary mortals the possibility of achieving favorable rebirth in this paradise, there is great emphasis on the role of the Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who deliberately delay their attainment of buddhahood in order to help people both in meeting the challenges of this world and in embarking on the road to enlightenment. The bodhisattvas are the rough equivalent of Christian saints. Images of the bodhisattvas are among the most striking examples of T'ang Buddhist painting. The two examples here, we might note, date from precisely the time of Xuanzang's journey to the Buddhist holy lands in India. Here (*), from Cave 220 dating from the 640s, is Vimalakirti, a bodhisattva in the guise of a wise and benevolent layman, whose appeal was enhanced by the artist's having depicted him as a Confucian sage. Perhaps the best known of all the Bodhisattva images at Mogao (*) is this stunningly beautiful Avalokiteshvara from Cave 57, a gold-encrusted painting dating around the year 630. In China Avalokiteshvara would undergo a gender change and become known as Guanyin.

We can sense the popularity of Guanyin if we wander around the hills across from the Mogao caves. Tucked away in a stark arroyo (*) is a monastery (*) now maintained by a single, diminutive nun (*), the location being that of Guanyin's well (*), a source of what one assumes is considered to be holy water. A path from this monastery leads to the top of the peak which dominates the skyline across from the Mogao caves (*), and above which, according to legend, appeared in the sunrise the gleaming vision of the Buddha which inspired the founding of the Mogao temples. A walk along a precipitous ridge (*) leads one to Guanyin's temple (*), in which is a shrine (*) far removed in date, style and artistic quality from those we have been examining.

For our final encounter with the Buddhist art of Mogao, we should return to the caves themselves. Among the most frequently repeated images in them are ones illustrating the Lotus Sutra, one of the many collections of Buddhist sermons which made their way to China. The first of several Chinese translations of The Lotus Sutra was completed in the third century; one of the later ones was the work of Kumarajiva, the monk from Kucha whom we have already met. The Lotus Sutra particularly lent itself to visual depiction, as we can see in Cave 45 (dating from the mid-8th century), where in the first instance what catches our eye are the magnificent sculpures (*): Kasyapa (one of the Buddha's disciples) flanked by a bodhisattva (*) (perhaps Avalokiteshvara) and an accompanying guardian deity (*).

On the south wall of the cave is narrative array of images (*) surrounding a central figure of Avalokiteshvara and illustrating Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra. That chapter relates how the bodhisattva, whose name means the "receiver of the world's sounds" helps those in distress: if threatened by bandits when traveling on the Silk Road (*), pray to Avalokiteshvara and be saved; Avalokiteshvara (*) will shatter the sword of someone about to strike, release the bonds (*) of someone unjustly cast into prison, and protect those (*) in a ship at sea from monsters and storms. Rather like St. Christopher, one would imagine. Unlike Christopher, however, Avalokiteshvara has not been demoted.

The peroration near the end of the Lotus Sutra, reminds listeners:

If they do no more than copy the sutra, when their lives come to an end they will be reborn in the Trayastimsha heaven. At that time eighty-four thousand heavenly women, performing all kinds of music, will come to greet them. Such persons will put on crowns made of the seven treasures and amidst the ladies in waiting will amuse and enjoy themselves. [Watson trans.]

This is precisely the vision embodied in the depictions at Mogao of the Western Paradise, the most important and famous of which is that on the wall of Cave 220 (*), painted while Xuanzang was lamenting the loss of his elephant a thousand kilometers to the west or, possibly, even at the very time when he was in Dunhuang. Here is the Buddha Amitabha enthroned in midst of an array of bodhisattvas, among them Avalokiteshvara. The buds in the lotus pond (*) are opening to reveal the the reborn souls. In front (*), performing to the accompaniment of a full orchestra, are dancers, whose pirouettes, we are told, undoubtedly were those of the dances popular at the T'ang court in the seventh century. Both dancers and dances were products borne along the Silk Road. Some came from renowned musical centers of the oases around the Taklamakan Desert such as Kucha, the home of the translator monk Kumarajiva; others were from Tashkent. All were celebrated in T'ang poetry and tomb sculptures (*). In this history of artistic exchange lies some of the inspiration you will hear in the concerts by Yo-yo Ma and his Silk Road ensemble this spring.

While the T'ang poets often condemned the dancing as immoral, in the sutras the musical instruments are heavenly and the dancers and musicians are apsaras or angels (*). The descriptions of paradise evoke light, sparkling jewels, perfumes, and music, a heavenly music which (to quote) is "deep, unknown, incomprehensible, clear, pleasant to the ear, touching the heart, as if it always said, 'Non-eternal, peaceful, unreal.'" I would like to conclude by asking you to listen with me to a few minutes of what to my mind is just such music, played on the traditional tibetan flute by Nawang Khechog, in honor of the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, his holiness the Dalai Lama.

Sources and recommended reading:

I. Web-based resources:

  • The Silk Road Seattle website, on which you are viewing this page, contains a link to the text of Faxian's travel account, a page on Xi'ian/Chang'an which includes photos shown during the lecture and references to additional literature, a link to the UW Early Buddhist Manuscript Project pages, and information about the various upcoming lectures and exhibitions.
  • There is a variety of good Dunhuang material and information about Buddhism on the website of the Silkroad Foundation.
  • The International Dunhuang Project of the British Library can be accessed here. Note especially the nice introductory pages to "Buddhism on the Silk Road," which include helpful references and links for further information.

II. Books (arranged more or less in order of the discussion in the lecture):

III. Music.