Cave 45, High Tang (705-780)

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, south wall (detail of pl. 107)

Cave 45 lies immediately below the Western Wei cave 288, in the most densely-worked area of the whole cliff... At the back of the cave, in the niche in the west wall, one finds a splendid group of stucco images, with well-preserved paintings on the walls and ceiling around them showing all the splendour of the Kaiyuan reign (detail, from pl. 107, shown above). There are seven images, all standing, save for the Buddha who is seated on an octagonal throne representing the cosmic mountain Sumeru, with his hand raised in the gesture of absence of fear. On the ceiling of the niche, immediately above his head, there is a large painted assembly grouped around a stupa resplendent with jewels, within which two Buddhas can be seen: this depicts the moment, from the eleventh chapter of the Lotus Sutra, when a seven-jewelled stupa wells up out of the earth, and the ancient Buddha Prabhutaratna praises Sakyamuni... and invites him to sit beside him. This subject is enough to identify Sakyamuni as the presiding Buddha in the stucco group. Seen from below, the decoration carries straight over from the back wall of the niche to the ceiling (pl. 110)...

...The painted figures on either side of the niche were added in the Middle Tang period (781­847). They are the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara or Guanyin (see above) and Ksitigarbha, respectively. By the Middle and Late Tang, Ksitigarbha had become almost as popular as Avalokitesvara, and as Saviour from Hell, had a complementary role to that of Avalokitesvara as Saviour from Perils. He is shown in a number of silk paintings from Dunhuang in the Stein and Pelliot collections, sometimes individually, and more often accompanied by the Ten Kings of Hell, each king depicted after the fashion of a Chinese magistrate, seated at a desk and examining the souls of the dead as they come before him, waiting to be assigned to one of the six ways of rebirth. Ksitigarbha's Chinese name is Dizang, the Earth Womb Bodhisattva: here he appears as usual as a Buddhist monk with shaven head and patched robe, holding a jewel in his right hand. In both these Bodhisattvas, the flowing curves of the drapery and the smooth features are far removed from the rich details and surface textures of their High Tang predecessors in the niche, and in general the figures appear flattened, though Ksitigarbha's searching gaze and small mouth and chin convey a greater impression of an individual personality than the idealised features of the two disciples on either side of the Buddha.

The south wall dates from the High Tang and features a single subject, but, unlike the north wall, this is not a depiction of a Pure Land. Instead, a large image of Guanyin stands in the centre, with numerous figures depicted in a landscape on either side (pl. 108). Here Guanyin, in scenes inspired by two chapters of the Lotus Sutra, is seen as Saviour from Perils, offering both practical and spiritual help. Chapter 25 is entitled "The Gateway to Everywhere of the Bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World". Persons in all manner of dangers and difficulties will be able to overcome them simply by calling the name of the Bodhisattva. This parallels the practice of calling on the name of Amitabha in order to secure rebirth in his Pure Land, as already noted above in connection with cave 172. The spirit of this chapter is admirably conveyed by the text in one of the cartouches on this wall, quoted from the sutra (pl. 309): "Even if there is a man, whether guilty or guiltless, whose body is fettered with stocks, pillory or chains, if he calls upon the name of the bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World, they shall all be severed and broken, and he shall straightway gain deliverance". In the painting, a prisoner with doleful countenance is seen inside a stoutly constructed prison, while just outside cangues and chains are scattered on the ground.

In another instance, immediately above the prison scene, the painter appears to have interpreted the text in a more pragmatic fashion (pl. 109). The quotation transcribed from the sutra reads: "Suppose there is a head merchant and his men carrying valuable treasures by a precipitous road in an infinity of lands full of bandits. Among them one man calls out 'Good men, do not be afraid! You must single-mindedly intone the name of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. This Bodhisattva can confer fearlessness on all beings. If you all intone his name, then you will be delivered from these bandits.' Hearing him, the band of merchants together intone 'Praise to Bodhisattva Guanyin' and are forthwith delivered." In the wall-painting, a group of bearded and turbanned Sogdian merchants have been forced to unload the goods from their pack animals; they stand in a group facing a man armed with a sword: the gesture he makes with his left hand is one of reassurance, such as might be made by someone encouraging them, but his appearance and the evident awe in which the merchants hold him strongly suggests that they are confronted not by bandits, but by a border guard exacting a share of their merchandise. The painter evidently had a lively appreciation of how the promises made in the sutra might be made more realistic in his depiction: "If, again, a man who is about to be murdered calls upon the name of [Guanyin] then the knives and staves borne by the other fellow shall be broken in pieces, and the man shall gain deliverance". Here the kneeling posture of the victim suggests the more likely scenario of an execution: the executioner's sword, raised high for the blow, is shattered into small sections (pl. 110).

All text and illustrations © Textile & Art Publications 1996:
not to be reproduced without permission.

Return to: Dunhuang front page