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Buddist Cave Chapels

In: Religion Topics

Submitted By Lrthomps
Words 1479
Pages 6
Landon Thompson

EALC 145

Professor Cheung

9 April 2010

Buddhism and Buddhist Characteristics of the Cave Chapels

Along with Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism is among China’s most influential religions throughout its history. Buddhism taught the Chinese to believe in the Four Noble Truths and to follow the Eightfold Path to achieve nirvana, or a state of complete understanding with the world. Buddhism’s influences stretched to all regions of the country; it became influential enough that Emperors even commissioned cave chapels to be dedicated to Buddhism and the Buddha. The cave chapels of Yungang, Longmen, and Dunhuang, although each different, are the most famous of the cave chapels and best capture the different styles and characteristics that were used throughout that time period. The Yungang caves in the Shangxi province of China are a series of caves, mostly carved into the cliffs. The Five caves of Tanyao are the most famous caved chapels in the Yingang area. Although they are each unique in their own matter, the five caves collectively are dedicated to the five previous Tabgatch rulers (Thorpe 164). The Five Caves of Tanyao (Caves 16-20), reflect the faith in a phase of reliance on lavish imperial patronage. The history of Wei, or Weishu, records that Fa Guo, the Administrator of Monks, required monks to pay homage to the emperor, declaring "the person who has the ability to advocate Buddhist faith is our sovereign. I am not paying homage to the Emperor but to Buddha" (Karetzky 145). The Five Caves of Tanyao were executed at a time when worshipping Buddha was conceived as being tantamount to worshipping the Emperor. The colossi of Buddhist images inside these caves represent the previous five Tabgatch Emperors. The main images in these five caves are huge figures of Buddha, each dominating the whole cave. These five caves might be divided into two groups according to their layout and main statues. Caves 18, 19, and 20 form one group, each containing three generations of images of Buddha. It seems certain that the five statues of the Buddha were made for the benefit of the reigning emperor and his four predecessors. The Sakyamuni Buddha statue in Cave 16 represents Emperor Wen Cheng, the reigning emperor. The cross-legged Maitreya Buddha of Cave 17 represents the crown prince Jing Mu who died before ascending the throne. The main images of Buddha in Caves 18,19 and 20 represent Emperor tai Wu, Emperor Ming Yuan and Emperor Dao Wu (Karetzky 149). The depiction of the three generations of the Buddha was not only for the benefit of the imperial family but also for the purpose of expressing the long history of Buddhism, stretching into the past and into the future. The Buddhist statues in these Five Caves all have the following attributes: a protuberance on the head, slender brows, chubby cheeks, broad shoulders, a strong torso and a straight nose. Some of the Buddha statues are clad in cassocks falling over both shoulders, while others expose their right shoulders, wearing their Sankaksika inside and their collars laced. The heads of the Bodhisattvas are adorned with ornate crowns, modelled on prototypes developed in Central Asia (Thorpe 164). Small figures of meditating Buddha are seated in the central disc. Tassels hanging from the other discs suggest that the crown was attached to the hair by a large pin. A closely clinging monastic robe covers the body. The clean-cut lines of the contours of the main figure in Cave 20 and the simplicity of the carving give the figure great strength and calmness. The manner of representing the folds of the clothing is like cords attached to the body alternating with incised lines. The zigzag lines on the robes are reminiscent of the styles of Gandhara whereas the body of the main image in Cave 18 which is carved wearing a closely clinging monastic robe, shows the marked individuality of features inspired by Mathura (Karetzky 151). Although they have such features, they are not simple copies but assimilate foreign art with traditional Chinese art. The construction of the Five Caves of Tan Yao adopted the method of "looking up at a mountain"-an artistic expression which compels a man to look up at the colossi, because the front wall of the caves are so close to the main Buddhas that the observer cannot stand back and look from a distance. The five chapels created under Tanyao’s rule greatly influenced the whole region and created a “ripple-effect” (Thorpe 164). Reproductions and other brother-sister images were seen in other temples in the capital and throughout the region (Thorpe 164). Another of the most famous Buddhist cave chapels in China are the Longmen Caves in the Henan Province built throughout the Tang Dynasty. Perhaps the most famous of these caves is the Fengxian Temple that houses the Vairocana Buddha and is dedicated to the Empress Wu. The Fengxian Temple was built in the Tang Dynasty and it is the largest grotto in Longmen (McNair 122). There are nine major figures of various facial appearances and temperaments in the temple that were built in accordance with the Buddhist rite and their relationships by the artists. The most impressive figure is the statue of the Vairocana Buddha sitting cross-legged on the eight-square lotus throne. It is about 56.23 feet in total height with a head of about 13 feet in height and the ears about 6.2 feet in length (McNair 64). Vairocana means illuminating all things in the sutra. The Buddha has a well-filled figure, a sacred and kindly expression and an elegant smile. According to the record on the epigraph, the Empress Wu Zetian together with her subjects took part in the ceremony of Introducing the Light (a Buddhist blessing that the Buddha opens the spiritual light of himself and shares it with others) (McNair 66). At the sides of Vairocana there are two statues of Vairocana Buddha's disciples, Kasyapa and Ananda, wearing prudent and devout expressions. The figures of Bodhisattvas and devas can also be found in the temple. Some have dignified and genial expressions, while others are majestic and fiery (McNair 69). The various appearances and delicate designs are the representations of Empire Tang's powerful material and spiritual strength as well as the high crystallization of people's wisdoms. The Mogao Caves at Dunhunag are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist chapels and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Chapels, are one of the three famous ancient sculptural sites of China. The caves also have famous wall paintings. Dunhuang, in the Gansu province, was located near the meeting point of the ancient northern and couthern routes of the Silk Road, and houses some of the most fantastic murals in all of ancient China. The Mogao caves are an amazing assemblage of separate hand excavated and decorated caves which were constructed beginning in 366 AD as places to store scriptures and art. According to records, over 1000 chapels were built over this period and 492 survive today in good condition (Fan 256). The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. The cave thereby became a place for spiritual search. It was but a small elaboration to painting the caves' walls with emblems to facilitate meditation or with visualizations derived from the search for enlightenment (Fan 251). As seen with Cave 258, it is atypical in plan: a large, open chamber flanked on twp sides by eight small cells, probably for meditation (Thorpe 169). Because the caves were being used to facilitate mediation, the caves were designed and decorated with ”careful attention to texts from the Canon and their teachings” and they respond to analysis with the textual sources at hand (Thorpe 169). The Mogao chapels contain truly amazing murals and narratives that are particular to the text. The chapels were widely visited by Buddhists from all over the world, and today still draw Buddhists and even tourists. The cave chapels of Yungang, Longmen, and Dunhuang all not only epitomize the magnificent artistic skill the Chinese posses, but also their dedication to their religious purposed. These magnificent chapels are truly works of art that will forever be among the most famous places of worship in for Buddhists in China. Although each different in their own way, each of the different cave chapels contribute to China’s unique religious and artistic history.


Thorpe, Robert L., Richard Ellis Vinograd. Chinese Art and Culture. Prentice Hall Inc, Upeer Saddle N.J. 2006.

Karetzky, Patricia E. Early Buddhist Narrative Art. Oxford Publishing, London. 2002.

McNair, Amy. Donors of Longmen: Faith, Politics, And Patronage in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Sculpture. Random House, New York, New York. 2006.

Fan, Jinshi. The Art of Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang: A Journey Into China's Buddhist Shrine. Prentice Hall Inc, Upper Saddle N.J. 2001.…...

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