NEW YORK—The tracks of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims throughout the ages converge in one spot in the deserts of western China. Though shifting sands erase evidence of their footsteps, hundreds of caves painstakingly carved into the sides of barren cliffs hold proof of their devotion.
The caves of Dunhuang, a UNESCO Heritage Site, are perhaps the most magnificent historical repository of Buddhist art and scriptures. There, murals dancing with mineral colors mirror lifelike stucco sculptures of the Buddha and other deities.
Until mid-July, replicas of sculptures and paintings, along with sutras and figurines from some of Dunhuang’s main caves, will be shown at the China Institute in Manhattan.
“It’s the first time of bringing the context of the caves to the public,” said Annette Juliano, professor of Asian art history at Rutgers University. “Most of the time you see Buddha statues as single pieces in museums, and you don’t get a sense of the whole environment.”
Juliano helped organize the exhibit. Her aim was to show to the greatest extent possible the caves as a whole, rather than merely the sum of their parts.
She had been to Dunhuang when it first opened in 1980 and has since visited the site several times to conduct research.
“The color and the imagery—it was dazzling,” she said of her first visit. “To see it as a whole is very moving, especially in the caves where there are life-sized images. I describe it as a repository of spiritual energy.”
While there’s no way to create a facsimile, the viewer feels the incredible dedication of ancient Chinese artists.
A Divine Revelation
“Mahayana Buddhism talks about accruing merit, and making art was a form of merit,” Juliano said.
The first of Dunhuang’s caves was created in A.D. 366 by Buddhist monk Le Zun, who came across the location on his way west. Parched and tired, he sat to rest, when a divine sight was revealed to him.
A huge, glowing Buddha appeared in the sky, accompanied by celestial beings playing divine music.
Inspired by this spectacle, the monk decided to abandon his journey and mark the blessed event. He dug a cave in the rocky cliffs and painted it with the scene he had seen.
After him, another pilgrim happening upon Dunhuang saw similar divine revelations. Before long, the grottoes became a sacred site for devotees. Eventually, almost 800 caves were cut into the mountainside and decorated with devotional images.
Early Cave, Late Cave
Dunhuang, originally founded as a military outpost in 111 B.C., was a hive of artistic activity between A.D. 366 and the end of the Tang Dynasty (about A.D. 900). Styles and characteristics differed widely among Chinese dynasties, and the artwork at Dunhuang is no exception.
To highlight the stylistic diversity present there, one of China Institute’s exhibition rooms shows an example of an early cave, while another depicts a later cave.
The first room has a stupa pillar at its center, typical of the Western Wei Dynasty (A.D. 535–557). The pillar takes up the majority of the space, allowing a visitor only enough space to walk around it—clockwise according to Buddhist tradition. Seen in this way, the artwork shows a narrative of Buddha Shakyamuni’s trials and tribulations during his cultivation of buddhahood.
“When you go around the central pillar, you see on the first side—the eastern-facing, lighted side—the Buddha with attendants,” Juliano explains. “On the next side, you see boddhisattvas and celestial beings above them. And then on the back side—the western, dark side—there’s an emaciated Buddha, which is a reference to the Buddha’s asceticism. Then he decided that asceticism wasn’t the way and began meditating. It emphasizes the process and the struggle of the Buddha.”
The second room is modeled after Dunhuang’s Cave 45, with the central niche on the far end of the “cave” containing an arrangement of seven figures—the Buddha, seated in double-lotus in the center, flanked on either side by standing disciples, boddhisattvas, and wrathful devarajas, or god-kings.
This cave format, called the “assembly hall,” is typical of the High Tang period (A.D. 705-781), which is considered the pinnacle of Chinese civilization. Monks used the cave to meditate on the teachings of Buddhism, according to Juliano.
To complete the cave rendition, the walls are adorned with sprawling murals of heavenly paradises, filled with deities, the human world and its strifes, and graphic warnings against violating heaven’s laws. Fragments of key Buddhist sutras, floor tiles from the site, and small figurines supplement the exhibit.
The exhibit runs until July 19. Visit www.chinainstitute.org for more information.