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Buddhadharma : Winter 2008
55 winter 2 00 8 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Chinese dynasty, the Northern Wei, in 386 CE. Like other nomadic groups, their religious beliefs were shamanistic, but as with other nomads who conquered sedentary civilizations, they subsequently adopted the beliefs of those they conquered. The Toba not only supported the Buddhist clergy, they took for themselves the role of living buddhas and thereby ensured their control of a devoted populace. This arrangement had a downside. Because monasteries were exempt from taxation, more and more people began using the monastic life as a subterfuge, increasing the bur- den on those unable to find similar shelter. In 446, the Toba Emperor T’ai-wu finally became so annoyed at this state of affairs that he launched China’s first persecution of Buddhists. Temples were destroyed, and monks and nuns who didn’t flee were forced to return to lay life. When T’ai-wu died in 452, his grandson and successor, Wen-ch’eng, reversed the policy and tried to make up for it by rebuilding the temples his grandfather had destroyed. He also initiated the largest art project ever undertaken in China, in the sandstone cliffs called Yunkang, or “Cloud Bluff,” just west of the Toba capi- tal. Considered sacred by the locals, it was a place where people went for visions, and Emperor Wen-ch’eng carved his there in stone. The original plan, conceived by the Buddhist monk T’an- yao and approved by the emperor, was to carve out five caves, each with a different buddha inside, representing the five kinds of enlightened knowledge: knowledge of reality, knowledge of perfect reflection, knowledge of equanimity, knowledge of subtle discrimination, and knowledge of what works. Because the imperial family was funding the project, the buddhas were carved to resemble four of the five Toba emperors up to that point as well as Emperor Wen-ch’eng’s deceased son, who became Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. These statues were simply a confirmation in stone that the Toba rulers had adopted the role of living buddhas. According to dynastic annals, work on the caves began in 460. It involved over forty thousand workers, including arti- sans from sites along the Silk Road and as far away as India. When the work ended in 524, over fifty thousand statues had been created in more than fifty caves. During the T’ang dynasty, the Chinese added a few more buddhas; with the exception of a huge single statue of Amitabha, the resident Buddha of the Western Paradise, these didn’t compare with those left by the Toba. My guided tour of the cliffs of Yunkang began with caves 16–20 at the eastern end of the bluff. Each cave has a number, but I’m not sure what the sequence is based on, because these were the first caves carved in 460. As we walked inside the ear- liest one, the cold air had me zipping up my parka. Our guide said the caves stay cool even on 100-degree summer days. Except for one cave, where part of the front wall had col- lapsed during an earthquake, the buddhas in these first five caves could be seen only after we’d passed through a por- tico. Inside, the caves open up into huge chambers that have been hollowed out of the rock. The buddhas that remain are among the largest figures ever carved from stone. Some are seated, some are standing, and all range from forty-five to fifty feet high—about the same size as the heads of the U.S. presidents carved at Mount Rushmore. However, due to the lack of space in front of them, we could only view the stat- ues by craning our necks upward, which turned us all into supplicants. Halfway up the front walls, large openings let in sunlight that light up the carved faces, making them appear detached from their bodies. I noticed that wherever the backs of the statues are connected to the rock walls, there is water damage. 2nDCHanSPaulHollanD