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Buddhadharma : Winter 2008
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly winter 2 0 08 56 The rock is quite porous, and when it rains around Tatung, it pours. In fact, the summer storms in that part of China—the deforested, denuded part—supply the Yellow River with most of the silt that makes it five times muddier than any other river in the world. As with monumental portrayals of the human form elsewhere, the proportions of the statues don’t seem quite right. Perhaps this is a result of the viewer’s perspective from beneath the image, or perhaps it has something to do with what the artisans faced, feeling their way through the rock. No one had ever attempted to render the human form on such a massive scale before. (The buddhas at Bamyan weren’t carved until the following century.) Some of the buddhas at Yunkang are so big that attendant bodhisattvas act as pillars to hold up their outstretched hands. As I walked through those first five caves, it occurred to me that carving these buddhas was not an offering of art for art’s sake, nor was it a representation of the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering. These buddhas were created to inspire awe and submission to authority. Back in the North- ern Wei dynasty 1,500 years ago, worshippers who entered these caves would have been awestruck by these supermen in stone. They would have felt a profound and insurmountable sense of spiritual separation between themselves and the Bud- dha, which would doubtlessly have redoubled their devotion to their living buddha emperors. Who among them would have asked, “How do I become a buddha?” We moved on to the buddhas in caves 9–13. Carved in the decades that followed, these were commissioned by the Toba nobility. In this era the emphasis was not so much on impressing worshippers with the size of the statues—though they are still huge—as with their design and artistry. Each of these caves is a jewel with a thousand facets, and walking in is like giving the kaleidoscope another turn. Almost every inch of wall space is covered—with a buddha, a heavenly deity, a scene from Shakyamuni’s life, or just a rosette. And Buddhism isn’t the only subject represented. Our guide pointed out Ira- nian and Byzantine motifs in the clothing and wall carvings, as well as modeling of figures that is clearly Greco-Roman. Persia and Central Asia were the source of many of the musi- cal instruments used in Chinese music, and the walls of one cave are covered with deities playing celestial tunes—some on instruments I had never seen before. Another unique feature of this second group of caves is that the austerity of the monochromatic sandstone has become a rococo tableau of pastels. About a thousand years after they were carved, someone covered the statues with a layer of straw and clay and then painted the clay. It is gor- geous. In some places, the clay has fallen off and exposed the holes into which wooden pegs were inserted to hold the straw and clay in place. This second set of caves also differs in general layout. The caves in the first set are round or ovate and resemble huge huts, or perhaps yurts, and the buddhas inside look as if they had turned into stone during meditation. These caves are square or rectangular and closer in design to a palace throne room. The buddhas inside look as if they are teach- ing the dharma to those who come before them. Clearly, the greater refinement of the second set of caves reflects a change in emphasis: art over awe. As we continued westward into caves 5–8, we began to encounter buddhas in pairs, representing couples from the Toba nobility and the local Chinese elite who had funded m.mienik