Art and Buddhism: The Ancient Murals in the Caves of Dunhuang

Cave Mural in Dunhuang, China
Cave Mural in Dunhuang, China (© youm/

On the eastern edge of the Taklaman desert in Northern China sits the oasis town of Dunhuang.  For centuries, travelers from around the world passed through this way station on the ancient Silk Road.  These travelers brought with them not only trade goods and specie, but also their cultures and religions.  Among the earliest travelers to pass through Dunhuang were Buddhist monks.  In the fourth century AD, these monks began carving caves into nearby cliff sides to use for meditation.  Monasteries grew up around these caves, which became places of worship and pilgrimage.  Over time, rich locals began to finance the excavation and decoration of new caves in a grand construction project that went on for a thousand years.  

Today, the murals painted in these cave temples have become a global landmark.  Using a delicate dry-fresco technique, the artists painted a broad range of Buddhist imagery.  One of their favorite images was “The Debate” scene from the Vimalakirti Sutra.  Painted at least 68 times, the scene depicts the wily merchant Vimalakirti debating the revered bodhisattva Manjusri as they discuss everything from gender norms, to compassion, to the nature of the universe itself.  In the harsh desert environment of Dunhuang, the lessons of the Vimalakirti Sutra resonated, suggesting that though the road was tough, it led to enlightenment.

Dunhuang:  A Silk Road Oasis

Few places contain as much preserved history as Dunhuang.  The modern city traces its origins to 104 BC, when the Han dynasty established a garrison in the area.  With its own supply of fresh water, Dunhuang became a natural stopover for travelers seeking to reprovision after crossing the harsh deserts that encircled the city. 

By the sixth century AD, Dunhuang had become a hub of international commerce, being strategically located on two of the main branches of the Silk Road.  For centuries, caravans from the west would arrive in Dunhuang to trade their wares for bolts of silk, a commodity manufactured only in China.  Dunhuang would change hands multiple times over the centuries, being intermittently occupied by Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongols (in addition to various Chinese dynasties).  Despite the chaos arising from the rise and fall of empires, Dunhuang continued to flourish as a center of international trade. 

Crescent Moon Lake Near Dunhuang
Crescent Moon Lake Near Dunhuang (© Wang/

But Dunhuang was not just special because of the silk trade.  It was also a place where for a time occurred one of those rare moments in history where civilizations met in a spirit of openness and mutual admiration.  It is known today for the key role it played in the transmission of Buddhism from India into China, but it wasn’t only Buddhists who worshiped in Dunhuang.  There is evidence that Zoroastrains, Taoists, Christians, and Jews lived and worshipped in Dunhuang as well.  These communities lived alongside each other and through their trade, achieved a level of wealth and cosmopolitan sophistication that few other places could rival.

The Cave Murals of Dunhuang

Some of this wealth would be funneled into the construction of the Mogao cave complex, for which Dunhuang is best known today.  Cave construction at Mogao began in the fourth century AD and continued until the fourteenth.  Over these thousand years, 735 caves were excavated, of which 492 were decorated.  The decorated caves contain a vast array of intricate sculptures and murals.  It is estimated that the murals at Mogao collectively cover an area of 500,000 square feet, equivalent to 40 times the area of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling fresco.

Entrance to Mogao Cave Complex, near Dunhuang.
Entrance to Mogao Cave Complex. (Zhang ZhugangCC BY-SA 4.0)

The expense of excavating and decorating each cave was enormous and would have been impossible without the profits generated by Dunhuang’s trade in silk and other commodities.  Wealthy merchants and government officials donated funds for the construction of new temples in the hopes of securing a favorable rebirth. They also established a painting academy to train the hundreds of artists required to paint the murals in each cave. 

Because of the dry climate around Dunhuang, many of these murals remain extremely well preserved.  This allows one to see the evolution of Buddhist art over the millennia in which cave construction occurred.  One of these transitions was the development of a uniquely Chinese-Buddhist iconography.  The earlier caves show strong Indian influence, with figures depicted in the traditional Indian manner using painting techniques from India.  But as cave construction went on, Dunhuang artists began to develop their own unique style, which made greater use of traditional Chinese imagery and painting techniques.

Image of an aspara in a mural at Dunhuang.
Depiction of an aspara in a mural at Dunhuang. Aspara are celestial beings often depicted in Hindu and Buddhist art. (© youm/

As the religious imagery evolved, so too did the themes.  Mural motifs began to reflect the unique strain of Mahayana Buddhism that began to take root in China and other north Asian countries.  “The Debate” scene, which appears 68 times in the Magao caves, is one example.  It comes from the Vimalakirti Sutra, which lays out many of the core Mahayana beliefs and has historically held special appeal to Chinese Buddhists, inspiring many of what would become the leading Buddhist traditions in East Asia, including Zen, Pure Land, and Tiantai. Dunhuang may have been the first place in China in which the Vimalakirti Sutra gained traction, thereby planting the seeds for the Mahayana Buddhist traditions which would shape China and Northeast Asia for centuries to come.

The Debate

One of the most admired versions of The Debate scene is in cave 61 (viewable here on the East Wall).  The composition is spread around the entrance of the cave, with the two debaters painted on either side facing off against one another.  On one side is Manjusri, one of the most revered figures of Buddhism and often a symbol for transcendent wisdom.  He sits atop a square dais, a jeweled canopy overhead.  His flowing robes trail over the sides of the dais, behind which stands other of the Buddha’s disciples and an array of bodhisattvas (the term for one near to enlightenment but who has vowed not to enter Nirvana until all living beings have achieved liberation).  On the other side sits the merchant Vimalakirti, who reclines in a pavilion.  Bodhisattvas also sit behind him, while celestial beings swoop down in front.  

This mural depicts the key scene in the Sutra – the debate between Manjusri and Vimalakirti.  Like Plato’s dialogues, the two debaters epitomize different school of thoughts – Manjusri the old monastic Therevada tradition and Vimalakirti the upstart Mahayana school.  

As they talk, Vimalakirti picks apart the traditional conceptions of Buddhism represented by Manjusri, questioning the rigid ideas to which he clings.  The true nature of reality is ineffable, suggests Vimalakirti.  “Like the reflection of the moon in water,” our ideas about people, places, and things are inherently superficial, he argues. In this view, ideology and intellectual constructs are impediments to apprehending true reality.

Image of a mural depicting the debate scene at the Mogao cave complex in dunhuang.
A mural depicting “The Debate” scene at the Mogao complex in Dunhuang. (© rweisswald/

To hammer home this point, the Sutra takes on the concept of gender.  In one chapter, a goddess accompanying Vimalakirti interrogates the monk Sariputra, a companion of Manjusri’s.  Sariputra is so impressed with the goddess’s eloquence that he asks her why she does not incarnate as a man (implying that the male form is superior to the female).  At this, the goddess switches bodies with Sariputra.  As the monk panics over his new found femininity, the goddess explains the emptiness of the mental construct of gender, noting such conceptions are an impediment to the attainment of enlightenment.

Another message of the Sutra concerns compassion.  To illustrate the importance of compassion, the Sutra contains a passage in which Vimalakirti and his guests are visited by bodhisattvas from a far-away idyllic world.  When asked how the dharma is taught in their world, the bodhisattvas explain that a perfume is emitted by the trees and that whoever inhales it instantly gains all the virtues of a bodhisattva.  

The bodhisattvas then ask Vimalakirti how the dharma is taught in this world.  Vimalakirti explains that the “wild and uncivilized” beings in this world unfortunately do not have the luxury of knowledge transmitted via perfumed trees.  Instead, in this world of deceit, sickness, and death, the dharma is taught through discourse.  At this, the visiting beings express amazement, for here a bodhisattva has an opportunity to practice compassion.  They then praise Buddha for his wisdom in constructing such a world.  Vimalakirti agrees, adding that one can do more good in this world in one lifetime than would be possible in “100,000 aeons” in theirs. 

Implicit in this exchange is the idea that hardship is necessary to cultivate compassion, which at its core involves transcendence of the self and identification with other living beings.  Thus our world, with all its challenges and inequities, is also a type of classroom – designed to facilitate the cultivation of compassion and connection with others.

In the Footsteps of Vimalakirti

8th Century Mural of Vimalakirti from Cave 103
8th Century Mural of Vimalakirti; Cave 103 (wikicommons)

Part of the elegance of the Vimalakirti Sutra is the interwoven messages regarding the nature of reality, compassion, and the path to enlightenment.  In painting scenes from the Sutra, the artists inspired generations of travelers and pilgrims who visited these desert caves to contemplate its message; that beneath the veil of our egoistic concerns, there is a deeper reality.  And with compassion and wisdom, we can perceive it.  This message, which inspired a thousand years of art in a far off desert oasis, continues to resonate up to the present day. 

Sources/Further Reading:

  1. The quotes from the Vimalakirti Sutra used above are taken from Robert Thurman’s translation: “The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti: A Mahāyāna Scripture.” Pennsylvania State University Press, in cooperation with the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions, 1976. The full translation, including Thurman’s explanatory introduction is available here.
  2. For Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary on the Vimalakirti Sutra, see here.
  3. For further understanding of the Vimalakirti Sutra as presented at Dunhuang, see this great lecture by Thurman and Peter Sellars, accessible here.
  4. To explore cave 61 (and other caves) for yourself, check out the Dunhuang Academy’s digital Dunhuang project here.
  5. Lee, Sonya S. “Repository of Ingenuity: Cave 61 and Artistic Appropriation in Tenth-Century Dunhuang.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 94, no. 2, 2012, pp. 199–225
  6. O’Leary, Joseph S. “Nonduality in the Vimalakīrti-Nirdeśa: A Theological Reflection.” The Eastern Buddhist, vol. 46, no. 1, 2015, pp. 63–78
  7. The Vimalakirti Sutra had a huge influence on Chinese Buddhism. See my post on the Summer Palace for an example of how the sutra inspired part of Qianlong’s famous gardens – available here.