Oh Mighty Buddha

Bill Porter travels to China’s ancient Yunkang caves, where devotees carved more than fifty thousand Buddhist statues.

By Bill Porter

Bill Porter travels to China’s ancient Yunkang caves, where devotees carved more than fifty thousand Buddhist statues, including some of the largest and most magnificent Buddhas ever set in stone.

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha asks his student Subhuti, “Can the Buddha be seen by means of the attributes he has acquired?” Although he urged his disciples to look within, the Buddha knew that it was far easier for them to look at their teacher and imagine themselves with his golden-hued skin, gossamer attire, serene gaze, and radiant awareness.

Attachment to appearances not only plagues ordinary mortals, it also plagues those who would otherwise rise above the red dust of the world of sensation. Twelve hundred years after the Buddha’s paranirvana, Lin-chi (Linji), the patriarch of the Rinzai school of Zen, told his disciples, “When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” That would be one solution. But I bore the Buddha no grudge, and I didn’t think meeting him would be a problem. The place I had in mind was the old garrison town of Tatung, 225 miles west of Beijing, toward which our bus now sped.

No one knows when the Buddha’s followers began making images of their teacher. According to an account attributed to the early Buddhist sect known as the Mahasanghikas, when Shakyamuni left this earthly realm for a few months to teach his mother in the heavens atop Mount Sumeru, two kings from neighboring regions had their artisans fashion statues of the Buddha so that his followers wouldn’t be distressed by his sudden disappearance. One of the statues was carved from sandalwood, the other was made of burnished gold, and both were said to be life-size.

The early Mahasanghika text known as the Ekottara-agama notwithstanding, in the beginning the teaching was considered more important than the teacher. We encounter this refrain in such early Buddhist texts as the Samyutta Nikaya, where the Buddha tells Anathapindika, “Who sees the dharma, sees me. And who sees me, sees the dharma.” But the Buddha also told his disciples that five hundred years after his paranirvana, his followers would turn from the teaching to its representation in images. He was right, except that they didn’t wait that long. As early as the first century BC, we find likenesses of Shakyamuni carved in relief on the burial caskets and coins of the Greco-Indian and Kushan rulers of Gandhara (Pakistan) and Bactria (Afghanistan), and we see more sophisticated rock sculptures in Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) during the following two centuries.

Such a development in this particular area was no accident, for it was in the region bounded by Bactria, Gandhara, and Mathura that Mahayana Buddhism arose, with its emphasis on devotional practices aimed at gaining access to the sacred through the accrual of merit rather than meditation. As the merchants and rulers in that part of the world began to fund this new, lay-oriented movement, the Buddha took on an Apollonian guise. And by the fourth and fifth centuries, he appeared not simply as another god but as a superman of monumental proportions. Now that the buddhas of Bamyan have been reduced to rubble, nowhere is this vision of the Buddha’s likeness presented on such a colossal scale as it is in Tatung, located just inside that section of the Great Wall that separated Shansi Province from Inner Mongolia.

Tatung was the ancient capital of the Toba, a Turkish tribe that conquered the Chinese and established the first non-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 burden 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 capital. 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 artisans 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 earliest 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 collapsed during an earthquake, the buddhas in these first five caves could be seen only after we’d passed through a portico. 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 statues 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. 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 Northern 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 Buddha, 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 Iranian 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 musical 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 gorgeous. 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 teaching 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 these carvings. These statues too have been colored. Cave 6, which holds over three thousand statues of all sizes, is especially beautiful. Another feature of these later caves is that the rock around the central figures has been removed all the way down to the floor so that worshippers can circumambulate them, an essential part of any ceremony involving the Buddhist faithful.

As with some of the earlier caves, large windows carved out of the rock expose the buddhas’ faces—but only the faces—from a distance. When we think of a person, we think of the face. The face reveals who we are. Thus Zen masters ask their disciples to show them their original face, their face before they were born—not their original hand or their original foot.

At this point, the guide left us to continue by ourselves to the caves at the western end, which were carved out during the T’ang dynasty (618–906), long after the Toba had departed. By that time the buddhas had become Chinese—not as muscular or austere as the Toba images. Finally, the caves petered out in a series of undistinguished buddhas carved by local nobles after Tatung’s glory years were long gone.

Before leaving, I took a picture of the big T’ang dynasty Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, which looks out from the bluff. This statue, a weighty testament to our quest to portray the sacred, is great art on a great scale. I feel honored to have seen it. But I couldn’t help wonder if such representations help people on the road to liberation from the world of red dust, or if they only further their enslavement to objects of sensation.

I could hear Subhuti answering the Buddha’s question, saying that the Buddha cannot be seen by means of the attributes he had acquired. And I can hear the Buddha adding, “Since the acquisition of attributes is an illusion, Subhuti, the non-acquisition of attributes is not an illusion. Hence, by means of attributes that are not attributes the Buddha can, indeed, be seen.”

In Tatung, all I saw were buddhas with attributes. The attributes that were not attributes would have to wait for another day.