The Flowering of Virtue and Morality: Storytelling in Mogao Cave 275

- through Francois Leclercq

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The Mogao Grottoes, or the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, are a set of caves carved into the eastern face of Mingsha Shan on three levels, near the present-day city of Dunhuang in northwest China. A vast collection of Buddhist artwork, including paintings, sculptures and manuscripts, is carefully monitored and preserved by the Dunhuang Research Academy in over 700 caves that make up the site. It is one of China's most important heritage sites, having been one of the first to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 (along with Beijing's Ming-Qing Palaces, Great Wall and Mausoleum of the first emperor in Xi'an).

Cave 275 is one such cave, but its distinctive depiction of Buddhist ideas and ethical precepts is particularly noteworthy. Thought to date from the Northern Liang period (397–439 ​​CE), Cave 275 is believed to have been used for meditation and Dharma dissemination. (Bell 2000, 64) If one is lucky enough to visit the site (or even its digital replica at the nearby Mogao Visitor Center), one can almost feel the presence of long-dead monks gathering to bow down before the large statue of Maitreya, or sit cross-legged facing the murals and chapels that adorn the sides of the cave. Pilgrim-monks Faxian (337-422) and Xuanzang (602-64) also recorded their own visits to Cave 275.

Cave No. 275 can be considered a "Maitreya cave". (Duan and Chung 1994, 68) This statue is unique. Maitreya is seated on a footstool or rug with his ankles crossed, his feet resting on two spherical elements which were probably lotuses in their original form. His crown also consists of three discs, the middle of which represents a Buddha in dhyana mudra. (Bell 2000, 64–5) The outer ring resembles licking flames, perhaps reminiscent of early Indian or even Persian and Middle Eastern influences.

Statue of Bodhisattva Maitreya, seated cross-legged in Mogao Cave 275, at the west wall. Image from
The interior of Mogao Cave 275. Image taken from

The power of the bodhisattva

The moral stories and teachings depicted in Cave 275 are remarkable not only for their artistic merit, but also for their ability to convey two fundamental ideas: Buddhist morality and bodhisattva ethics. Artists would probably have been commissioned by patrons (and the monks who teach them) to use the Jatakasancient accounts of the Buddha's past lives, as sources for wall art.

Le Jatakas, far from being dry philosophical or technical expositions, bring to life the Buddha's compassion and love for all beings, and would have been essential to Buddhist missionary activity across Asia, inspiring entire communities of devotees to aspire to the ideal of the Buddha. As Ulrich Pagel notes:

While the philosophy of sunyata aroused immense attraction among generations of scholars and intellectuals, it was the bodhisattva teachings that made Mahayana a popular religion across Asia. Not only could it easily win admiration, but being adaptable to an infinite variety of human circumstances, the bodhisattva doctrine could also serve as the basis for immediate action. As central to Mahayana spirituality, the bodhisattva concept was therefore an integral part and cornerstone of all missionary activity.

(Pagel 1995, 69)

To this day, iconographic depictions and murals across Asia bear witness to the reputation and affection in which the accounts of Sakyamuni's past lives were held. . . . On the one hand, the jataka served to authenticate the practices themselves. On the other hand, their role was to inspire faith in the bodhisattva image. They not only clarified the scope of the new ideal, but more importantly for the conversion of other peoples, they provided the urgently needed proof that its sublime achievements were attainable.

(Pagel 1995, 114)

The murals in Cave 275 act as visual aids for spreading the Jatakas', communicating Buddhist morality to a wide range of people, including those who would have been illiterate or unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophy. The murals also served as a form of spiritual practice for the artists and benefactors who commissioned them, as the creation or sponsorship of religious art is believed to generate merit and good karma.

Le Bhilanjili Jataka

Ce jataka aims to show how King Bhilanjili uses virtue (one of the six paramitas) energy (virya) to harness the power of Dharma, not only as part of the path to enlightenment, but also as a source of protection.

According to Bhilanjili Jataka, Sakra Devendra (the Buddhist interpretation of the Vedic deity Indra), who in Buddhist myth is the god of the devas, approached a king called Bhilanjili and inserted a needle into every hole containing hair in his body. However, rather than screaming in pain from a presumably vicious attack, the monarch was a Dharma student who was able to enter a state of contemplation where he was pain free. (Bell 2000, 71)

Le Bhilanjili Jataka version mentioned above has more detailed inspiration and content than the xianyu jing (賢愚經). In the xianyu jinghe is a hostile Brahman who "stamped the thousand iron nails into the body of the king", which corresponds to the representations of cave 275 where the Brahman is shown driving the nails into King Bhilanjili's body. (Bell 2000, 71)

King of a Thousand Nails, Mogao Cave 275, middle section of the north wall. From Wikimedia Commons

Le Sibi Jataka

Le Sibi Jataka concerns two gods of great antiquity, Indra (again) and Agni. They are none other than the first celestials mentioned in the Rig Veda. who arrived to test the new king of Śibi who was renowned for his generosity. The falcon began chasing the terrified pigeon, which collapsed in King Śibi's lap. The falcon consented to leave the pigeon alone if the king would offer a piece of equal weight of his own flesh. However, after removing flesh from various areas of its body and weighing it, the king discovered that the pigeon was still overweight. The king therefore placed his whole body on the scale, but still could not match the weight of the pigeon. The falcon and the pigeon revealed their true identities and presented the king with gifts for his boundless generosity. (open dharma)

In cave no. 275, the Sibi Jataka the story is an exact replica of the Sibi Jataka account in the second cave in the Tuyoq Valley (Duan and Chung 1994, 94), however, there are several versions which do not correspond to cave 275: for example, in the Liudu jing (六度集經), the Zhongjing zuan za bu yu jing (眾經撰雜譬喻), and the xianyu jing. In the Tuyoq Valley version, the king personally cuts his flesh, whereas in Mogao Caves 275, 254, and 85 someone else does the deed. (Bell 2000, 73)

King Śibi cutting his flesh in exchange for the pigeon, Mogao 275, middle section of the north wall. Image from
King Śibi holding the pigeon with compassion. Image from

Le Chandraprabha Jataka

According to Liudu ji jingle Chandraprabha Jataka tells the story of an ascetic who presented himself to King Chandraprabha and asked for his head. The king, who had never refused anyone his wish, offered the ascetic a head made of the "seven kinds of precious substances", but the ascetic refused. The ascetic grabbed his sword and rushed towards the king, but a tree spirit, angered by the man's insolence and bloodlust, struck him with such force that his blade fell from his hand. All members of the court and heavenly entities rejoiced. The Buddha adds at the end of the story that the ascetic was Devadatta (Bell 2000, 74). The story is in Avadana Kalpalata and Liudu ji jing. Versions of the story also appear in the Da Fangbian for baoen jing and xianyu jing. (Bell 2000, 74)

Moonlight King giving his head, Mogao Cave 275, north wall, central section. Image from
From left to right: wall representations of the Bhilanjili Jatakale Sibi Jatakaand Candraprabha Jataka. Image from

A story with many virtues

The murals in Mogao Cave 275 are not limited to the specific narratives depicted on its walls, but also encompass the broader themes underlying the moral teachings of Buddhism. These murals emphasize the importance of generosity, compassion and self-sacrifice, and serve as a visual reminder of the daily moral values ​​that Buddhists are expected to uphold. Moreover, they serve to reinforce the concept of rebirth, because the Jataka the tales depict the Buddha in a variety of past lives, demonstrating that all beings are subject to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. By investigating the stories and specific moral teachings depicted in the murals, we gain insight into the rich tapestry of Buddhist art and thought, which continues to inspire and enlighten spiritual seekers.

The references

Alexander Pierre Bell. 2000. Didactic narration: Jataka iconography in Dunhuang with a Catalog of Jataka representations in China. Berlin: Verlag Munster.

Ulrich Pagel. 1995.

Wenjie Duan and Chung Tan. 1994. Dunhuang art through the eyes of Duan Wenjie. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

See more

King Sivi/Sibi/Cibi/Sibhi Jataka (open dharma)

MOGAO CAVE 275 (NORTHERN LIANG DYNASTY) (Dunhuang Research Academy)
【神游千年,大美敦煌】北凉-275窟:敦煌最古老的一窟【高清大图】(Chinese only)

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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