We are on the way to the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, also called the Magao Caves or the Dunhuang Caves since they are 25 km from Dunhuang, China.
“What do you know about the Buddha?” I asked Karen.
“He was a prince in India who was disturbed by seeking a sick man, a dead man, and a monk. As a result, he left home to become enlightened. He sat under a tree and he must have become enhnlightened because he lived to become old and taught others to become enlightened.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“There were the eight noble paths and the four noble other things, something like that,” she said.
“That’s close enough,” I replied. “We don’t need to get into details. The Buddha said life involves suffering and suffering comes from attachments. By giving up attachments, we reduce suffering; the pathway to do this involves right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Mindfulness and concentration involve meditation.
“I remember sitting on the ground with my legs crossed and my eyes closed until my butt hurt,” Karen replied. “That seems to be the essence.”
“Yes, that’s the heart of it. You sound like a Zen master,” I replied.
I had taken Karen to a silent seven-day Buddhist meditation retreat during an early phase of our relationship. I don’t think she enjoyed it but it was an adventure connected to being with me — similar to traveling around the world overland, I guess. It was hard to do but, in a way, interesting and challenging…except that it was also boring.
The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas began with the vision of a Buddhist monk, Le Zun. In 366 CE, He saw 1000 Buddhas, bathed in a golden light, at the future site and, as a result, he built a meditation cave there. His presence attracted other monks who built caves.
We had met three Chinese ladies on the minibus to Dunhuang and one of them, Xiaoxin, suggested that we go to the caves together — so here we are at the main monastery structure.
The lady in the orange jacket is Xiaoxin. I forget the other’s names. They are married school teachers on holiday.
As the Silk Road traffic picked up, merchants funded the creation of sacred statues, artwork, and shrines. They wanted to attain virtue to survive the desert crossing or give thanks for a successful crossing. Caves with shrines were built between the 4th and 14th centuries with the artwork reflecting the changing nature of Buddhism. The Dunhuang Caves acquired characteristics from a wide geographical area because the town was an important hub on the Silk Road.
Pagodas mark the graves of important monks.
The video reveals the desert the Silk Road travelers crossed. It shows the cave complex, stretching for almost 2 km (behind the tree line), and concludes with images of Karen and the ladies looking at a pagoda.
At its peak, the complex had over 1000 caves. The present ruins include 492 cells and caves with 2000 Buddhas.
The image portrays a folklore story describing the Buddha’s enlightenment. In the image, the Buddha has just gained enlightenment (woken up). The demon asks what gives the Buddha his authority. The Buudha touches the ground — indicating that his authority is derived from reality.
The Buddha lived about 500 years before Jesus. His teachings were preserved by people who memorized oral lessons, which were eventually written down. All together the final scriptures made up three baskets of text (the “three baskets”).
With increased use of sea routes for trade and with Muslim occupation, the monastery was deserted in the 14th century. The monks sealed up a cave with a huge collection of texts and scriptures.
In 1900, a Taoist monk, Wang Yuanlu, was clearing away sand and repairing the site. He discovered the cave filled with ancient artwork and texts.
Statues reveal varying states of damage.
Wang Yuanlu attracted the attention of local authorities and Western archeologists began investigating the site. British/Indian, French, Japanese, Russian, and Americans carried away enormous hordes of artwork and manuscripts.
The photo portrays some manuscripts that were taken. Chinese archeologists, alarmed by this plunder, transported much of what remained to Beijing.
During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), many statues were damaged by Revolutionary Guards who destroyed cultural artifacts all over China.
Today, the caves are a tourist attraction. Many Chinese tourists visit. Although we saw no Westerners, I think tour buses come during warmer months.
Structures allow visitors to walk up to the cave entrances.
The main building marks the heart of the monastery complex.
The largest Buddha was constructed in 695.
Tour groups are taken to only five caves, which vary among tours. Although tour guides tried to prevent photography, we watched other tourists taking photos and we took pictures using stealth.
This statue is designed to scare away demons.
Our tour was conducted in Chinese and I watched Chinese tourists listen passively. I pondered what I might say to you regarding these caves. I was thinking that words are not that important. The Chinese tourists listen but are not emotionally connected. Practicing an inner way, an inner path, is what is important.
The Reclining Buddha is in cave 158. The images portrays the Buddha as he dies — an event signifying the end of his mission. He will not be reincarnated because he attained enlightenment and has no attachments.
I asked Xiaxin what she had learned but she was unable to answer. The majority of Chinese people do not practice a religion. She said her English was not good enough.
I spoke with a college student who wanted to talk with me in English. My impression was that he and his family know very little about Buddhism. The caves were of historical interest. He had visited the caves previously. He said that our tour was not visiting his favorite cave.
One of the manuscrips, removed from the library cave, was the Diamond Sutra, first translated into Chinese in the 4th century. The existing text, from 868, is the oldest dated printed manuscript in the world (wood block printing).
A mural of Avalokitesvara (Guan yin or Quan Yin) had been removed to a museum. She is a Buddhist saint, the Goddess of Mercy.
Another painting, removed from the caves, portrays the famous monk Xuanzang bringing a large collection of Buddhist scriptures back from India. He passed through Dunhuong during his 17 year journey. He lived from 602 to 644; see “Journey to the West.”
I don’t think the Chinese tourists visiting these caves were touched in a deep manner but I think there is a kind of spiritual hunger within them. They try to make sense of the incredibly rapid modernization they are experiencing. The pace of life causes a kind of anxiety, disjunction, and unease for some.
What can we learn from looking at objects created by men who lived and meditated in caves?
For many millennia, all over the world, ancient shamans went into trance and communicated with the spiritual world. They brought back information valuable for healing, survival, and spiritual well-being. The Buddhist meditators, seekers of ultimate reality, were a continuation of this tradition.
I seek to motivate you in this direction. Although effort, focus, and concentration are required, you can benefit from this. Loking inward brings happiness and peace of mind.
Buddhism was brought to China by monks following the Silk Road. Now it comes to you.
You need not be concerned by the Indian and Chinese folklore surrounding Buddhism. What is important is what you find through looking inward.
Karen is correct about sitting with eyes closed. That is the essense of what the Buddha suggests. Sitting with eyes open is also okay. Standing is okay. Walking is okay. With correct intention, concentration, motivation, mindfulness, you can continually redirect your awareness to an object such as your breath. When thoughts or sensations come, just let them go, and return your awareness to your breath.
Tradition tells us that this is the strategy the Buddha used to reach enlightenment…staying aware of his breath.
Don’t be misled by ancient or foreign notions regarding the word “enlightenment.” It means “to wake up.”
During the Buddha’s time, people faced different problems than people face today. These days, young people encounter a rapidly changing world with economic and social uncertainty. Modern conditions have made depression and anxiety disorders prevalent and verious versions of these problems trouble almost everyone.
The Buddhha provides a remedy. When you meditate, you keep letting go of the types of thoughts that signify your problems. You feel inadequate in some way, incapable of understanding or action. But the time will come when you “wake up.” This is not something impossible to do. You do it naturally all the time. The Buddha merely suggests doing it with awareness. You can achieve happiness and well-being. People have found this to be the case over thousands of years.