The Beishan Grottoes
The Baodingshan cave is located 20km northeast of Dazu. The site is about 500m long from west to east in the shape of a hairpin, with about one kilometer total length of sculptures. The carved areas which are between three and 15 meters tall are believed to have been carved under the direction of monk Zhao Zhifeng during the Southern Song Dynasty, between 1179 and 1249 AD. However, Some Daoist images date the carvings to the Qing Dynasty and later.
These reliefs and sculptures reflect a diverse school of Esoteric Buddhism that highlighted the faction of Liu Benzun (855 – 907), a pious layman of Sichuan province who became venerated for his asceticism and spiritual perfection. The three traditions Huayun, Pure Land and Zen are represented, blended with Confucianism. Shakyamuni’s birth and death, the Wheel of Reincarnation, Hell Punishments, and popular deities are also featured.
The reliefs are like illustrated sermons in stone, being interspersed with copious quotations from the sutras, which show that the intention of these reliefs is variously devotional, sermonic and in the pursuit of transcendence. As expressed by Zhao’s signature text:
Even if one spins a burning hot iron wheel on top of my head,
No matter how excruciating the pain is,
I will not relapse from the mind of enlightenment.
Many of the reliefs are lively, realistic and of high artistic quality. The reliefs were parables or teaching devices for the common people and elite persons of the time by depicting scenes of ordinary people and situations. For the monks who trained at the site, the reliefs illustrated Zhao’s spiritual doctrine in a concrete and memorable way, and remains so for visitors today.
The sequence of reliefs effectively amounts to a manual on ultimate liberation. Zhao promotes the Mahayana ideal that everyone can be saved through various means i.e. reflections on Shakyamuni’s life (the Parinirvana and Birth reliefs) and the doctrine of Karma (the Wheel of Reincarnation), encouraging good acts (reliefs of Parental and Filial Kindness), discouraging evil acts (Hell reliefs), promoting various kinds of worship (Huayun, Pure Land, and Esoteric reliefs) and contemplation (Oxherding Parable).
Below are some featured carvings and statues in Baodingshan caves:
[Images and captions extracted from: http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/china/beishan/be02.html]
Cave #5, 892 AD
The statue of Vaisravana in Cave #5 is dated 892, the first year of Wei’s governorship. The Guardian of the North treads upon two earth spirits, surrounded by warriors and attendants. The carving on his armor is so fine that it gives almost a filigree effect.
Cave #10, 892 AD
The founder of Buddhism sits on a canopied lotus throne below kneeling celestials, where he displays his usual mudras of bhumisparsha and abhaya, flanked by disciples and Bodhisattvas.
Buddhas of the Past, Present, and Future
The Buddha of the Past is Prabhutaratna (seated on the left); the Present Buddha is Shakyamuni (seated in the center); and the Future Buddha (seated on the right) is Maitreya.
The Buddha of Compassion is represented perched on a slab throne, haloed by a multitude of arms and hands. This bodhisattva often has multiple heads and arms, which symbolize his limitless capacity to perceive suffering and to help all beings. According to legend, when Avalokiteshvara first heard the suffering of the world his head burst from pain. Amitabha, his teacher, took the pieces of his head and remade eleven heads in its place. Then Amitabha gave Avalokiteshvara a thousand arms with which to ease all suffering. Amitabha is displayed both within the Bodhisattva’s crown (very small and hard to see in the photo), and also seated above the crown, between two upraised hands.
Attendants of Avalokiteshvara
These interesting figures are carved on either side of the multi-armed Avalokiteshvara (previous page). Below two large rondels, each enclosing a celestial (possibly representations of sun and moon), there appear other cloud rondels with the gods of wind (left) and thunder (right), then a group of five deities (planets?), then multi-armed deities: Samantabhadra (on partially-erased elephant, left), Yamantaka (on ox, left), Mahamayuri (on peacock, right), and Manjusri (on lion, right).
The Twin Buddhas are the Buddhas of the Past (Prabhutaratna, left) and Present (Shakyamuni, right) respectively. They appear together when Prabhutaratna visits in order to hear Shakyamuni preach the Lotus Sutra.
Guanyin with Child
Songzi Guanyin, giver of children and patron of mothers, is robed here like an empress, and even sits upon an empress’ throne. She is holding a child, whose upper body is broken off.
The startling image proves that any divinity can have a wrathful form. A normally compassionate figure such as Guanyin is depicted here in a warrior like pose. Although she is a Chinese Buddhist goddess, in this manifestation she carries a variety of weapons that are characteristic of Durga: Shiva’s spear, Vishnu’s chakra, bow and arrow, and even an aegis. By this point, Mahayana Buddhism had freely incorporated Indian iconography into its pantheon, with appropriate reinterpretations. For example, the chakra mentioned above would be called a dharma wheel in Buddhist terms. Compare: Bato Kannon in Japan.
Guanyin Gazing at the Moon in Water
The image of Guanyin, contemplating the reflection of the moon in water against a mountain backdrop, is one of the popular forms of Guanyin in China. Here fierce guardians that appear incongruous in such a peaceful theme surround the deity.
Cave 136, 1142-1146 AD
In this esoteric image, Guanyin (left photo, rear) holds a sun and moon in her two upper hands. Her lower left holds a beribboned axe, and the middle left holds a bowl. She is flanked by two disciples (close-up, photo right). The standing Bodhisattva in the left foreground of the left photo is another form of Guanyin. She holds a rosary in her restored right hand, and has a standing Buddha in her crown instead of the more common seated Buddha.
Stone Prayer Wheel
Cave 136, 1142-1146 AD
This fine carving in stone, redolent with dragon motifs from top to bottom, is designated as a “prayer wheel” by the label on site. It might also be described as a sutra storage case; the two ideas are compatible, since revolving a sutra case would be magically equivalent to reciting the sutras it contained. The stone carving is an elaborate imitation of a revolving wooden platform.
Many of these celestials, arranged on the left wall of the cave, are depicted as civil and military officials, guardians, a standing bodhisattva with a chignon, and several small demon-like attendants. There is a similar assembly on the right wall, and a Guanyin triad on the center wall. The cave depicts a heavenly court, standing in attendance on Guanyin. The civil officials appear similar to those who line the imperial shendao.
The attendants are arranged in ranks, in front of mountain-like mandorlas with clouds. Their shallow platform is decorated with a horizontal band of trisulas and flowers, above another band of floral motifs.
Cave 155, 1126 AD
Mahamayuri is one of five Wisdom Kings (Skt. Vidyarajas, Jp. Myo-o, Ch. Mingwang), esoteric deities who protect the Buddhas. Generally these deities are fierce and male; Mahamayuri, benign and sometimes female, is the exception. In this cave, Mahamayuri is sitting on peacock, surrounded by a Thousand-Buddha Motif depicting the omnipresence of the Buddha.
Thirteen Manifestations of Guanyin
Cave 180, 1116-1122 AD
The central Guanyin is flanked by six manifestations on each side. Above, small Bodhisattvas including Manjusri (left photo, second from left) and Samantabhadra (right photo, fourth from left) sit upon lotuses. The stem of his lotus connects each Bodhisattva to a corresponding manifestation of Guanyin.
Western Pure Land
This is a very detailed depiction of the Western Pure Land. Amida and attendant Bodhisattvas preside over the Western Paradise. City walls and city architecture are represented on the platform below; palace balconies and palace architecture are represented on the ceiling above. Reborn souls upon lotuses occupy the right and left walls.
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