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Devotion to Amitayus Pure Land: an iconographic study of Cave 19 at Qixiashan, China.

The Pure Land Movement in China: A Brief Introduction

The word Jingtu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or "Pure Land," refers to a paradise or heavenly world. The term was irst used in China in the sixth century, (1) though paradisiacal thought had emerged with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism in India during the first century BCE and the first century CE (Fujita 1996, 9). Pure Land Buddhism posits many Buddhas throughout the universe, all of which possess their own lands, known as Buddha-lands or "pure lands." The primary goal of every practitioner is to be born into one of the Buddha's paradises. This birth will ultimately lead to enlightenment and nirvana. Although it had its origin in India, Pure Land Buddhism developed as a separate sectarian movement and became widespread in China from the late fourth and the fifth century onwards. Ever since, Amitabha/Amitayus' Western Paradise of Sukhavati has been one of the most compelling and popular of the "pure lands" in Chinese Buddhist thought and practice.

The Sukhavati sutras--Buddhist scriptures pertaining to the Western Paradise--were translated into Chinese as early as the second and third centuries, during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220). The commonly mentioned Chinese versions of the three major Pure Land texts include Wuliangshou Jing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Longer Sukhavatl-vyuha Sutrd), translated by Sanghavarman [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (T360) in 252; Amituo Jing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (Shorter Sukhavatlvyuha Sutra), translated by Kumarajiva [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (T366) in 402; and Guan Wuliangshoufo Jing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Amitayur-dhyana Sutra), translated by Kalayasas [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (T365) in around 424. (2) According to Buddhist tradition, Sukhavati, "The Land of Supreme Bliss," is located far to the west of our human world. The Western Paradise or Western Pure Land, therefore, became an alternative name for Sukhavati. According to Buddhist texts, Sukhavati is a luxurious and ethereal realm of unsurpassed beauty. Those who live in this perfect land are freed from suffering and experience only joy. There are nine levels of rebirth in Sukhavati, depending on each practitioner's virtuous actions in his or her previous life. The denizens of the Western Pure Land are reborn as males and materialize in their new world upon a lotus flower.

The Buddha who dwells in and presides over this land is Amitabha [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Buddha of Immeasurable Light) or Amitayus [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Buddha of Immeasurable Life). Both names appear in the Pure Land texts. According to Fujita Kotatsu, the original Sanskrit term "Amida" refers to both Amitayus and Amitabha. The two names are inseparable from each other and reflect the dual qualities of the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Fujita observes that Chinese translations seem to prefer Amitayus, which may have to do with "the native Taoistic quest for longevity and immortality" (Fujita 1996, 12-13). Fujita's argument appears to be consistent with the frequent mention of Buddha Amitayus in the inscriptional evidence in Chinese Pure Land Buddhist art. Henceforward, I will follow this convention.

Amitayus and his Sukhavati have been a recurring theme in Chinese Buddhist art since its early stage of development in the Six Dynasties period (220-589). (3) However, due to the scarcity of surviving artifacts, early Chinese Buddhist art in the south has received less focused study than northern art. This changed in the 1990s when a number of Southern Dynasties (420-589) Buddhist sculptures were unearthed in the southwest Chengdu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] region of Sichuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] province. These discoveries invigorated scholarship pertaining to southern Buddhist art. Delving into the imagery of these sculptures, scholars like Luo Shiping (2000) and Dorothy Wong (2004) have investigated early Buddhist practices and the Pure Land movement in this region (Luo, 404-11; Wong, 151-74). Luo and Li Yuqun argue that one of the major sources of the Chengdu style and iconography was ancient Jiankang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (present-day Nanjing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the capital region of the Southern Dynasties (Luo 2000, 399-411; Li 2000, 67-71).

This article examines Cave 19 at Qixiashan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Qixia Mountain), located northeast of modern Nanjing in the Jiangsu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] province. A group of early Buddhist caves at Qixiashan, including Cave 19, provides the earliest and the best-preserved examples of the few extant rock-cut cave remains in the south from the Southern Dynasties period (Lin 2009, 254-55). Furthermore, these monuments are thus far the only major surviving physical evidence of Buddhist art from the Jiankang region, (4) which served not only as the political center, but also as the nucleus of religious and artistic activities during the Southern Dynasties. Cave 19 was excavated under imperial patronage during the late fifth century of the Southern Qi dynasty (479-502). It is the earliest, the largest, and the most significant of all the Qixia caves (Lin 2005, 275-308; Lin 2009, 257-58). My study focuses on three colossal images found at Cave 19, respectively showing Buddha Amitayus and two attendant bodhisattvas. A close reading of the cave's iconography reveals early religious practices, especially Pure Land Buddhist practices in southern China. Further, this analysis will hopefully provide a better understanding of the relationship between Sichuan and Jiankang Buddhism during the Southern Dynasties.

Cave 19 at Qixiashan: Content & Description

The Qixiashan caves and their images are carved in sandstone cliffs located behind the Qixia temple complex. A group of eighteen Southern Dynasties carvings, with Cave 19 at the center, are scattered on the south wall of the Lower Cliff (Lin 2009, 256). The excavation occurred during the Southern Qi and Liang (502-57) periods from the late fifth to sixth centuries (Lin 2005, 275-308; Lin 2009, 258). Cave 19 is locally known as Wuliangdian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Amitabha/Amitayus Hall) (fig. 1). An inscription above the entrance of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) facade provides another popular name for the cave: Sanshengdian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Hall of the Three Saints). The cliff surface beside and above the cave has been drilled, indicating that a wooden architectural work once adorned the front of the cave. (5)

This cave features a large chamber with a domed ceiling. Carved in the rear or north wall is a high platform that serves as the seat of the main image. The ceiling was partly damaged and has been repaired with bricks; the entire cave, like all the major caves at Qixia, is now painted in bright red, which indicates past restoration. The sculptural program of the cave includes three colossal figures: a seated representation of a Buddha on the rear wall, flanked by two standing bodhisattvas on the side walls (fig. 2). These three images occupy almost the entire interior space of the cave. It should be noted that two standing Buddha figures flanking the doorway date to the Sui dynasty (581-618) and do not belong to the original program. Moreover, seven tiny niches, which are likewise later additions, are carved on the outer part of the side walls.



Part of the seated Buddha image is currently covered with a thin layer of cement, but it is largely in good condition with its garment and posture clearly visible. Seated with legs crossed on the platform in a meditative posture, the Buddha places his hands in his lap with palms upward, displaying dhyana mudra (a gesture of meditation). He wears monastic garb consisting of a loosely draped robe that covers both shoulders and falls nearly to the bottom of the platform seat. Radiating from his body is a huge pointed leaf-shaped halo or aura of light that encompasses two smaller aureoles, emerging from his head and shoulders respectively. The figure is full in form, with a long body and relatively sloping shoulders. The head of the Buddha was uncovered during a cleaning process in the late 1990s, when the cement coating, a result of a 1920s "restoration," was removed. The rather large head is long and somewhat rectangular, with an urna (tuft of hair) between the eyebrows and an usnisa (knot of hair) on the top. Other iconographic features include enormous ears with long ear lobes that almost touch the shoulders. His gently smiling face is defined by full and softly modeled cheeks, a sharply carved nose, and a small mouth with thin lips. The two attendant bodhisattvas, unfortunately, are still covered by a cement coating, but we can nevertheless trace their original halos and long, floating draperies. Each figure stands on an engaged circular pedestal decorated with a row of elaborate downturned lotus petals.

The Amitayus Triad at Cave 19: An Iconographic Interpretation

The central Buddha at Cave 19 is generally identified as Amitayus, which is also suggested by the aforementioned name of the cave: Wuliangdian. It is uncertain when the name was first ascribed to the cave, but the cave's iconographic scheme seems based upon a stone tablet titled Jinling Sheshan Qixiasi Bei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (A Memorial Tablet for the Qixia Temple at She Mountain in Jinling) (Su 1989, 390-91), erected by the Southern Chen (557-89) official Jiang Zong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (519-94). The Chen Shu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a famous history of the Chen dynasty, records that Jiang converted to Buddhism as a young man and befriended the Buddhist master Bu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] at the Qixia temple (Yao 1972, 343-47). In his later years, Jiang and the last Chen emperor Chen Houzhu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (553-604, r. 583-89) made many journeys to the Qixia temple in the 580s, both leaving poems recording their trips (Daoxuan, T2103, 356-57). As suggested by Su Bai, Jiang may have composed the inscription during that time (1989, 391). Unfortunately, Jiang's tablet was destroyed in the ninth century. The inscription survives in an important Buddhist literary work Jinling Fancha Zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Record of Buddhist Temples at Jinling), compiled in the Ming dynasty (Ge 1607, 416-23).

This late sixth-century monument, hereafter dubbed the Chen Tablet, provides the earliest account of the excavation of the Qixia caves during the Southern Dynasties. Using the Chen Tablet to guide my iconographic interpretation, I hope in this section to advance previous studies by incorporating additional important source materials, including inscriptional evidence, local historical accounts, and early Buddhist writings compiled in the south. My intention is to conduct a more in-depth examination of these writings in the hope of further decoding the cave's iconography.

Inscriptional Evidence: Two Memorial Tablets

Another important inscriptional source is Sheshan Qixiasi Mingzhengjun Bei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (A Memorial Tablet for Ming Zhengjun [Ming Sengshao] of the Qixia Temple at She Mountain), dating to 676 in the Tang dynasty (618-907). Its inscription was composed by Emperor Gaozong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (628-83, r. 649-83) in memory of Ming Sengshao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a scholar-recluse highly regarded in the Liu Song (420-79) and Southern Qi courts during the second half of the fifth century (Xiao 1972, 927-28; Li 1975, 1241-42). Sengshao was the founder of the Qixia Temple and an ancestor of the emperor's favorite court official Ming Chongyan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 679). Gaozong's work, hereafter dubbed the Tang Tablet, currently stands at the Qixia site (fig.3). (6) The Chen and Tang tablets provide the most detailed accounts about the creation of Qixia site. I have selected from each tablet two passages that are particularly significant to my study. The following is a transcription of the selected passages, accompanied by my translations.7 The two passages from the Chen Tablet read as follows:


   A layman Ming Sengshao of Southern Qi from the Pingyuan region had
   a profound interpretation of the ultimate reality and had mastered
   the ultimate principle. He renounced the glory of his official
   position and emolument and wandered among cliffs and caves. He
   visited She Mountain during the Taishi reign [465-72] of the [Liu]
   Song dynasty and decided to stay there the rest of his life.... He
   then cut down trees [and used the trunks] to bridge mountain peaks
   and cleared weeds to open up paths; he removed brambles and built a
   thatched cottage. For more than twenty years he abstained from
   mundane affairs.... Fadu was a Buddhist monk from Huanglong.... He
   and Sengshao were very much alike in temperament. [Fadu] had taught
   the Amitayur-dhyana Sutra in a mountain cottage, and at midnight
   [he] suddenly saw golden lights shining in the room, within which
   he saw the image of buildings.... The layman [Sengshao] thereupon
   renounced his house in the desire to build the [Qixia] temple,
   which was designed by the monk Fadu on the third day of the first
   month in the seventh year of the Yongming reign [489] of the
   [Southern] Qi dynasty.

   The layman [Sengshao] had thought about carving [images], but he
   passed away soon after.... His second son [Ming] Zhongzhang, who
   was magistrate of the Linyi district, was able to carry on his
   father's cause and carve niches and images. He and the monk Fadu
   first had Buddha Amitayus and two bodhisattvas carved on the cliff
   surface of the west peak. The seated image of Amitayus was three
   zhang, one chi, and five cun in height [7.7-7.8 meters], and the
   overall height including the throne was four zhang [9.8-9.9
   meters]; the two bodhisattvas were both three zhang and three cun
   [7.4-7.5 meters] in height. (8)

The above information is supplemented by the Tang Tablet:

   Zhengjun [Ming Sengshao] accumulated a great deal of good karma and
   ascended to the realm of wonder and experienced the ultimate
   sensitivity and assumed the ultimate profundity. He once dreamt
   that the Buddha's body crowned the mountain peaks and witnessed his
   face upon the rock. He then humbly received this auspicious sign
   and willingly discussed the arrangement and design [of Cave 19].
   [He] planned to carve gigantic icons on the cliff surface. [He]
   thus prepared the mountain, but he did not have a chance [to see]
   the outcome.... In the second year of the Yongming reign [484], he
   passed away.

   His second son [Ming] Zhongzhang, who was magistrate of the Linyi
   district, gazed upon the wooded mountain and saw that the rocks had
   already been broken up. He pondered [his father's] original design
   and wept before the writings, shedding not only tears but also
   blood. He carved that green cliff surface and constructed the lotus
   pedestals. He proceeded to construct the other buildings [of the
   temple]. [Zhongzhang] followed the example of King Udayana's Buddha
   figure, and respectfully had the image of Nengren [Sakyamuni
   Buddha] carved.... Zhongzhang's accomplishment can be compared with
   that of the Xiao imperial houses [the Southern Qi and Liang ruling
   houses] in widely spreading Buddhist teaching.

Both the Chen Tablet and the Tang Tablet indicate that Ming Sengshao initiated the excavation project at Qixia. The Chen Tablet records that Ming Sengshao "had thought about carving [images]," and the Tang Tablet further mentions that he devised the original plan and began to prepare the cliff for the carving of gigantic icons. Unfortunately, Sengshao did not have a chance to see the finished shrine, as he passed away before the project was even begun. His work was immediately taken up and finally completed by his second son Ming Zhongzhang and his monk friend Fadu.

The gigantic icons mentioned by the two tablets undoubtedly refer to the three colossal images in Cave 19. According to the Chen Tablet, Ming Zhongzhang and Fadu had three colossal images of Buddha Amitayus and two attendant bodhisattvas carved. The Tang Tablet, however, provides little evidence of these three images and tells a slightly different story. It does not mention Amitayus; rather, it describes Zhongzhang as a follower of King Udayana and indicates that he "respectfully had the image of Nengren [Sakyamuni Buddha] carved." King Udayana of Kausambi, who is said to have been a contemporary of Buddha Sakyamuni, lived during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE in India. As recorded in the Zengyi Ahan Jing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Ekottaragama Sutra) (T125), Sakyamuni once ascended to the Trayastrimsa Heaven [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to preach to his mother. Longing to see the Buddha, King Udayana had a sandal-wood image of Sakyamuni carved as an object of veneration (703-5). The term Nengren ttt in the inscription literally means "capacity for benevolence"; it further stands for Buddha Sakyamuni in Chinese, as neng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and ren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] refer to sakya and muni respectively (Muller 1995). The tablets' differing accounts raise questions requiring further iconographic interpretation.

Alexander Soper argues against the notion that the Buddha image in Cave 19 represents Sakyamuni. He notes that early literature does not associate this image with Sakyamuni (1959, 63), but his argument goes no further. Su Bai offers a detailed discussion of the Tang Tablet, but does not mention its reference to Sakyamuni (1989, 391). Given the fact that the original Chen Tablet was extant during the seventh century, it seems unlikely that Emperor Gaozong, the author of the Tang Tablet, would misidentify the image as Sakyamuni. In this case, why did the Tang Tablet include this attribution?

Legend has it that King Udayana made the first image of Buddha Sakyamuni, though there is no clear extant evidence of the original (Huntington 1985, 31-33). Li Wensheng argues that this image most likely served as the model for early Buddhist images in China (1985, 102-6). Owing to the effort of the Buddhist master Xuanzang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (602-64), who brought back a copy of Udayana's Sakyamuni in 645, this iconographic theme began to appear and enjoy great popularity in Chinese Buddhist caves, particularly at the Longmen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] cave site in Luoyang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] during the Tang dynasty (103-6). Li's research reveals forty-two niches that house no less than seventy of Udayana's Sakyamuni images [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (images replicating Udayana's Buddha) at Longmen, all excavated during the reigns of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (642-705, r. 690-705) (103-5). Given the devotion to Udayana's Sakyamuni image during his reign, Gaozong's association of Sakyamuni and Udayana in the Tang Tablet is not surprising. I would argue that the emperor's reference to Sakyamuni in his writing most likely served as a form of eulogy meant to praise Ming Zhongzhang, Ming Chongyan's ancestor, for his widely disseminated Buddhist teaching. This also explains why there is no other reference to Sakyamuni, as Soper notes (1959, 63).

Other Writings

Among other important later period writings, two works are particularly relevant. The first is Jingding Jiankang Zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Jiankang Gazetteer of the Jingding Reign [1260-64]). One of the most important local chronicles of the Jiankang region, it was compiled by Zhou Yinghe [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (jinshi 1250) in 1261 of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). A passage regarding the Qixia temple reads:

   The annotation to a poem on Qixia reads: Ming Yinjun [Sengshao] and
   Dharma master Fadu were preaching the Amitayur-dhyana Sutra. At
   midnight, light shone on the cliff of the west peak, and within the
   light was the presence of Amitayus Buddha. Since then [Sengshao]
   has renounced his family property and had the cliff carved to make
   a colossal seated image [of Amitayus], five zhang in height, and
   two standing images of Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta
   bodhisattvas, both of which are three zhang, five cun in height.

Zhou's account clearly identifies the colossal Buddha image in Cave 19 as Amitayus and the two bodhisattvas as Avalokitesvara [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Mahasthamaprapta [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. His account is further corroborated by the aforementioned Ming-dynasty Jinling Fancha Zhi:


Ming Sengshao's son Zhongzhang had the colossal stone Buddha carved; [it] was four zhang in height. [He then] had the Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta bodhisattvas carved, to the left and right [of the Buddha], each of which was three zhang in height. (Ge 1607, 413)

In this passage, Ge Yinliang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1570-1646) does not specify which Buddha this colossal image refers to. However, his text elsewhere mentions that the pagoda at the Qixia site is located to the right of Buddha Amitayus, thus indicating the identity of this image (1976, 413).

The above two accounts, although giving slightly different estimates of the size of the images, (9) seem to have followed the Chen Tablet and give no hint of the Sakyamuni Buddha mentioned in the Tang Tablet. In addition, the identity of the two anking bodhisattvas recorded in the texts further indicates that they were generally recognized as Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta in later times. This seems unsurprising given the fact that Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta are commonly known as the two great bodhisattvas attending Buddha Amitayus in his Western Paradise of Sukhavati (Sanghavarman, T360, 265-79; Kalayasas, T365, 340-46). In its final section, the Amitayur-dhyana Sutra (T366) further records: (10)


This sutra is (thus) called the meditation on the Land of Sukhavati, on Buddha Amitayus, bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. (Kalayasas, 346)

Given the support of the later writings, there seems no doubt about the identity of Amitayus in the Chen Tablet. The recognition of Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta suggests a further iconographic understanding of Cave 19 during later times. Cave 19 may have been intended to represent Amitayus' Western Paradise of Sukhavati, although it bears no illustrations pertaining to the splendor and beauty of this perfect Buddha land. Given its founders and patrons' personal devotion to Amitayus Pure Land, which I will discuss in the following sections, their choice of this particular iconographic scheme seems reasonable.

Monk Fadu's Devotion to Amitayus Pure Land

As mentioned in the two memorial tablets, the carving of Cave 19 and its three colossal images were the work of Ming Zhongzhang and Fadu, following Ming Sengshao's original design. I have found a number of sources that speak of Fadu's devotion to Buddha Amitayus and his Western Pure Land. The Chen Tablet records that Fadu "had taught the Amitayur-dhyana Sutra in the mountain cottage" at Qixia. This is further attested by Liangjing Si Ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Record of the Buddhist Temples in the Southern Liang Capital [present-day Nanjing]), dating approximately to the late sixth century of the Southern Chen period. A relevant passage from this long-lost early text survives in the Fayuan Zhulin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Forest of Gems in the Garden of Law), compiled by the monk Daoshi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (T2122) in 668:

   At that time there was a Dharma master Fadu, who preached the
   Amitayurdhyana Sutra in the mountain cottage [at Qixia]. Suddenly
   at midnight there were golden lights shining on the [Qixia] temple.
   Within the lights there seemed to be figures within a building
   preaching [the Buddha's Dharma]. (572)

Another source further expresses Fadu's sincere desire to be reborn in the Western Paradise. It is recorded in Gaoseng Zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Biographies of Eminent Monks), compiled by the Southern Liang monk Huijiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (T2059) in around 530. A passage from this text reads:


Fadu frequently desired to be born in the Pure Land of Tranquil Nourishment [i.e., the Western Paradise of Amitayus]. He thus favored preaching the Amitayur-dhyana Sutra and did so many times. (Huijiao 1973, 380)

Little is known about Ming Zhongzhang's life and religious practice except that he followed his father's original plan and carried on the excavation project at Qixia. Ming Sengshao, according to the aforementioned Jingding Jiankang Zhi, participated in preaching the Amitayur-dhyana Sutra. As quoted above, the text describes that when he and Fadu taught the sutra, "light shone on the cliff of the western peak, and within the light was the presence of Amitayus Buddha." It seems that Fadu's faith in Amitayus had an impact on Sengshao's Buddhist practice, which was then followed by his son Zhongzhang. This is not surprising given the fact that Sengshao respected Fadu not only as his friend but as his mentor (Huijiao, T2059, 380). Further, as recorded in the Chen Tablet, Fadu helped Sengshao design the Qixia Temple. It is thus reasonable to speculate that Fadu himself may have been involved in designing Cave 19 and its iconographic scheme.

The iconographic program at Cave 19, therefore, seems undoubtedly the representation of Buddha Amitayus in the Western Pure Land; it serves as a testimony to the founders' personal belief and practice. The Amitayur-dhyana Sutra, frequently preached by Fadu, may have provided a doctrinal base for this iconographic representation.

The Role of the Southern Qi Court

The two tablets further inform us that the excavation project at Cave 19 was under the sponsorship of the Southern Qi court, with a number of royal princes involved in the carving activities. The Chen Tablet records:


The [Southern] Qi Crown Prince Wenhui, Prince Wenxian of Yuzhang, Prince Wenxuan of Jingling, Prince Shi'an and others, with their wisdom flowering and their faith clear and awakened, donated money and together they accomplished a blessed karma. (Ge 1607, 419)

The Tang Tablet also includes a brief account concerning the royal patronage:

   [The Southern Qi] Crown Prince Wenhui and Prince of Jingling ...
   both donated funds, thereby enhancing their good karma.

The above inscriptional evidence indicates that the Southern Qi court greatly contributed to the carving of Cave 19 and its three colossal images. The four royal princes--the Crown Prince Wenhui, Prince Wenxian of Yuzhang, Prince Wenxuan of Jingling, and Prince Shi'an--were all known followers of Dharma and supporters of Buddhism (Tang 1997, 322). An important account concerning the Prince of Jingling's effort in the propagation of the Amitayus scripture further suggests his devotion to Amitayus Pure Land. The account appears in Chu Sanzang Ji Ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Collection of Notes Concerning the Translation of the Tripitaka), compiled by the Southern Liang monk Sengyou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (T2145) in the early sixth century (1-113). According to this text, the prince and his son helped copy the Amitayur-dhyana Sutra (85-87). Given the Prince of Jingling's leading role in widely spreading Buddhism to the Southern court (Tang 1997, 324-27; Ch'en 1964, 123-24), it seems likely that the belief in Amitayus Pure Land had gained a wide following among the members of the Southern Qi ruling house during the era of Cave 19's excavation.

In addition, Ming Sengshao and Fadu had close ties to the imperial court. Ming Sengshao, as previously discussed, was highly regarded in the Qi court. The aforementioned Gaoseng Zhuan further records that the princes of Jingling and Shi'an took Fadu as their Buddhist master and treated him with great respect (Huijiao, T 2059, 380). It seems likely, then, that Sengshao and Fadu's personal devotion may have had impact on court practice of that time. Cave 19's iconographic program, therefore, is also an indication of these royal patrons' personal belief and shows their desire to be reborn in Sukhavati. Likewise, the three colossal images testify to the flourishing of Pure Land Buddhism and Buddhist art under the support of the Southern court.

Early History of the Amitayus Pure Land Movement in the South

A close reading of the literature reveals that the iconography of Cave 19 is a representation of Buddha Amitayus and two attendant bodhisattvas, likely Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta. These three colossal images are by far the earliest known Buddhist images on such a grand scale found in the south. As previously mentioned, the Qixia cave site is located in the ancient capital region of the Southern Dynasties. The excavation of Cave 19, according to the two memorial tablets, was also under royal patronage, with members of the Qi ruling house involved in the carving activity. This was certainly a grand occasion of Southern Qi Buddhism during the late fifth century. As an indication of the founders and royal patrons' personal belief and devotion, Cave 19 demonstrates the great popularity of Amitayus Pure Land in the Jiankang region at that time.

This is not a coincidence given the sincere devotion to Amitayus and his paradise in southern religious practices since very early times. Su Bai has argued that as early as the second half of the fourth century during the Eastern Jin period (317-420) Amitayus belief was widespread in the south (1989, 398-400). The Tang Buddhist anthology Guang Hongming Ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] d (Second Collection of Documents for Propagating Buddhism) provides one of the earliest accounts (Daoxuan, T2103, 97-361). In the year 368, according to this text, the monk Zhidun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] wrote Amituofo Zan Xu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Eulogy on an Image of Amitabha Buddha), in which he describes the beautiful land of the Western Paradise and expresses his reverence for the image of Buddha Amitabha (196). The Amitayus Pure Land cult continued to flourish during the Southern Dynasties from the fifth to the sixth centuries. Early literature provides detailed accounts concerning the translation and preaching of the Sukhavati texts, as well as the creation and worshipping of Amitayus images at that time (Su 1989, 398-400).

In art, the earliest surviving examples of the Amitayus theme in the south date to the Liu Song period. According to Omura Seigai, an image identified as Amitayus was once in the Duan Fang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] collection during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) (1917, 143). This stone sculpture dates to the twenty-fifth year of the Yuanjia [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] reign (448) of the Liu Song period; its inscription shows the desire for rebirth in the land of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. Another example, dating to the second year of the Yuanjia reign (425), is a debatable relief carving discovered in the ruins of the Wanfosi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Ten-Thousand Buddha Temple), in the Chengdu region of Sichuan province. While scholars such as Alexander Soper and Eugene Wang agree that its textual basis is the Lotus Sutra (Soper 1960, 107; Wang 2005, 219-28), Dorothy Wong offers another interpretation, arguing that this stone stele bears an early illustration of the Pure Land of Amitayus (2004, 160-66). This work and another Liang stele are the only known examples of pictorial illustrations of the Western Pure Land during the Southern Dynasties (Wong 2004, 160-66).

Aside from the colossal Amitayus at the Qixia site, three more inscribed Amitayus carvings have been discovered in the southwest Sichuan region. One dates to 483 of the Southern Qi dynasty; the others date to 504 and 529 of the Southern Liang dynasty (Luo 2000, 402, 404, 407). In addition, another two Liang carvings, although dedicated to Sakyamuni, bear inscriptions expressing the desire to be reborn in the Western Pure Land (Luo 2000, 404; Huo 2001, 40-41). Similar to Cave 19's Amitayus and the majority of other early Pure Land images, these Sichuan works are generally identified by their inscriptions rather than specific iconographic features. Unlike the seated Amitayus with the dhyana mudra at Qixia, the Sichuan images are mostly standing with their right hands making the abhaya mudra (fear-not gesture), a teaching gesture commonly depicted in Sichuan Buddhist art. This iconographic discrepancy may be understood as a result of regional developments in the Jiankang and Sichuan areas.

Cave 19's iconography likely derives from the north, given the major impact of northern Buddhist traditions on the formation of Qixia cave art and architecture (Lin 2005, 294-97). Artistic evidence reveals a close connection between the Qixia Amitayus and its northern counterparts in terms of iconography. The earliest known dated example of Amitayus image is found in Cave 169 at Binglingsi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], located in northwest China's Gansu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] province (Chang 1992, 426). Dating to 420 of the Western Qin period, this seated Buddha performs the gesture of dhyana mudra, as does the colossal Amitayus at Cave 19. In the north, both the seated pose and meditative gesture continued to be common iconographic features associated with Amitayus images in the later part of the Six Dynasties. This is evident in the Amitayus carvings at Longmen in Luoyang during the sixth century (Wen 1993, 298-381).

Notably, the aforementioned 483 stele depicts a standing Amitayus on one side and a seated Maitreya [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Buddha on the other. Its inscription, however, expresses a devotion to Ketumati, the earthly paradise of Maitreya (Yuan 1992, 67-71; Wong 2004, 158-159). The Maitreya cult was another popular form of Pure Land Buddhism practiced in the Sichuan region during the Southern Dynasties (Li 2000, 64-76; Luo 2000, 397-428). This stele, according to Wong, "attests to the strength of the cults of these two Buddhas in the [Sichuan] region during the fifth century" (2004, 159). The devotional focus on both Amitayus and Maitreya was a common phenomenon in early Buddhist practice in the south (Su 1989, 402). At the Qixia site, I have noticed a number of Maitreya images dating to the Liang period (Lin 2005, 292-94). This finding suggests a close tie between Jiankang and Sichuan Buddhist practices in the worship of both Amitayus and Maitreya Buddhas in early times. The gigantic representation of Amitayus at Cave 19, however, is unusual in early Chinese Buddhist art. Konno Toshifumi, in his study of the Todaiji's great Buddha, argues that most "Great Buddhas" of early eras are generally associated with Buddha Maitreya (2003, 116). The excavation of this colossal Amitayus, therefore, further testiies to the devotional focus on these two Buddhas in the southern religious practice of the era.

It is generally accepted that Amitayus and Maitreya beliefs were introduced to the south from the north (Su 1989, 402-4). The devotional focus on both icons in the southern region, however, seems inconsistent with northern Buddhist practice from the fifth to sixth centuries. According to artistic evidence in the north, Maitreya images were commonly depicted during the fifth century, while inscribed Amitayus images did not appear until the sixth century (Su 1989, 404-6; Wen 1993, 298-381). At Longmen, increasing numbers of Amitayus images did not begin to appear until the Tang dynasty (Ding 1979, 544). Su Bai thus argues that the devotion to Amitayus in northern Buddhist art may have a southern origin (Su 1989, 404-6). Significantly, Cave 19 and its three colossal images provide the only physical evidence of Amitayus Pure Land Buddhism in the Jiankang region, the capital of the Southern Dynasties. Given the fact that the cave site is located in the political and cultural center of the time, these three colossal images play an important role in understanding the early Pure Land movement in China during the fifth and sixth centuries.


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Transylvania University


(1) The term derives from Tan Lun's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] idea of the qingjing or "purity" of Sukhavati. See Corless 1996, 117-18.

(2) These texts are included in Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo [Tripitaka, Taisho edition], abbreviated as "T" throughout this text. They have also been translated into English; see Cowell 2007, Part II, 1-107, 161-203, and Gomez 1996. For the major scholarship on the Chinese Pure Land doctrine, see Pas 1995 and Tanaka 1990.

(3) The term "Six Dynasties" refers to the six successive regimes established in the southern region during this long period of division. The latter four, including Liu Song (420-79), Southern Qi (479-502), Liang (502-57), and Chen (557-89), are also known as the Southern Dynasties.

(4) Several other fragmented Southern Dynasties carvings were discovered at the Qixia site. The most notable is a stone head of a Buddha dating from the Southern Liang dynasty. It is currently housed in the main hall of the Qixia Temple. See Su 1989, 411-12.

(5) Excavations conducted at the site during recent years have unearthed a number of architectural remains. A corpus of material, dating to the Southern Dynasties and the Tang dynasty, was discovered right in front of Cave 19. They have not yet been published. When I visited Nanjing in 2002, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to see photos of some of these finds.

(6) A rubbing of the inscription was published in 1980. See Tang Ming Zhengjun Bei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1980). Important passages relevant to the Qixia caves are also included in Su Bai's research (1989, 391). My Chinese transcriptions of the Tang Tablet borrow from both texts.

(7) Unless otherwise specified, all the translations in this article are the author's own. A couple of passages from the Chen Tablet are also quoted in my previous scholarship. See Lin (2009, 255).

(8) In the traditional Chinese measuring system, 1 zhang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] equals 10 chi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and 1 chi equals 10 cun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Chi, a unit of length in the Southern Dynasties, equals 24.5-24.7 centimeters. See Guo (2008, 190).

(9) There seems no significant difference in the size of bodhisattvas. Concerning the height of Amitayus Buddha, Ge's text generally follows the Chen Tablet, while Zhou indicates an even larger scale. It is noteworthy that 1 Chi was relatively longer in the Southern Song period, equaling 26.9-32.9 centimeters. Guo (2008, 237-239). The discrepancies in height remain a puzzle. Only a scientific measurement of the cave can resolve it.

(10) My translation follows J. Takakusu's version with slight modifications. See Cowell 2007, Part II, 200.
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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