Unraveling the Sacred Pure Land Jingbian

Arts & Culture

Beyond Borders: Unraveling the Sacred Pure Land Jingbian in the Dunhuang Caves Exhibition

Text by Jeanne H. Tuan

When discussing Dunhuang art in the context of Chinese Buddhist art history, the term ‘jingbian’ (經變) is often used.  The term ‘jing’ () refers to Buddhist scriptures, while ‘bian’ () means "a painting" (Karashima, 2016).  Literally translated, ‘jingbian’ means a painting or pictures from (the theme of) a scripture.  Therefore, ‘jingbian’ signifies a visual representation that portrays the content of Buddhist scriptures.  In short, ‘jingbian’ refers to artistic drawings or narrative murals that illustrate Buddhist sutras or scriptures.

Jingbian paintings, also called sutra illustrations, gained popularity during the Northern Wei dynasty from 386 to 535 CE. These paintings were created to help people understand Buddhist teachings. The artists who made them depicted themes from Buddhist scriptures to help monks and followers meditate and reflect. Jingbian paintings played a significant role in spreading Buddhism by making the teachings more accessible.

The theme of Pure Lands is an important aspect of Buddhism and is also beautifully depicted in Jingbian paintings. This unique realm of a pure land is believed to offer the perfect environment for spiritual growth and is a place where individuals can be reborn after death. In this sacred space, practitioners can learn from a Buddha's guidance and work towards achieving enlightenment. Due to the perceived difficulty of attaining enlightenment in the present corrupted age or Saha world, many Mahayana Buddhists aspire to be reborn in these specially prepared pure lands to facilitate their spiritual journey.  The Dunhuang Caves in Gansu, China, house a remarkable collection of 440 Jingbian paintings, all centered around the Pure Lands. These paintings showcase the rich Buddhist artistic and spiritual heritage and are a testament to the beauty and power of this tradition.

The "Silk Road Splendor: Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition" is currently in full swing at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum. This exhibition highlights the history of Buddhism along the Overland Silk Road and its cultural significance. It features ancient artifacts from the Dunhuang Caves, which have been around for over a thousand years. One of the main attractions in this exhibition includes large-scale Pure Land Jingbian paintings.

The Pure Land Jingbian paintings portray Amitabha's Sukhavati (i.e., the Western Pure Land), the Medicine Buddha's Pure Land of Vaiduryanirbhasa (i.e., the Lapis Lazuli Pure Land), and the Jambudvipa world after Maitreya's descent from Tushida (i.e., the Heavenly Joy Pure Land). This article provides an overview of these paintings, explaining their visual narratives, themes, and symbolism. The goal is to help the audience better appreciate this cultural heritage's artistic intricacies and spiritual depth.

Lapis Lazuli Pure Land: The Medicine Buddha's Realm of Vaiduryanirbhasa

The Pure Land exhibits feature Jianbian paintings depicting a Buddhist realm. These paintings can be found in Dunhuang's cave temples, which are famous for their exquisite artwork. Particularly abundant are the Jianbian murals based on the Medicine Buddha Sutra, depicting the Eastern Pure Land of Lapis Lazuli, totaling an impressive ninety-seven paintings.

Mogao Cave 220, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also known as the 'Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.'  It was a grotto first found with its walls adorned with motifs of a thousand Buddhas from the Western Xia or Tangut Empire during the 12th century. However, in 1948, the peeling of the surface layer, revealing the magnificent and well-preserved jingbian paintings beneath, brought the dormant Tang Dynasty murals to life.


Figure 1. Jianbian Mural of the Seven Medicine Buddhas, main chamber, north wall, Mogao Cave 220, Early Tang Dynasty (mid-7th Century), Dunhuang.

The composition of this mural on the north wall features seven Buddha statues placed on a pedestal in the center. Adorned with exquisite canopies above, each Buddha statue has accompanying bodhisattvas as retinues. This artwork draws inspiration from the Sutra of the Medicine Buddha's Fundamental Vows (Fo Shuo Yaoshi rulai benyuan jing), translated by Reverend Dharmagupta (?-619) in the Sui Dynasty (616 CE.)  Dharmagutpa's translation describes the Medicine Buddha through seven avatars, which is also depicted in the mural on the north wall of Cave 220. This depiction adheres to the principles outlined in Dharmagutpa's work. At the center of the mural, the Seven Medicine Buddhas are shown on lotus pedestals, surrounded by eight revered Bodhisattvas as their retinue. The central stage, made from rich red and blue lapis lazuli, adds to the grandeur of the scene. Bodhisattvas are seen leaning along the fence, offering lotus flowers as homage to the Buddha.

Next to the stage, there are many divine beings and celestial attendants present. Above them, you can see six-armed Asuras with three faces, while below are guardians and Vajra warriors. These vigilant defenders wear regal armor and crowns adorned with animal motifs that represent the twelve zodiac signs, such as snakes, dragons, and rabbits. These twelve animal motifs are in line with the description of the twelve Yaksha Generals in the scripture. The scene is a picturesque representation of the Eastern Pure Lapis Lazuli World showcased in the sutra. Several attendants in the scene represent the Eight Guiding Bodhisattvas, Twelve Yakshas, and Vajra warriors mentioned in the sacred text.

In the front of the scene, there are Chinese-style lamp towers and Western-style lamp wheels that brighten up a lively music and dance show. On either side of the stage, two bands of 28 skilled musicians play various instruments, creating a symphony of harmonious melodies. Two pairs of dancers further enhance the show. One pair features elegant dancers swirling scarves amidst flowing locks, while the other performs a spirited "hu xuan wu" or Sogdian whirl dance, known for its rapid rotations and lively movements. 

As Sha Wutian (沙武田) claims (2016), the three large lamp towers or wheels in this mural represent the lively lantern festival of Chang'an during the Tang dynasty. These festivals, filled with music, dance, and elaborate lighting, weren't just exclusive to the emperor's court or elite banquets. They were cherished communal celebrations. Through Dunhuang murals, snapshots of the past, we gain valuable insights into everyday life in the Tang capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang. This highlights the importance of Dunhuang visuals in studying history.

Amitabha Buddha’s Sukhavati: A Pure Land in the Western Realm

On the South Wall of Mogao Cave 220, a narrative mural depicts the Western Pure Land, which is opposite to the Jianbian of the Eastern Lapis Lazuli Pure Land.  The Jianbian mural, inspired by the Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra, also known as the Sutra of Amitabha, illustrates the Western Pure Land.