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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 4.1 (2021): 37–58;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Worldmaking Programs & Tiantai/Chontae/Tendai Buddhism)

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Śākyamuni Buddha World Depicted in Vimalakīrti Scenes in Dunhuang Mogao Caves: The Expansion of Buddha Land to China

Yokohama University of Art and Design

Abstract: Many Vimalakīrti Sūtra scenes remain among the murals of the Dunhuang Mogao Caves. Most of the scenes from Sui to early Tang dynasties are painted in and outside the niche on the front-facing western wall. Stucco figures of the Śākyamuni Buddha is placed inside the niche as the principal icon of the cave, and the Vimalakīrti Sūtra scene provides supplementary information that the sahāloka in which the Buddha exists is in fact an immaculate Buddha-land.

On the other hand, after Tang, Vimalakīrti Sūtra scenes relocate to the eastern and the northern walls. Simultaneously, the iconography becomes more complex with the inclusion of multiple Buddha-lands of the present Buddhas. This paper will consider how Śākyamuni’s Buddha-land was perceived in Tang China by examining the differences between the depiction of the Buddha-lands of the three present Buddhas and that of Śākyamuni Buddha. In addition, the paper will bring attention to the placement of the Vimalakīrti Sūtra scene on the northern wall, explaining how ‘north’ in the Mogao Caves would actually be perceived as the ‘east’, and that the placement of the Vimalakīrti Sūtra scene towards the ‘east’ connotes the notion that China—located to the east of India—inherits India’s status as Śākyamuni’s Buddha-land.

Keywords: Vimalakīrti Sūtra 維摩経, Mogao Caves 莫高窟, Buddhist iconography 仏教図像, sahā world 娑婆世界, Tang dynasty 唐代


About the Author: Tamami Hamada 濱田瑞美, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at Yokohama University of Art and Design 橫浜美術大學 in Japan. She obtained her Ph.D. in 2007 at Waseda University, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, History of Art. Her research focuses on Buddhist art history in East Asia, particularly in China from the seventh to twelfth centuries. Hamada’s monograph, Chugoku Sekkutsu Bijutsu no Kenkyu 中国石窟美術の研究 (Study of Buddhist Cave Art in China), (Tokyo: Chuo Koron Bijutsu Shuppan 中央公論美術出版, 2012) examines the sources of Buddhist iconography in wall paintings and sculptures in Buddhist caves and cliff images in areas including Dunhuang, Kizil, Sichuan and Longmen, and explores the meaning of these works in religious cave spaces. It also attempts to provide an explanation for there being a vast number of Buddhist cave temples in China. Hamada has discussed topics such as: Preaching Buddha, Buddha of Traikālya, Buddha commissioned by the Indian King Udayana, Amitābha, Vimalakīrti scene, Bhaiṣajyaguru scene, Esoteric Buddhist art works, Thousand Armed Avalokiteśvara, etc.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.