Vajrasattva and the Wheel: Investigating a mysterious object from Dunhuang Cave 17


Buddhist Studies Workshop with Mélodie Doumy and Sam van Schaik


Speaker: Mélodie Doumy and Sam van Schaik

Date: March 6, 20244:30 pm – 6:00 pm

Location: Princeton University, Jones Hall 202



A mysterious object from the “library cave” at Dunhuang, now in the British Library, has puzzled scholars for over a century – an octagonal miniature painting on paper, which is mounted onto a pointed wooden stick. Each side bears a different motif: on one side, a figure which is probably the deity Vajrasattva, and on the other, a wheel. This unique object is an example of the cross-fertilization between various visual traditions seen in Dunhuang during this period, and was probably used in Buddhist ritual practices before being deposited in the cave in the tenth century. Trying to understand the culture and practices that surrounded the creation and use of this unique object has led us to use and integrate a variety of different approaches. In this talk we investigate the object from five different angles: (i) the nature of the find site, (ii) the physical object as a museum collection item, (iii) the painted images, and their place in the artistic traditions of China, Tibet and Central Asia, (iv) the literary context in tantric Buddhist ritual texts also found in the cave, and (v) the social context, a living tradition with links to Buddhist practices of the present day.


About the speakers:

Mélodie Doumy is Curator of Chinese collections, with a specific focus on the Stein Collection and the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) at the British Library. Her interests include the material cultures of China and the Eastern Silk Road, Buddhism, the history of Collections, and cultural diplomacy. Her research and publications have focused on the materiality of the Dunhuang manuscripts and the social and religious practices associated with them. Her recent publications include “The Diamond Sutra” in The Book by Design, edited by Philippa Marks (British Library Publishing, 2023); “Dunhuang Texts” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2021); and “The Curious Case of a Miniature Painting at the British Library: A Tantric Ritual Implement for Empowerment” (Arts of Asia, 2020).

Sam van Schaik is Head of the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library, having previously worked for many years at the Library in the International Dunhuang Project (1999-2019). His main area of research is Tibetan Tantric Buddhism and early Tibetan history, with a focus on the Dunhuang manuscript sources. His interests include Buddhist ritual practice, manuscript paleography and codicology, and the history of Tibet and Central Asia. His publications include the books Tibet: A History (Yale, 2012), Tibetan Zen: Discovering a Lost Tradition (Snow Lion, 2015), and Buddhist Magic: Divination, Healing and Enchantment Through the Ages (Shambhala, 2020). He is also the co-author of the catalogues Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang (Brill, 2008) and Old Tibetan Texts in the Stein Collection Or.8210 (Toyo Bunko, 2012).


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