Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Approaching Nirvana in Mogao Caves

Well, my time in the Gobi is coming to it’s close.  I am writing this from our bus as we leave this beautiful sandy wonderland for our next city.  I still am having a hard time comprehending what I saw.  This part of China is not commonly visited.  In fact I haven’t seen a Westerner since we left the Xi’an airport.  It’s the type of trip you would never think to go on, but leaves a long lasting impression on your life.  I know I will always remember the experiences I’ve had here in the desert.  Our next city is Jiayuguan, which also played an important role along the Silk Road.  Plus, they are apparently known for their delicious pulled noodles, nom!

This morning, though, was by far the most splendid experience we had in the desert.  We were fortunate enough to visit the Morgao Buddhist caves.  When I heard this would be one of our destinations, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect.  I have really learned to appreciate the Buddhist religion during my time in Asia and hoped to use this opportunity to learn more.  Lucky for me it turned out to be that and more.

The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang were all started by a single monk named Le Zun nearly 2,000 years ago.  He believed in a vision he had which guided him to the location in which to build his shrine.  He believed the Buddha Sakyamuni had provided the vision and so he commenced his work on what would turn into a massive undertaking over a thousand year period.  Even though today it appears to be in a totally isolated desert, during the time of Le Zun, the location of these grottos was right along the Silk Road, allowing many monks and visitors to appreciate the beauty.

The monk's initial cave was so inspiring that it led others to build a total of 735 caves.  Each one hand dug out of the limestone on the cliffs and then pained meticulously over years.  Many also included statues.  Obviously we were not able to view all of them.  Not only would that take days, but many are also off limits to the public.  It's important to note that these caves are original.  Some of the statues have been restored, but beyond that everything I saw today was the original work completed by the monks.  Because of that, though, strict preservation methods have been enacted.  Only about 30 grottos are open to the public.  The rest are locked behind newly constructed modern doors for protection.  Of the 30 open caves, our guide chose what she believed to be the 10 best to share with our group, and what an extraordinary job she did.

Unfortunately, photography of any type was strictly prohibited inside the caves in hopes of better preserving the artwork.  I bought a wonderfully informative book that breaks the caves down by room though, so that I still have some photos for memories.  For my blog I have taken photos of the images in the book I purchased to share with you some highlights of what I saw today.

CAVE 332
One Buddha and Fifty Bodhisattvas

The Library Cave - Location of 50,000 Buddhist Manuscripts

CAVE 407
Ceiling - look carefully for the three rabbits in the very center
The very outer ring is the "Thousand Buddha's motif" and also covered every inch of the walls

CAVE 428
If you look carefully, this painting shows the story of the previous life of Buddha Sakyamuni in which he sacrificed himself to a family of tigers in order to feed them to keep them from starving to death....a truly beautiful story and painting...

View of a full room - There was a statue of Buddha Sakyamuni originally, but it was stolen many years ago

CAVE 148
My favorite of them all - a 50 foot long statue of a Buddha reaching nirvana

Massive 9 storied temple featuring 113 foot high Buddha statue - a true marvel

What has truly inspired me the most during this Silk Road journey is seeing the history where it happened.  As I stood in those caves today, I could visualize exactly where and how the monks would be standing for days on end to get every detail on the walls just right.  Seeing artifacts in a meeting like this gives meaning beyond anything a museum or book could provide.  I felt connected to the history and was able to appreciate it on a whole new level.  These caves have topped my list of memorable and inspirational sites in China.

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