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  • Guoying Stacy Zhang

The Thousand-Buddha Motif: On the Timelessness of Ancient Art

The Thousand-Buddha motif is a recurrent theme in the Buddhist art of Central Asia and China. The motif depicts a multitude of buddhas arranged in a grid fashion, all seated in meditation on a lotus pedestal, and its popularity increased predominantly during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) in northern China. It was carved on stone steles commissioned by groups of commoners, as well as in the imperially sponsored caves of the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province.

The significance of the Thousand-Buddha motif is varied. Some suggest that the pictorial representation originated from texts on the names of buddhas, and was meant to complement related chanting and meditation practices. Indeed, Cave 254 of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, dating to the Northern Wei period (386), features 1,235 Buddha images in its wall paintings. With alternating color schemes, each buddha is accompanied by a small cartouche inscribed with a buddha name listed in the Guoqu zhuangyan jie qianfo ming jing (過去莊嚴劫千佛名經, “Sutra on the Names of the Thousand Buddhas of the Past Majestic Kalpa”). Others emphasize that the motif illustrates Buddhist cosmology in which our world, where Shakyamuni Buddha appeared, is only one of innumerable Buddha-lands across space and time. For instance, in the Mogao Grottoes’ Cave 12, sponsored by a Buddhist monk from Dunhuang in the late Tang dynasty (827–59), there are illustrations of 10 sutras on the chamber walls. When the viewer looks upward, one finds that the entire ceiling, in the shape of a truncated pyramid, is covered with Thousand-Buddha patterns, creating an awe-inspiring experience.

Mogao Grottoes, Cave 254, Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). From e-dunhuang.com

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