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Illustration of the Parable of Medicinal Herbs in the "Lotus Sūtra"


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North wall of Mogao Cave 23
High Tang dynasty
Copy by Shao Hongjiang
 

Illustrated in this painting are the Parable of Medicinal Herbs and Parable of Expedient Means contained in the Lotus Sūtra.

Depicted on the upper part of this painting is the Parable of Medicinal Herbs, in the setting of a farming scene. A farmer is ploughing the field with a cow and using a whip to urge the cow on. Another farmer is walking in the rain, carrying two loads using a shoulder pole. A farmer and his son are enjoying the meal delivered by a peasant woman, who is sitting next to them and affectionately watching them eating. Raindrops are showering down from the huge dark clouds overcasting the sky. This episode coincides with the details narrated in the parable: "Thick clouds cover the universe consisting of three thousands of thousand-fold worlds... [Although] being showered by the same rain, different plants receive different amount of nourishment." The text is conveying the idea that Heaven is impartial in giving rainwater to all plants in the universe, but the amount of nourishment received by individual plants differs according to their sizes. The cloud and rain in the painting are allegories of the impartial teachings of the Buddha given to sentient beings; the effect of the teachings received by individual beings varies with individual capacities.

Depicted on the lower part of the painting is the Parable of Expedient Means. It is set in a landscape with lush vegetation. On the lower left side is a stūpa. A kneeling man is worshipping the stūpa while another man is dancing in front of it. Six musicians are sitting on a rug spread out on the ground, performing music offering by playing different kinds of instruments. The scene is illustrating the content of the chapter on Expedient Means, which says that worshipping Buddhist stūpas and offering music to the buddha or praising his virtues in front of a stūpa can accrue karmic merits pertaining to the gaining of buddhahood. The four chubby children building a sand stūpa in the middle of the scene is illustrating the Buddhist metaphor of "Gathering sand to form a stūpa", which conveys the idea that every minute act counts in gaining buddhahood.

The episodes on the upper and lower parts of this painting combine to form a rural scene with strong rustic flavour. Abstract Buddhist doctrines are figuratively illustrated through episodes extracted from daily life. The wisdom of the painter is evident.