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Illustration of "Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra"

(Please click for enlarged image)

North wall of Mogao Cave 45
High Tang dynasty
Copy by Wu Rongjian, Ma Yuhua and Shen Shuping

This sūtra tableau is based on the content of the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra (Sūtra of Amitābha-Mindfulness), a text about taking rebirth in the Paradise (Pure Land) of the West through the visualisation of Buddha Amitābha and his Paradise.

This painting is divided into three sections with the predominant middle section depicting the ‘Paradise of the West', flanked by strips of sūtra tales respectively known as ‘Enmity before Birth' and ‘Sixteen Visualisations'.

The principle section of the mural presents a scene of the Paradise of the West as described in the sūtra, featuring ponds decorated with the Seven Treasures, bedded with gold sand and filled with water embracing the Eight Good Qualities; a terrace paved with gold, silver, lapis lazuli and agate; trees displaying the Seven Treasures grown everywhere; rare animals and birds; beautiful music filling the air; and magnificent palatial buildings on railed terraces rising from the Seven-Treasure Ponds. Buddha Amitāyus (Amitābha), Lord of the Paradise of the West, is preaching in the centre of the scene, flanked by Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta, and other acolytes. Rows of musicians are performing on the terrace while dancers are tapping their feet below the terrace. Kalaviṅka the Exquisite Sounding Bird is plucking the pipa while singing and dancing.

Illustrated on the left margin of the preaching scene is the sūtra tale known as Enmity before Birth. The pre-birth enmity between Prince Ajātaśatru and his father King Bimbisāra is depicted. However, the causes of the enmity in their previous lives are not mentioned in Buddhist texts. Incited by a bad friend, Prince Ajātaśatru imprisons his father in a cell in the palace and tries to starve him to death. In order to save her husband from dying, Queen Vaidehī smuggles food into the prison by coating layers of flour paste and honey onto her own body, and fruit paste onto her garland-necklace. When the prince finds out this, he is furious and tries to kill her. Although the life of the queen is spared due to the intervention of two ministers, she is imprisoned. The extremely sad queen then prayed to the Buddha in the hope of finding out the source of the enmity in their previous lives and invoking blessings to eliminate her suffering. The Buddha preaches to her and teaches her how to visualise the Paradise of the West.

Illustrated on the right margin of the preaching scene is the sūtra tale known as Sixteen Visualisations. To relieve herself from sufferings brought by prebirth enmity, Queen Vaidehī decides to take refuge in Buddhism and hopes to be reborn in the Paradise of the West by means of 16contemplation methods. Each ‘visualisation' described in the sūtra is graphically represented according to the painter's own imagination.