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Were the Caves Decorated for Meditation?
Eugene Wang
Professor, Harvard University
Meditative contemplation is one of the highlights featured in the decorated caves at Kizil. Acknowledging this also opens up a can of worms. For one thing, Buddhist meditation, as we know it, rarely, if ever, involves cave murals as visual aids. The scenes depicting meditation practices in Kizil caves are exclusively found on the cave ceilings. Vaguely discernible, they hardly lend themselves as visual aids. In addition, the dim lighting condition in the cave made it impossible to have a comprehensive grasp of the entirety of the pictorial program inside the cave. Last and not the least, the caves were most likely memorial shrines for the Kucha royal families. This meant infrequent uses. In addition, the Kizil caves are located far away from the former Kucha city. It would take a day to reach by horse. These circumstances made it unlikely that the significance and function of the mural program depended primarily on the actual use or regular ritual practice there.
Even these external factors aside, the internal evidence of the cave murals raises unsettling questions. Why, for instance, are the scenes from Buddha’s life in the central-pillar caves almost always start from the Defeat of Mara and show little interest in the narrative matters centered on Prince Siddhrtha? The ceilings mostly feature kyamuni’s former lives (jtaka) or historical narratives (avadna). They presumably prepare us for the Bodhisattva kyamuni in Tuita Heaven contemplating descent into the human world. Meanwhile, the ceiling also amounts to a highway for the meditation practitioners (monks and celestials) with supernatural powers in flight to the state of nirva. How do we reckon with this two-way traffic? The main chamber may feature royal family scenes. Are they there to display disenchantment with the earthly life or flaunt the wellbeing of a distinguished family so that the heavenly beings—formerly the members and relatives of the royal families—high up there may contemplate their rebirth?