In Part 1 of 3, Veena embarks on a journey to the ancient city of Dunhuang to find the origin of Osho’s often-used phrase: the ten thousand buddhas. These stories will be part of her next book, ‘Farewell to Song Mountain’ which she is currently writing.
The ten thousand buddhas… One of Osho’s most repeated phrases in his later years. I never thought much about it except for a passing reflection that we were only about one thousand people sitting in Buddha Hall. So for me his phrase was nothing more than another endearing example of his eternal optimism, his overflowing generosity and his sense of abundance in all and everything.
I was stunned, therefore, many years later, to see a sign in the famous Longmen Caves near Luoyang in China, which said: ‘The Cave of the Ten Thousand Buddhas’. Osho’s words! How could this be? The cave was a small one – perhaps eight people could fit into it – and around its walls were painted or carved thousands of small buddhas, some only about two inches high. No other cave in this extraordinary monument to Buddhism, consisting of many caves and statues cut into a hillside, was ‘decorated’ in this way.
On my return to Song Mountain where I was living at the time, and with Bhagawati’s help, I researched Osho’s discourses but could find no explanation of the phrase, other than at one point he mentioned a temple, or temples, filled with thousands of Buddhas where many people could worship. But this was confusing, because his description didn’t fit with the small cave I had discovered.
Researching further, I finally found that the first use of the phrase seems to have originated in the fourth century when a Buddhist monk named Yuezun (Chinese name), on his way from India to China, had a vision of a place of worship filled with one thousand paintings and sculptures of Buddha. He had stopped in the famous desert town of Dunhuang, in Gansu Province, China, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. At the time, Dunhuang was an important trade and commercial hub on the Old Silk Road, probably because of its oasis – a crescent-shaped lake – which to this day has never dried up.
Yuezun was inspired by his vision to start carving out caves in a long hillside beside a river just outside of Dunhuang as a fitting place for worship. (Perhaps on his journey he had also visited the Buddhist caves carved into the hillside behind the great Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan?) Other travelling monks joined him and a large Buddhist settlement developed. Over the next thousand years, more and more caves were formed, filled with exquisite paintings and sculptures, to inspire meditation and enlightenment. Money poured in from rich donors anxious to be connected to this huge spiritual happening and no doubt hoping for redemption of their souls. Some of the caves were large enough for thirty to forty people to worship in. Were these the temples Osho was talking about?
Osho said that he had walked with Bodhidharma in a past life and mentioned a forest and a cave where Bodhidharma was meditating.¹ As I have said in my book, A Mountain in China, the word ‘shaolin’ means small forest and we know the cave was in the Shaolin Temple area on Song Mountain not far from Luoyang and the Longmen Caves. If Osho had wandered there, it is conceivable (the dates fit) that Osho would have known about the Longmen Caves and even visited them, thus hearing the phrase ‘the ten thousand buddhas’. Dunhuang is far from Luoyang, but with visiting monks continually arriving in the Luoyang area from India, it is also conceivable that he could have heard tales of the caves in Dunhuang from them, and known that they were much bigger and could justifiably be called temples.
One small point in case you are wondering…. In the original phrase only one thousand buddhas were mentioned! By the time it reached Luoyang, the Yungang Grottoes and Wutaishan, it had grown to ten thousand buddhas! Osho, with his wonderful largesse obviously preferred the higher number – why, after all, have one thousand when you can have ten thousand?!
By the time I was even only a short way through my research I was determined to go to the place of the origin of the phrase – Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves – but I only managed to fulfil this dream in the autumn of last year, 2019. My journey turned out to be one of the most wonderful in my life, equalled only by my arrival at Bodhidharma’s Cave on Song Mountain eleven years before.
The logistics of the journey were somewhat daunting. I was a bit nervous about travelling on my own but could not find anyone to go with – but finally I struck gold! Talking about my plans at the Gulun Kungfu school, a French kungfu student, Michael, said he would like to go and I was overjoyed! Despite being exactly half my age, we had already been good friends for three or four years and he was an intelligent and charming man who loved the unusual. He could also speak Chinese which was a major bonus. The first problem, however, was that he wanted to go by train because it was cheaper and I think he wanted to see more of the unusual parts of China! Old granny here could not, however, manage twenty-three hours on the train and wanted to fly.
While Michael could speak Chinese, my expertise in the partnership was online research, so I was able to sort out the complicated journeys and we soon reached a compromise whereby he would take the train and I would travel via taxi, train, another taxi, and plane to our destination. This all worked out excellently. Michael left the day before me and actually arrived in Dunhuang while I was waiting to catch my flight in Xi’an (home of the famed terracotta army). He sent me a text: “Veena, I LOVE this place.” This boded well so I boarded my plane in great anticipation.
But first I had to undergo the most spectacular flight I have ever been on! It was a relatively small plane so it flew low over the land and revealed scenes of valleys with meandering rivers, then increasingly high mountain ranges, at first green with undergrowth then rapidly turning white with snow – and I gazed on a surreal winter wonderland which took my breath away. Finally the snow disappeared and was replaced with desert sands in many different hues of yellow, orange, pink, brown and grey. When we landed in the small Dunhuang airport I walked out into fresh, clean, unpolluted air – I had truly forgotten what that felt like.
I was already prepared to love this place and was further cheered by a buddha-like taxi driver who took my small case with a sweet smile and helped me into his taxi. Online, I had booked Michael and myself into a small youth hostel which the taxi man seemed to know, so I settled down for the drive into town. The car windows were closed but I wanted more of that pristine air so rolled one down. Even now I can’t really put into words what happened next. It seemed as if a waft of peace floated into the vehicle and I was infused with a deep softness and silence. As the journey progressed the feeling became stronger, and by the time I arrived at the youth hostel, I felt like we all used to feel when we walked out of Buddha Hall after sitting with Osho.
More goodies were to come! Michael was there, chatting to the manager whose apparent tour de force was making, he said, the best coffee in Dunhuang. A good cup of coffee was most acceptable and I sat down to enjoy it and hear about Michael’s adventures which were no less splendid than mine. His train journey was an epic one of unusual experiences – a bit like Indian trains because his trains were not the super-fast, modern bullet trains that join major Chinese cities, but slow, winding, local ones. The scenery he saw was different to my views but equally spectacular and he seemed to be as high as I was. Good, we were in tune!
He and the manager then escorted me to my room which was simply adorable. After having lived in the very rough and primitive quarters in ShiLiPu village on Song Mountain, this charming little room, with its thoughtful touches, very nice shower room with hot water, and western toilet, was welcome balm to my body and soul. I absolutely had not expected such comfortable, beautiful accommodation in a youth hostel. Michael was in a dormitory with three bunk beds which was also really nice and the manager, now having become his best friend, declined to put any other visitors into it so Michael had his own space for the duration of his time there. Things absolutely could not have been better.
We didn’t waste much time, however, because we had one very important mission to fulfil: obtaining entrance tickets to view the Mogao Caves the following day. Our super-manager got a taxi for us and instructed the driver to take us to the office to buy the tickets. The Mogao Caves are a World Heritage Site with thousands of tourists arriving every day so one had to book tickets ahead of time as there was a limit of six thousand tourists per day. The Chinese could book and pay online but it was acknowledged that western tourists didn’t have this facility, so fortunately there were always tickets reserved for them.
Arriving at the office and making all the arrangements, I was again struck by the softness and charm of the local people – very different from other parts of China. They were really sweet, kind and helpful. As foreigners we had to pay for a guide, and the cost also included visiting the maximum number of caves open for viewing. Preserving these caves is an international effort and very, very strict procedures are in place to protect them as they are very frail. Just the carbon dioxide breathed out by visitors causes deterioration of the rock surfaces and damage to both paintings and sculptures. The state of all the caves is therefore very carefully monitored; they are open on a rotation basis, so the maximum number able to be viewed at any one time is twelve while all other caves stay closed.
I did not see, for example, the huge reclining Buddha but, on the other hand, I did see two special ones, the second of which was of extreme importance to me. More of that later. Regarding the first one… while waiting for the tickets to be issued I got into conversation with yet one more charming woman who spoke English. She was selling some books about the caves and I was fascinated by a beautifully illustrated book on display. Knowing that I would not be allowed to photograph any interiors of the caves, I asked her if I could photograph one of the pages. She obligingly held the book open while I took a photograph of a very richly decorated cave. To my joy I found that it was one of those I was able to enter the next day!
Having successfully completed our mission we went outside and explored some of the tourist shops nearby. When visiting a new place, it has always been my policy to look at some tourist shops because the souvenirs for sale unerringly display the chief attractions of the area. Also here, this policy did not fail me – because we found the apsaras (fei tien in Chinese)! Having had no previous knowledge of this colourful aspect of the caves, we were intrigued. Gorgeous shawls, bags, postcards, pictures, fridge magnets… all depicted these wonderful apsaras: colourful, dancing, flying, heavenly spiritual beings who apparently lavishly decorate all the murals in the caves. No seriousness here! These delightful entities – as well as the ubiquitous camels – are popular symbols of Dunhuang.
By this time we were both tired and hungry (Michael had had almost no sleep the night before and I had left my village at 4.45am to catch the train in Luoyang to get to Xi’an airport) so we set out for an early dinner at the Buddhist vegetarian restaurant Michael had found at lunchtime. This was another huge surprise. The stylish interior design and delicious, superbly-served food reminded me that we were in a World Heritage Site to which people came from all over the world and wanted service at a very sophisticated level. Very beautiful local pottery and paintings were on display to enjoy or buy and the people were mellow and charming. There was a deep feeling of well-being and contentment.
This feeling continued when, on our way home, we briefly passed through the evening market. The food part of it was hilarious in its bustle and busyness and the souvenir stalls displayed goods of such colour, beauty and originality that we could barely wait to return the following evening. But first, a good night’s sleep was on the cards and soon, blissfully happy, I sank into sleep in my charming room, very much looking forward to continuing my quest to find the ten thousand buddhas the next morning.
¹ Footnote – Related discourse
Osho and Bodhidharma – Osho speaks on two occasions during discourse about meeting with Bodhidharma in an incarnation about 1400 years ago
A Discovery in Luoyang – An excerpt from Veena’s book, ‘A Mountain in China’
Inspiration for a Journey – ‘A Mountain in China’ – Veena’s book became an inspiration for Michael to visit China and the areas she described. The video was shown on Chinese TV