The ten thousand buddhas: The Mogao Caves

'10.000 Buddhas' by Veena On the Go

In Part 2 of 3, Veena describes the magnificent visit to the Mogao Caves that left both her and Michael in overwhelming awe, and made her ponder Osho’s insistent use of the phrase ‘the ten thousand buddhas’.

Dunhuang Sunrise
Dunhuang Sunrise

Our hostel manager had advised us to go early to the Mogao Reception Centre because of the many tourists and long queues. So at the crack of dawn I came downstairs to find Michael already there drinking the obligatory best-in-Dunhuang cup of coffee. I was quickly supplied with my own. Michael was chatting amiably with a man who I found out was a taxi driver, already procured for us by our super-manager! We were soon on our way but Michael had arranged for one important stop to be made: the baozi shop! In China a common breakfast is baozi – a steamed bun (like dim sum) filled, in our case, with vegetables. They can be very tasty and Michael and I frequented a special place at home in Dengfeng, but, he declared, the baozi here were far superior. They were!

The sun was rising as we journeyed to the Mogao Reception Centre and I was again conscious of the soft peaceful energy that the streets seem to be suffused with. Nibbling our humble baozi, I thought maybe this was what manna from heaven tasted like!

Apsara statue in front of Reception Centre
Mogao Caves Reception Centre

Arriving at the Centre, with its customary statue of an apsara, I was massively impressed with the design of the building. It was long and low with undulating curves, which, with its yellow/grey/brown colour, emulated the rolling desert sand dunes. Beautiful.

Being early, we didn’t have long to wait before being shepherded into a large cinema, holding the high-tech translating handsets with which we had been presented. On the large screen we watched a detailed dramatized history of the Caves which gave us hugely helpful background information.

But what came next was totally unexpected and utterly spectacular! On leaving the cinema we were shown into a huge space with a domed ceiling like, I soon realised, a kind of planetarium. When the lights dimmed, we started to see images of the interior of the caves projected in clear detail and gorgeous colours onto the ceiling. It was incredible.

An international consortium of experts oversees the preservation of the Caves, using as much scientific and technological know-how as possible in order to protect them and safeguard their priceless heritage. So no visitors are allowed to take photos inside the caves, the lighting is low and natural – filtering in only from the entrance – and, with so many people, one cannot linger at will to examine details; the guides have to keep people moving. Understanding this, the organisers have had the interiors especially filmed and then projected onto the dome of the ‘planetarium’, placing us in a cave of virtual reality with a commentary, via the handsets, on what we were seeing. Really, I can’t express what a superb presentation this was! A spectacular way of ensuring that the visitor had the best possible experience exploring the Caves while not risking any damage to them. So very impressive.

But the smooth efficiency and thoughtful attention to detail didn’t end there. Emerging from the ‘planetarium’ we found a long line of luxury coaches waiting to transport us the twelve kilometres into the Gobi Desert to the site of the Caves.

On the road to the Mogao Caves
Abandoned Caves on hillside
Close-up of abandoned Caves
Photo shoot of the area
Crossing the bridge
View of Cave area from the bridge
Approach to the entrance of Caves
Approach to the entrance of Caves
Approach to the entrance of Caves

Soon we were driving along a waterless river bed with cliffs increasing in size until caves cut into the hillside started to appear. At a bridge the coach stopped to deposit us and we duly took loads of photos and then started over the bridge to what was presumably our destination, at the moment surprisingly hidden by tall trees! Instead of blinding sun and desert heat we walked into a cool avenue of greenery – that special feeling of being in a forest.

Or something else? This for sure was hallowed ground. I am convinced there are places of special energy on the planet. Song Mountain is definitely one. Stonehenge perhaps another. There are many, selected, I am sure by ancients who were more sensitive and aware than we are today. This place I was in now is definitely an energy spot that the Buddhist monks had long ago discovered and, as I walked along, I felt like this was one big Buddha Hall – that luminosity we all experienced when sitting with Osho. That this is a deeply spiritual place, not just a bunch of caves, I have no doubt. Osho’s words ‘drunk with the divine’ drifted into my mind as Michael and I floated along towards the entrance gates.

With customary efficiency we were quickly pulled out of the long queue by a polite Chinese official and escorted to a waiting room where, he told Michael, an English-speaking guide would come and collect us. There were five other foreigners.

Restoration and re-enforcement measures to protect Caves
Protective walkways for visitors to view Caves
Protective walkways for visitors to view Caves
Ruins of Caves over 100 years ago
Ruins of Caves over 100 years ago
Ruins of Caves over 100 years ago
Ruins of Caves over 100 years ago
Ruins of Caves over 100 years ago

While waiting for our guide I surveyed the scene in front of me. I had seen old photos of this hillside showing crumbling stone, exposed statues and broken walls so I was massively impressed with the awesome job that had been done to stabilise the hillside, re-enforce it and make walkways for the six thousand daily visitors, while maintaining the character of the setting with aesthetic care, grace and thoughtfulness. Really, preservation of an ancient monument at its very best.

Then finally our guide arrived and I remain convinced to this day that we got the very best one! Tina is a beautiful university student who spoke excellent English and is doing a PhD in the history of Chinese Art. As we progressed on our tour, she revealed not only a vast knowledge of the historical facts of the Caves but also an obviously deep love and appreciation for the art in all its glorious aspects that she was telling us about. We had struck lucky!

Important cave (photo from book in ticket office)
Important cave (photo from book in ticket office)

We then started on the exploration of our allotted twelve caves. Each cave was closed with a metal door to prevent any unsupervised people entering so Tina had a large key ring full of rather large keys. It was the third cave that hit me! It was probably the biggest of the caves we saw and as I entered, I was struck with such a strong energy hitting my heart that I gave an involuntary gasp and immediately namasted low to the huge Buddha image in front of me. Then, taking a step back I realised I had been fortunate to enter the very cave which I had the previous day taken a photo of in the book at the ticket office. Tina said that this was one of the most splendid and artistically important of all the caves. I was overwhelmed at my good fortune at being here.

Walking further along the elevated passageway outside, Tina came to walk beside me and asked me why I had visited the Caves. Possibly she was a little intrigued at my response in the previous cave. I told her about Osho and how his use of the phrase ‘the ten thousand buddhas’ had sent me on a path of discovery which led me to these caves which I was certain was the origin of his words. She was very touched and interested and said she had never before had such an explanation shared with her!

My star was shining that day because, with maybe the seventh cave (officially Caves 16 and 17), I really struck lucky again. This cave was, in fact, the only one I knew something about and was the one I most wanted to see. As I have mentioned before, the caves are open in rotation to preserve them as much as possible, so there is no knowing which ones a visitor will see. So when I walked into this one, I immediately recognised it and again drew an audible breath of excitement. Tina looked at me and smiled and asked, “You know this one?” I replied, “The Diamond Sutra! And Huineng’s Platform Sutra!” She nodded her head and proceeded with the strange and fascinating history of this cave.

Photo taken by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in 1907 of the Library Cave where priceless documents were found
Image of Library Cave
Wang Yuanlu in 1907
Copy of Diamond Sutra from 868 CE found by Wang Yuan Lu in 1900 in Library Cave
French Paul Pelliot sorting manuscripts in the Library Cave in 1908

The building, decoration and worship of the Caves reached a peak in about the eleventh century CE after which they were abandoned and started to fall into ruin. I won’t go into the subsequent history except for the astonishing discovery of caves 16 and 17 – because of its relevance to us sannyasins. It seems that a monk called Hongbian carved out a small cave (16) – which later became known as the Library Cave – just inside and next to the entrance of a bigger cave (17) as a kind of retreat place for himself. As the whole hillside fell into disrepair, somebody packed this small cave full of manuscripts left by monks to preserve them, and then walled it off so it could not be seen and broken into with possible damage to the manuscripts and scrolls.

The cave was only discovered in 1900 by a monk, Wang Yuanlu, who had decided to try to do something to take care of the caves. In 1907 he showed the Library Cave to a famous explorer, scientist and scholar, Sir Marc Aurel Stein (Hungarian/English). Searching through the stored documents, Stein immediately realised their profound historical value and decided to try to take some of them back to England. He was able to make a deal with Wang Yuanlu and brought many documents back home with him.

Amongst them was a printed copy of The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed text, dated 868 CE, and described by the British Library as “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.” Also, copies of the Heart and Lotus Sutras were discovered and, of importance to those of us who love Zen, the only remaining copies of two versions of the Sixth Zen Patriarch Huineng’s Platform Sutra, dated 830 and 860 CE, were found. Such a treasure trove. And I was able to see the exact place of discovery. I was beyond thrilled!

Reclining Buddha
Head of Reclining Buddha
More walkways for visitors
Image of Cave
Image of Cave
Image detail in Cave
Michael taking photos
Image of the Great Buddha from his feet
Michael and Veena in front of building enclosing the Great Buddha

By the time we reached the last cave both Michael and I were rather overwhelmed with the rich artistic heritage we had seen as well as the very deep, strong, spiritual energy we could feel. Awesome! Mind-blowing! Too much, in fact, to take in with one visit. Finally the tour ended with the viewing of the huge Buddha statue, so huge that it was impossible to see it properly from below. And we could not see it from afar because it was enclosed. Tina said it is now the biggest Buddha in the world since the Great Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, was tragically destroyed.

We were all profuse in our thanks to Tina for her very professional yet delightful and thought-provoking discourses. We wished we could have taken her for coffee or a meal to chat but she had to hurry back to take the next foreigners’ tour.

Enjoying the luminous energy, Michael and I very slowly made our way back to the coaches which would take us back to Dunhuang.

Back at the hostel I told Michael I had to lie down in my room to try to sort out this profusion of buddhas! There were quite a few questions tumbling around in my head. Just what was the significance of ‘ten thousand’ of them?! Why did Osho so insistently repeat that special phrase? Was he using the number as a symbol of collective devotion? Or was he simply being fairly prosaic: the more the merrier; the bigger the better?!

Perhaps a possible answer lies in something else he had often said. While sitting together in meditation with him, I remember him saying that the whole was greater than the sum of the individual parts. Remembering this, and reflecting on the grandeur and power of these Caves, it seemed to me that each one of the thousands of painted and carved Buddhas embodied the devoted heart of a seeker, looking to drop the petty considerations of the ego and fly into the realms of the unknown far greater than the small, individual self.

We can never really know, but perhaps Osho was evoking a connection with the ancients by pointing a finger – possibly an enlightening one – at their understanding, to help us, his beloved present-day people on the path.

All parts of Veena’s articles of this series can be found under: ’10’000 Buddhas’

Links for more information
The Mogao CavesApsarasMore images of the caves’ interiorGobi DesertSir Marc Aurel SteinWang YuanluPlatform SutraBuddhas of Bamyan, Afghanistan

Related articles
The ten thousand buddhas: The journey – Part 1 of 3 about Veena’s travels
Objective and subjective Art – A compilation of excerpts where Osho talks about these two art categories
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


Veena is the author of a trilogy of books about her path to and with Osho.

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