The Expansion of Chan Buddhism

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

As Exemplified by Cave 231

Figure 1. Buddha Niche of Cave 231. (Dunhuang, China). Cave 231. Digital image. Artstor. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Nestled into a massive cliff wall, a vast network of cave temples known as the Mogao Caves sits at “a major intersection of the Asiatic trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road.”[1] Because of their unique location, function, and state of preservation, these cave temples offer a wealth of knowledge regarding “the study of China’s social economy, politics, religion, art history, and architectural construction methods.”[2] In particular, Cave 231 offers insights into the development of Buddhism leading into the Song dynasty.

Through a visual exploration of the cave, a brief overview of its history, and an explanation of the Cao Family’s rise to power and the spread of Chan Buddhism, it becomes clear that the Buddha niche and murals of Cave 231 exemplify the standardization of Chan Buddhism from the Tang to the early Song dynasty. This development normalized ancestor worship and the belief that the physical and spiritual realms are closely connected.

Cave 231 is estimated to have been completed around 839 C.E. and its quality and current state of preservation make it a prime example for visual analysis and research.[3] One of the first unique qualities of the temple is that its subject matter differs from earlier temples in the region.[4] This is exhibited in its ornamentation, as “these textile like patterns emerge as a carefully planned program of spatial, decorative, figural, and epigraphic references to the domestic realm that are transposed onto the shell of a Buddhist cave.”[5] While these domestic qualities became more prevalent within Buddhist temples as time went on, Cave 231 is a foreshadowing of this development.

Another key visual feature of Cave 231 is that the room is divided into a series of sutra paintings.[6] The first group of sutras follows the south wall from right to left and the second group of sutras follows the north wall from left to right.[7] This method of illustrating the sutras places Cave 231 within a certain category of cave temples and verifies the time when it was built. As Kyan explains, “Another distinguishing feature of ninth-century Mogao caves is the division of sutra paintings into precisely framed screens that transform the wall surface of the cave chamber from a space cut from the living rock into a palatial room lined with elaborate panels.”[8] Instead of appearing simply as a cave, the space begins to take on the architectural structure of a palace or even of a home.

Figure 2. Buddha Niche of Cave 231. (Dunhuang, China). Cave 231. Digital image. Artstor. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

The domestic atmosphere of the space is further amplified by the positioning of a sculpture of the Buddha in a “couchlike recess” built into the western wall of the temple directly in front of the viewer as he or she enters the space (Figure 1).[9] The ceiling of the recess is raised like a tented canopy or zhang.[10] On either side of the Buddha there is a figure, sculpted in the round, and there is a strong distinction between the sculptures and the paintings behind them (Figure 2).[11] The recess “closely mimics the shape and proportions of the main hall to form a distinct miniature room.”[12] Kyan asserts that the niche, its designs and structure, “explicitly reference contemporary Central Asian textiles,” creating an illusion of domesticity that begins to unify the place of family and of worship.[13]

There are a total of 493 caves remaining in Mogao and they contain approximately 45,000 meters of murals and 2,000 painted statues.[14] Their materials were, in a large part, dictated by their locations. They were carved into “loose conglomerate rock” that was difficult to carve, so “murals and clay-plastered polychrome statues were produced to depict the concepts of Buddhism.”[15] Within the greater system of cave temples, there are a number of categories that the temples generally fit into. These categories include the following: revered images, Buddhist scriptural tales, Chinese mythical themes, images evolved from sutras, Buddhist history, portraits of donors, or ornamentation.[16] The elaborate space of Cave 231 includes revered images, images from sutras, and portraits of donors, a combination that demonstrates that it was built during a period of transition.

Regarding historical context, it is necessary to consider both the history of the caves themselves and of Buddhist beliefs since they are interrelated. Buddhism experienced many developments during the Tang and early Song dynasties, around when Cave 231 was built. Along with Buddhism, which came to China from Gandhara through the Silk Road, came a host of traded goods that increased the wealth of populations along the Silk Road, including the region where the Mogao caves were built. [17] This meant that economic and religious developments were experienced earlier in places near the Silk Road, as exemplified in the following quote:

"Closer to the context of ninth-century Mogao, scholars have argued that secular portraits were frequently installed within the precincts of Tang period Buddhist temples, and that imperial portraits were even integrated into Buddhist rites under the Northern Song emperor Taizu (r. 960-75 CE).[18]"

As will be demonstrated shortly, secular portraits are integral to the interpretation of Cave 231 because they indicate a significant change in the methods and objects of Buddhist worship.

Cave 231 was built during the Tang dynasty, around the time when there was an open-door policy in China. This meant that the Silk Road experienced even greater traffic and commerce as it became a point of connection between the East and the West.[19] According to scholars, “The Tang was the golden age of Dunhuang art, and over two hundred caves survive from this period.”[20] The influx of wealth and traffic established the Mogao Caves as elaborate and comprehensive expressions of the Buddhist beliefs of their time.

As pertains to Buddhism, there are several developments during the Tang and Song dynasties that are worth noting since they relate to specific elements of Cave 231. The first is that Buddhologists have asserted than an “expansion and standardization of sutra themes in ninth-century caves reflect the increased number of Buddhist scriptures circulating in Tang China.”[21] For example, the murals have been used as evidence for the rise in the “Pure Land ideology of the Tang and the development of popular Buddhism.”[22] Two manifestations of this are the popularization of donor statues and the development of refined techniques employed to make the sūtra illustrations.[23]

These changes in Buddhism resulted, in part, from a shift of power to the Cao Family during the Five Dynasties, including the Late Tang and Song periods.[24] The Cao Family supported Buddhism as well as the construction of the Mogao cave temples.[25] In turn, Buddhism benefitted the Cao Family since it secured their own social and political power.[26] Under their guidance and support Buddhism took on new forms since, “Government policies and social forces in the Song dynasty dramatically reshaped monastic Buddhism in the ways that favored the Chan lineage.”[27] This resulted in a form of Buddhism that was vastly altered from the Buddhism of the Tang dynasty.[28]

The most significant change was the rise of Chan Buddhism, which became the “dominant form of elite monastic Buddhism.”[29] There is evidence for the presence of Chan Buddhism in China back to the early Tang periods, but it was not until the Song dynasty that Chan Buddhism became the predominant form of elite monastic Buddhism. Chan Buddhism formalized and reformed the monastic institutions as well as “defined its crucial lineages, and developed its own distinctive literature.”[30] Chan Buddhists did not study religious texts, but rather focused on contemplation and meditation.[31] With that came “competing approaches to enlightenment and practice known as “silent illumination.”[32] These religious practices endorsed greater mysticism and introspection and eventually established them as the roots of Buddhist belief.

Two major developments that came with Chan Buddhism and that influenced Cave 231 were the synthesis of Buddhism and ancestor worship and the rising belief in the intersection between the mystical, or divine, and the material. “In an oft-cited 1987 article, John Jorgensen suggested that Chan lineages came about as an attempt to make Buddhism compatible with Chinese ancestor worship.”[33] The Cao Family sought to bring together the Chinese people under a unified belief system and Chan Buddhism, which brought together Buddhism and ancestor worship, was the perfect method for doing so. Because of Chan Buddhism, “The notion that the worlds of gods (including Buddhas and Bodhisattvas), ghosts, and deceased ancestors were in constant interaction with the world of living humans was taken for granted by virtually everyone.”[34] These changes in Buddhist beliefs appear in the Mogao caves in the form of two key relationships.

Cave 231 represents a threshold between the Buddhism of the Tang period and the emergence of Chan Buddhism because of “two fundamental relations that are critical for understanding both the formal and stylistic changes seen in Cave 231 as well as the social and religious function of the Mogao caves” in the Tang period.[35] The first is the tension between the illustration of material riches and skepticism concerning the material world, which starts to be resolved as newfound wealth coming from the Silk Road was dedicated to building new cave temples. The second is the beginning of a synthesis between Buddhist religiosity and ancestral worship.

Because of the great influx of wealth during the Tang dynasty and the push towards Chan Buddhism, the wealthy gave more to the building of temples, which maximized the ornamentation and material brilliance of Cave 231. In reassigning physical materials for sacred use, the sculptures and paintings within the cave temples took on a specific value and authority. For example, the images of the Buddha placed within the niches of the Mogao Caves have, supposedly, emitted light.[36] This relates to foundational Buddhist beliefs since, according to the Lotus Sutra, Buddhas have always emitted light before preaching the Lotus Sutra.[37]

However, the value of the physical often conflicted with the fundamental beliefs of Chan Buddhism: that the material world is impermanent or a façade. The artwork in Cave 231 is used to “negotiate between the social requisite of recording the material luxury of their daily lives and religious skepticism over the validity of the material world.”[38] The Mogao caves became a method through which the Chinese patrons could reconcile their possession of wealth with their Buddhist beliefs. The value of the materials, combined with the images of the Buddha and sutras, became a “defining characteristic of Buddhist “world making” in medieval China.”[39] Ultimately, this made the cave temples, and Cave 231 in particular, a place where people could encounter and coexist with the divine.

Figure 3. Ancestor Portraits of Cave 231. (Dunhuang, China). Cave 231. Digital image. Artstor. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

The second relationship present within Cave 231 “concerns the give-and-take between ancestral commemoration and Buddhist devotion.”[40] According to a merit record that is thought to refer to Cave 231, the temple was built to honor and repay the graciousness of the donor’s parents.[41] On the east wall of the main chamber of Cave 231 is a painting that is thought to be the earliest example of Chinese ancestor portraits within its original context (Figure 3). This painting and Cave 231 as a whole “provide a starting point to address the relation between ancestral commemoration and Buddhist devotion in the development of family caves at Mogao.”[42]

Between the man and the woman in the painting there is an inscription that identifies the man as the deceased father and the woman as the deceased mother of the cave’s primary patron.[43] A quote from a manuscript found in the Mogao Caves says:

"My parents gave birth to me with great labor. I wish to repay this kindness just to grasp this great blessing. Therefore, I bequeathed the token of myself, exhausted the storehouses and entrusted my fate to the Three Reverences [the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha] for reliance and assistance. Then at the sacred site of Mogao, I assembled the flying eaves and cut into the mountain, erected cloud pavilions and opened the cliff.[44]"

Expressing gratitude and reverence for ancestors was a Chinese tradition, foundational to Chinese culture and community. However, this manifestation of ancestral worship was new to Buddhism and was established with the construction of Cave 231. This ensured a general stability and uniformity of religion in China and made it possible for the Cao Family to maintain control over a massive domain. Buddhism continued to meld with traditional Chinese beliefs as they shaped and transformed one another into a religion that simultaneously questioned and relied upon the material world as a method for understanding the divine.

Because of their location and function as a personal expression of the patrons’ wealth and social or familial relations, the Mogao Caves provide historians with excellent insight into the art, politics, religion, economy, and society of China. Cave 231 is an expression of the religious desires and intentions of the patron and artisans. The artwork within it mirrors the styles of its time, as seen in its Buddha niche and sutra paintings. In particular, it marks a unique point of transition as the prosperity of the Cao Family, and of China as a whole, was preserved by a shift to Chan Buddhism.

Cave 231 provides contextual and significant evidence for the ways in which Chan Buddhism brought together Buddhism and the practice of ancestor worship. As a patron of the Mogao Caves testifies, he beseeched the Buddhist deities on behalf of his parents by funding the construction of a cave temple. Along with the rise of ancestor worship came a growing belief in the synthesis between the divine and the material as the patrons and artisans used and transformed materials to craft a space in honor of Buddhist beliefs. In these ways, Cave 231 of the Mogao Caves embodies the rise of Chan Buddhism, which standardized ancestor worship and belief in the intersection between the physical and spiritual.


Agnew, Neville, ed., Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road: Proceedings of an International Conference on the Conservation of Grotto Sites. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 1997.

Kyan, Winston. "Family Space: Buddhist Materiality and Ancestral Fashioning in Mogao Cave 231." Art Bulletin 92, no. 1/2 (2010): 61-82.

Ma, Shichang. "Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family at Mogao Ku, Dunhuang." World Archaeology 27, no. 2 (1995): 303-317.

Schlütter, Morten. How Zen became Zen: The Dispute Over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-dynasty China. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008.

Van Overmeire, Ben. "Reading Chan Encounter Dialogue during the Song Dynasty: The Record of Linji, the Lotus Sutra, and the Sinification of Buddhism." Buddhist-Christian Studies, (2017): 209-221.

Rong, Xinjiang, and Imre Galambos. Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang. Boston: Brill, 2013.

[1] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61.

[2] Agnew, Conservation of Ancient Sites, 4.

[3] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61.

[4] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61.

[5] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61.

[6] Kyan, "Family Space,” 69.

[7] Kyan, "Family Space,” 69.

[8] Kyan, "Family Space,” 69.

[9] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61-62.

[10] Kyan, "Family Space,” 65.

[11] Kyan, "Family Space,” 64.

[12] Kyan, "Family Space,” 64.

[13] Kyan, "Family Space,” 62.

[14] Ma, " Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family,” 303.

[15] Agnew, Conservation of Ancient Sites, 12.

[16] Agnew, Conservation of Ancient Sites, 2.

[17] Agnew, Conservation of Ancient Sites, 41.

[18] Kyan, "Family Space,” 74.

[19] Agnew, Conservation of Ancient Sites, 1.

[20] Rong and Galambos, Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, 434.

[21] Kyan, "Family Space,” 70.

[22] Rong and Galambos, Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, 435.

[23] Rong and Galambos, Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, 435.

[24] Ma, " Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family,” 316.

[25] Ma, " Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family,” 316.

[26] Ma, " Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family,” 316.

[27] Schlütter, How Zen became Zen, 2.

[28] Schlütter, How Zen became Zen, 1.

[29] Van Overmeire, "Reading Chan Encounter Dialogue,” 210.

[30] Schlütter, How Zen became Zen, 3.

[31] Van Overmeire, "Reading Chan Encounter Dialogue,” 210.

[32] Schlütter, How Zen became Zen, 1.

[33] Van Overmeire, "Reading Chan Encounter Dialogue,” 210.

[34] Schlütter, How Zen became Zen, 5.

[35] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61.

[36] Kyan, "Family Space,” 63.

[37] Van Overmeire, "Reading Chan Encounter Dialogue,” 212.

[38] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61.

[39] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61.

[40] Kyan, "Family Space,” 61.