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Notes on the Geography of China: Baodingshan

Late in the 12th century and continuing until the arrival in China of the Mongols in 1249, a Buddhist layman named Zhou Zhifeng (b. 1159) took over an esoteric cult that had been established in Sichuan two centuries earlier by another layman, Liu Benzun (d. 907).  Seeking to widen the cult's membership, both high and low, Zhou conceived and oversaw the construction near present-day Chongqing of what in modern cinematic terms would be billed as "a visual extravaganza."  This was Baodingshan, "Treasure Top Mountain," unique in China as both a Buddhist study center and place of pilgrimage.

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It's near Dazu City, which is roughly midway along the expressway between Chongqing and Chengdu.  Here, in Dazu City, a bit of new-town construction comes complete with Chinese motifs including a pailou, or ornamental gateway. We're about ten miles from Baodingshan.

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And here we are. There are actually two Baodingshans, Large and Small.  The Large Baodingshan, shown in these pictures, was the focal point for pilgrims, while the Small Baodingshan, a few hundred yards away, was the sanctum for training cult practitioners. 

The Large Baodingshan is set in a box canyon, whose sandstone walls on three sides are carved with 31 sets of figures illustrating the many doctrinal threads woven into Zhao's brand of Buddhism.  Here, guarding the approach to the U-shaped line of carvings, are the Nine Protectors of the Law.

Li Lisheng (in Dazu shiku, Beijing, 1984) was perhaps the first student to interpret Baodingshan as a giant mandala, which is to say a visualization of a dharani, or incantation or sacred verse. Angela Falco Howard agreed with him and adds that the dozens of cliff sculptures in Dazu and neighboring Anyue County are stations on a pilgrimage that culminates at Baodingshan. 

The captions here rely heavily on her Summit of Treasures: Buddhist Cave Art of Dazu, China (2001).

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The smaller figures above them are their emanations.

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Along the path: a stone crow.

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The carvings quickly become dramatic, not to say terrifying.  Here, the demon Mara holds the Wheel of the Law in his teeth, as if to suggest that the world will not last.  The rays (each with roundels containing images of the Buddha) divide the wheel into six sectors arranged in concentric rings.  The innermost sector shows the six gadis or possible rebirths: as a celestial, a human, a ghost, a soul in hell, an animal, or a demigod.  The middle ring divides each destiny into the qualities, such as sorrow, ignorance, and desire, that influence the outcome of rebirth. The outermost ring shows creatures in containers.  They are part human and part animal and represent souls in the course of reincarnation.  The four figures at the base represent the human failings--greed, lust, wickedness, foolishness--that keep the wheel in motion.  The Vinaya Pitaka, or "basket of discipline" that guides monastic life, dictates the composition of such wheels, but this wheel is unique in at least one respect.  Normally, the Buddha appears at its center.  Here the central image is of Zhao Zhifeng, the site's self-promoting creator.

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In a dark room sits the thousand-handed Avolokitesvara, Guanyin in Chinese.  The story is that he was a bodhisattva who was given a dharani or mantra that allowed him to help people.  He then asked for, and received, a thousand hands and eyes to better exercise his gift.

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At the head of the box canyon is a giant representation of Sakyamuni Buddha entering Nirvana. Sakyamuni is the earthly form of Vairocana, the supreme Buddha.

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In front of him is a line of disciples, bodhisattvas, and officials in mourning.

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At the head of the line is the curly-headed Zhao Zhifeng, who faces the cult founder, Liu Benzun.

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To the left of the giant Buddha and starting down the other side of the canyon, the young Sakyamuni Buddha bathes in a pool filled by water flowing from a spring whose outlet has been carved into a giant water dragon or naga.

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Other nagas emerge from dense vegetation.

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The Mahamayuri Vidyaraja, or Great Peacock.  The goddess who rides the giant peacock was originally believed to possess a dharani that cured snakebite; later, members of the cult believed that her power insured prosperity.  She is sometimes called Buddha's Mother, which is why she appears here next to the bathing Buddha.

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The peacock on which she rides is badly worn.

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Zhao was as syncretic as he was self-aggrandizing.  One of the best ways for him to win adherents was to borrow from Confucianism.  Here's a good example: the Buddha Sakyamuni is the central figure, and the surrounding details portray the ways in which he showed kindness to his parents.  The episode at the lower left, for example, shows him carrying his father's casket, which, as he has just explained to his cousin Ananda and son Rahula, is his duty.

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Next to filial piety is a matching display of parents being kind to children.  At the center, a newlywed couple burns incense and asks the Buddha for children.  At the upper right, a mother lies on the wet side of her bed while putting her child on the dry side.  Again, Zhao Zhifeng puts himself in the picture, at the lower right.

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The cult incorporated aspects of Pure Land Buddhism, a sect in which the Buddha Amitabha (Sanskrit = "infinite light") rules a paradise called Sukhavati ("Pure Land"), which may be reached by constant repetition of his name.  Amitabha has several manifestations, including the historic Gotama Buddha and Avalokitesvara; in this particular case, he is manifested as Amitayus (Sanskrit: "Infinite Life") and represents longevity. The figures below the screen represent differing degrees of spiritual perfection. The highest degree is represented by the four central bodhisattvas, directly below Amitayus.

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Amitayus is at the upper left here; to his left (viewer's right) is the Buddha Mahasthamaprapta.  (Amatayus is said to rule the Pure Land with the assistance of both Mahasthamaprapta and Avalokitesvara, who is at the far left in this picture.)

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Paired with the preceding image of paradise is a graphic representation of sin and damnation.  Here, in the upper center, a woman is seduced, while her seducer is stabbed to death from below.  In the lower center, a man in hell has his knees broken.

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Two more versions of hell: one of freezing icicles and the other of a boiling cauldron.

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Ten kings of hell, with an assistant at their sides, consign victims to any of ten dreadful fates.  Three appear here.  On the left is the Hell of Excrement; in the middle, the Hell of Impalement; on the right, the Hell of the Iron Wheel.  Such fates await non-vegetarians.

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The next tableau celebrates the cult founder, Liu Benzun. He is represented by the largest image, and he is flanked by the Ten Austerities he performed on himself.  These austerities made him famous, even though orthodox Buddhism rejects such practices. Included among Liu's recorded achievements were comparatively minor self-mutilations such as cutting off an ear but also eye-gouging, burning the genitals, and removing his own heart. Self-mutilation was common enough that in 908, a year after Liu's death, monks were prohibited by royal order from gouging out their own eyes. 

Below Liu are his followers. Above him is a panoply of Buddhas, including the primal Vairocana, his emanations Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Akshobya, and Amoghasiddhi, and their emanations, the bodhisattvas Manjushri, Avolokitesvara, Samantabhadra, and Mahasthamaprapta. 

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Vairocana, the supreme Buddha and heavenly counterpart of Sakyamuni.  In an astonishing act of hubris, Zhao puts Liu Benzun at the top of Vairocana's crown, in effect equating the two.

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Finally comes a tableau devoid of advertisements for the cult leaders.  It's the allegory of the ox, in which the idea of a spiritual quest is translated into a rustic parable suitable for uneducated pilgrims.  On the right is episode three of the parable, in which an ox (minus his head) comes downhill toward his herder, who is standing under the wisdom of lotuses and brandishing a stick with which to beat the animal if it does not come. At the left is episode four, in which a storm threatens the ox, as the world of illusion threatens human beings.  The herder (with a large hat) pulls the ox to safety, but the ox is now compliant, as human beings must learn to be, before they are ready to begin their spiritual journey.

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By the fifth episode, the ox willingly follows his master, represented here by a couple.

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By the sixth episode, the ox drinks freely from the spring of wisdom. 

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