The Ritual Function of the Dunhuang Grottoes

UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies Colloquium with Robert Sharf (UC Berkeley)

Friday, April 29, 2005
3:00 PM - 4:30 PM
243 Royce Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Most scholars of Mogao cave complex (Dunhuang, China) assume that rock-cut caves were intended for monastic use; they commonly refer to particular caves as "vihara caves" (monastic residences), "dhyâna" or "chan caves" (caves intended for meditation practice), "visualization caves," "worship caves," and so on. These identifications are based primarily on their interpretation of architectural and iconographic features. But more often than not their architectural and iconographic analysis is predicated on assumptions concerning ritual function, a circular process that renders much of the work in the area speculative at best. There is, in the end, no direct evidence of monastic or ascetic practice at the grottoes. I will argue, on the basis of architectural, visual, and inscriptional evidence, that the caves functioned not as sites for formal monastic practice but rather as family or clan shrines--sanctuaries where the spirits of the dead could dwell forever in the presence of the buddhas, participate in pûjâ offerings, and generate merit for themselves and their living descendents.

Robert Sharf is D.H. Chen Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies, at UC Berkeley. He is author of Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise (2002), co-editor of Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context (2001), and is currently working on a book tentatively entitled How to Read a Zen Koan.

Cost : Free

Sponsor(s): Center for Buddhist Studies, Asia Institute

Center for Buddhist Studies • 11385 Bunche Hall • Box 951487 • Los Angeles, CA 90095-1487
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