Water, Ice, Lapis Lazuli: The Making of a Buddhist Paradise through the Sixteen Meditations in Tang China

Anne Feng, University of Chicago

 

This paper provides new insights into the relationship between Buddhist meditation and images in medieval China by looking at 7th to 8th century illustrations of the Sixteen Meditations in Dunhuang caves. I demonstrate how these paintings provided new possibilities for depicting moments of metamorphosis pictorially. Drawing upon recent scholarship on Buddhist “visualization” in East Asia, I will trace how imagery of the Sixteen Meditations was introduced and appropriated at Dunhuang and address the perplexing iconography of these paintings. Working against previous studies that treat the Sixteen Meditations as a linear step-by-step sequence, in which the meditator focuses on a static visual object in each meditation, I argue that the visual phenomena described in meditation manuals were constantly in flux. This emphasis on moments of metamorphosis is frequently captured by illustrations of the meditation on water, which is an important threshold moment for the meditator to envision the Western Pure Land.  In many cases at Dunhuang, the representation of water itself functions as a framework that indicates another realm. Reading contemporary meditation guides and tales of rebirth, I will show how the iconography of the Sixteen Meditations could be creatively stretched and condensed. Such intricate manipulations will allow us to understand how Buddhist cave spaces were understood as sites of transformation.