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  • Transmitting Buddhism to a Future Age:The Leiyin Cave at Fangshan and Cave-Temples with Stone Scriptures in Sixth-Century China
  • Sonya S. Lee


The Yunju, or Cloud Dwelling, Monastery of Fangshan boasts the largest holding of Buddhist scriptures in stone assembled in China. Located seventy-five kilometers southwest of Beijing, the site once housed some ten thousand stone slabs in a large underground structure at the southern pagoda and nearly five thousand among nine cave-chambers atop the nearby Shijing, or Stone Scriptures, Mountain (Fig. 1).1 This staggering number of inscribed (incised) texts was the product of an ambitious undertaking begun by the monk Jingwan sometime in the Daye reign (605–617) of the Sui dynasty, which was continued by five generations of his followers afterward and by the imperial regimes of Liao and Jin until the thirteenth century. Remarkably, despite changes in management, production method, and patronage over time, the basic purpose of the project remained more or less faithful to Jingwan's original intent, namely, carving the stone scriptures to preserve Buddhist teachings against the imminent annihilation of Buddhism. The underlying determination to transcend the end of the Dharma was first and most compellingly articulated in the kind of texts selected as well as the way in which these writings were preserved in the earliest phase of activity at Fangshan.

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Fig. 1.

Map of Fangshan and vicinity.

By author.

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Fig. 2.

Plan of the nine-cave chambers on Shijing Mountain, Fangshan, Beijing.

By author.

Of the many artifacts and structures initiated under the leadership of Jingwan in the early seventh century, the Leiyin, or Thunder Sound, Cave (No. 5 in Fig. 2) was without a doubt the centerpiece both conceptually and physically. As the first of the nine cave-chambers to be built, it was assigned a prominent position atop Shijing Mountain, and became the focal point around which later structures were to cluster. Most significantly, the Leiyin Cave was furnished with Buddhist relics, a set of nineteen inscribed texts, and other iconic [End Page 43] images that complemented the contents of the other caves completed not long afterward. There is every indication that all the early caves at Fangshan were intended to be sealed when filled up with stone scriptures, so that the scriptures would be preserved for the anticipated revival of Buddhism in the distant future.

Given its importance in Jingwan's enterprise, the Leiyin Cave has received considerable scholarly attention in the past century.2 Building on the works of Kiriya Seiichi and Lothar Ledderose, the present study examines the material configuration of Leiyin in relation to other early structures at Fangshan as well as to major cave-temple complexes in northeastern China of the sixth century.3 This twofold comparative analysis demonstrates that Jingwan's plan for Leiyin was unique both in function and design. The main difference lies in the cave's intended viewership, which professedly excluded the living and all generations of the age of mofa ("End of Dharma"). In promoting this interrupted mode of transmitting Buddhism to a future age, Fangshan marks not only a radical departure in contemporary practices of cave-temple architecture, but also one of the most unusual responses to the Buddhist prophecy of decline, which had profoundly impacted devotees in China throughout the medieval period.

Methodologically, the critical role that inscribed texts had assumed in realizing Jingwan's project at Fangshan necessitates a reconsideration of these writings in stone as material objects, to be analyzed in terms of their formal properties as well as in the thematic connection between different texts and in the mode of display that each exemplifies within a given spatial environment. The Leiyin Cave offers a particularly meaningful venue for analyses of this order. By subjecting stone scriptures (commonly referred to as kejing or shijing in Chinese) to the critical apparatus of art history, the present study calls attention to these artifacts as significant products of medieval Chinese visual culture. At the same time, it helps integrate art-historical method into the study of such a complex historical phenomenon as Buddhist eschatology, which has remained largely...


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