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  • Buddhist Stone Sutras in China. Sichuan Province, Volume 5: Wofoyuan Section E-F ed. by Manuel Sassmann and Sun Hua
Manuel Sassmann and Sun Hua, editors. Buddhist Stone Sutras in China. Sichuan Province, Volume 5: Wofoyuan Section E-F. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag and Hangzhou: China Academy of Art Press, 2022. xi, 557 pp. Hardcover, €184,78, isbn 978-3-447-11268-0.

This volume in the magnificent series on Buddhist Stone Sutras in China is the fifth and final dealing with the Grove of the Reclining Buddha (Wofoyuan) in Sichuan Province. This grove is "hidden away in a small valley among the gently rolling, tree-studded hills at the heart of the Sichuan basin,"1 and with its some 341,000 characters chiseled into rock walls, the largest cave site in China. Volume 1 on Sichuan, published in 2014 (reviewed in CRI 20(3-4)) dealt with "Section G," the northernmost part of the complex; Volume 2,also published in 2014 (reviewed in CRI 20(3-4)), dealt with "Section A" and "Section B" to the southwest of the complex; Volume 3,published in 2016 (reviewed in CRI 22(2)), dealt with the central "Section C" of the complex; and Volume 4,published in 2018 (reviewed in CRI 25(2)), dealt with "Section D" to the north of "Section C." The present fifth volume on the Grove of the Reclining Buddha deals with the last two sections—"Section E" and "Section F" to the northeast of "Section D" and on the southern side of the Grove.

Although the two sections, E and F, that are the subject of the current volume have more caves—seven and nine respectively—than any of the preceding sections, they each only have a total of four walls that are engraved with sutra texts. The texts that are engraved are (parts of) the "Diamond Perfection of Wisdom Sutra" (Vajracchedikāprajnāpāramitā-sūtra; Jingang banre boluomi jing) and the "Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra" (*Mahāprajnāpāramitāhrdaya-sūtra; Banre boluomiduo xinjing) on two walls of cave 71 in "Section E," the "Synoptic Golden Light Sutra" (Hebu jin guangming jing) on two walls of cave 73 in "Section E," a continuation of the "Great ParinirvānaSutra" (Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra; Da banniepan jing) that was partly engraved in a cave of "Section D" on one wall of cave 83 of "Section F," and the "Sutra Spoken by Vimalakīrti" (Weimojie suo shuo jing) on three walls of cave 85 of "Section F." Of all these texts, the "Synoptic Golden Light Sutra," asynthetic version of the *Suvarṇa(pra)bhāsottama-sūtra, is unique in sutra caves in China.

On the walls in both Sections E and F are engraved colophons referring to the *Suvarna(pra)bhāsottama-sūtra. One of these colophons is dated 727 C.E., and the other one is dated 733 C.E. Sections E and F further contain a colophon that most likely has to be dated to the Tang dynasty, and a colophon dated to the Guangzheng era (938-965) of the Later Shu dynasty. This means [End Page 141] that the colophons found in the two sections discussed in the present volume date to the period in which the carving of the Wofoyuan project began in the Tang dynasty (618-907), the Later Shu dynasty (934-965) when repairs and additions were undertaken, and the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). They, as such, are a testament to the major periods of activity of this cave complex (pp. 26-27).

The sutra texts, called colophons, Buddhas carved in relief, among which are the Thousand Buddha pattern and the "Synoptic Golden Light Sutra" might be of particular significance (p. 40). Michael Radich states that "the space is thus hemmed about with Dharma and Buddhas in alternation, even implying an identity or complementarity between the two" (p. 89). Other carvings and dhāranīs, possibly date back to the tenth century (p. 38). Furthermore, engravings that resemble the paintings on silk banners from Dunhuang of the late ninth and tenth century can also be observed (p. 40). A stele dated 1103 C.E., where the name "Cloister of the Reclining Buddha" appears for the first time, who's purpose was "to establish and promulgate rules that were aimed at warding off further calamities of the kind that had recently befallen the monastery," can be interpreted as part of a "programme" that is the fundament of the Wofoyuan complex (p. 30). Michael Radich summarizes this "programme" as follows (pp. 87-89):

The Wofoyuan site is arguably structured around the monumental central sculpture of the reclining parinirvāna Buddha. This dominating, gigantic feature of the site obviously implies a central concern with the theme of the Buddha's parinirvāna, and his ongoing presence, accessibility, or efficacy in the world thereafter. This impression is strengthened by the significant place given to the *Mahāparinirvāna-mahāsūtra in the programme of scriptures carved at the site […] along with several other texts. […] This problematic is in turn obviously connected further to the theme of the nature of the various bodies ascribed to the Buddha, including their durability - a theme that includes relics, and the anthropomorphic bodies (perhaps as nairmānikakāya) central to much iconographic representation of Buddhas; but also, via the interpretation of dharmakāya as related to doctrine, to the notion that sutras, too, can be interpreted and engaged with as Buddhabodies, and thereby, to the 'cult of the text'. We see these themes […] in many of the other key texts carved at Wofoyuan. […]the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa is […] centrally concerned with conquest over bodily illness, and is an important source of dharmakāya doctrine. […] the dharmakāya is also important in the Vajracchedikā. […] the Lotus Sutra too, is one of the most central texts teaching the notion of the docetic parinirvāna and the Buddha's inordinately long lifespan. […] Another major theme at Wofoyuan is arguably the 'cult of the text' […] Dhāranīs arguably derive much of their power from their status as epitomes of the dharma, and are therefore also connected to the 'cult of the text'.[…] in Suv[arna(pra)bhāsottama-sūtra], too, we see concern with long lifespan, especially the lifespan of the Buddha […]; [End Page 142] interest in his bodies, including relics […], the dharmakāya-cum-vajrakāya […], or the trikāya doctrine […]; the docetic interpretation of the parinirvāna […]; the worship of the Buddhas, with a focus on their glorious bodies as a primary element of such worship […]; confession […] the bodhisattva path, understood as a quest to attain Buddha-bodies for oneself […], but also as a project to be achieved by the ritual technology of confession […], and in other senses […]; liturgy more generally […] Buddha names […]; and the 'cult of the text' […], including the celebration of the powers of dhāranīs.

By the early twelfth century, this "programme" appears to have included civil elements as well, as the stele of 1103 C.E., above mentioned, contains quotations from classical literature (Liji, Zhongyong, Yijing) and claims that the words of the Buddha and of the emperor complement one another. This may indicate a "rise of Confucian as opposed to Buddhist values in the eleventh century, even within Buddhist monasteries" (p. 33).

Similar to previous volumes, an important part of the work is dedicated to the presentation of the engraved texts, with, for this volume, Michael Radich's extensive study on the version of the *Suvarna(pra)bhāsottama-sūtra that is engraved in cave 73, in a comparison with other Chinese translations of this text, the Khitan version, and a Tibetan version (pp. 64-91).

The volume is complemented with a description of all caves in Sections E and F, photographs of the rubbings of the engraved texts, a table of selected variant characters, and a bibliography of consulted works.

When Michael Radich states that we should "consider whether similar themes" to the one that appears to be the fundament of the Wofoyuan, "are not part of a constellation of recurring notions characteristic of the engraving of sutras in caves more generally," he actually raises the question as to the overall rationale and motivation that underlies the carving of this and similar cave constructions (p. 89). It is thanks to works such as this magnificent series that we may hope to find an answer to this and related questions.

Bart Dessein

Bart Dessein (Ph.D. 1994) is full professor at the Ghent Centre for Buddhist Studies, Ghent University, Belgium. His field of research is Abhidharma studies, with a special focus on the formation of Buddhist schools.


1. Lothar Ledderose, "The Grove of the Reclining Buddha," in Lothar Ledderose and Sun Hua, eds., Buddhist Stone Sutras in China. Sichuan Province. Volume 1 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz and Hangzhou: China Academy of Art Press, 2014), p. 17.