Don’t eat meat! Don’t seduce your mother!

Recently, I’ve been working on a project in Dazu, which is located a couple of hours west of China’s largest city, Chongqing.  On my first visit there, our client was kind enough to organise a trip to see the area’s most famous attraction, the Dazu Rock Carvings.  This series of carvings, some up to 1200 years old, depict and are influenced by a number of different religious doctrines, including Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

There are supposed to be tens of thousands of carvings scattered throughout the hillsides around Dazu, and for many centuries, knowledge of, and access to, these carvings was limited.  But this remoteness was also their saviour, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when countless religious buildings and sites were razed.

New road connections, as well a recent UNESCO listing, will now bring thousands of people to the sites.   Having been hidden for so long, it will be fascinating to see how they are understood, and protected, in the future.

We visited the main site at Baoding Mountain, within which carvings line the edges of a U-shaped valley.

The Prowling Tiger guards the entry to the site and symbolises the danger inherent in undertaking one’s spiritual journey.  I sense that part of Prowling Tiger’s mouth has eroded, turning him into more of a benevolent-looking character.  Jolly, even.

The Cave of Full Enlightenment should not be taken literally.  It was so dark none of photos turned out, which was a shame because it had some very interesting stuff in it.

Past nine more guardians (Dharmapalas, humanoid things being carried by animals) is the Great Wheel of Reincarnation.  This great wheel, held in the teeth of a giant demon, symbolises the basic concept of karma, showing the endless reincarnation of higher and lower lifeforms.  Some of the lifeforms are a little odd, being constructed of different animals and wrapped in what looks like part of an earthworm.

The guy in the middle is possibly Zhao Zhifeng, a monk who created many of the carvings.  Around him are the six realms of reincarnation – those of gods, people, hungry ghosts, hell, animals and demigods – then, depictions of the cycles of life on earth.  There are also some pretty gruesome ideas about the dark side of living, such as a giant baby chewing on the head of a man.  Man, I hate when that happens!

The wheel is supported by four characters – an official, a solider, a woman and a monkey, who personify greed, evil, lust and foolishness.  Note to self: be highly suspicious of all officials, soldiers, women and monkeys.

Next up are the Three Worthies of Huayan, which stand about 7 metres high.

The tower being held up by this one alone is 2 metres high.

This carving shows the death of Shakyamuni.  Although 30 metres long, it only shows the upper part of his body.

In front are a procession of Boddhisattvas and other attendants.  Zhao Zhifeng is again depicted, on the left, along with Liu Benzun, an earlier spiritual leader.

And, just like a Tarantino film, we jump back in time to Shakyamuni’s birth and early childhood.  There is a large area devoted to “family values”, a very Confucian tradition likely adopted by the Buddhists when they came to China.  Shakyamuni’s parents are shown “bestowing kindness” to their son, including “forgetting the pain of childbirth” and “placing the child on the dry side, lying in the wet” after he has wet the bed (this is serious, I promise!).

In return, he enacts the same respect to them.  The above image represents a story of the family falling on hard times and running out of food.  Instead of killing and eating the mother (as the father suggests), Shakyamuni gouges out some of his arm flesh for everyone to feast on (again, this is totally serious – at least, it is what our tour guide told us)

Probably the most impressive part of the site is this massive carving of the many layers of heaven and hell.

The lower section shows the many and varied punishments available in hell, delivered by an army of fearsome monkey-men “hell wardens”.

People are being boiled in cauldrons, beaten and stabbed, thrown in vats of excrement and ground to pieces by heavy iron wheels.  Sins include eating meat, killing too many chickens, forcing other people to get drunk and seducing your own mother.  While I agree with the sentiment, the punishments do seem a little harsh.

Here is the chicken killer.

Above this orgy of sins sits Liu Benzun.  On either side of him are his officials and administrators, who occupy a higher level than the wardens.  And above him are representations of Liu’s Ten Austerities – acts of self-sacrifice that he undertaken, such as cutting out his right eye and burning off his genitals.  His small compensation is getting the big and colourful statue in the middle.

At the end of this section, there is a small area of unfinished carvings.  Work on the site, for some reason, must have ceased abruptly.  Even the grandest visions, underpinned by the most universal of ideas and principles, have their practical limit.





2 Responses to Don’t eat meat! Don’t seduce your mother!

  1. Amazing site, thanks for introducing me to this.

  2. Pingback: Figuring out the last year … « That Look Crayzy!

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