What’s in a Cave? Insights from the Numata Lecture Series

Akiko Rogers  |  November 2, 2020

M.Div. and Chaplaincy Program candidate Rev Akiko Rogers reflects on this year’s Numata Lecture series. 

On Friday, October 23, 2020, Dr. Michelle C. Wang, delivered the second Fall 2020 Numata Lecture on “Sculpture, Time, and Materiality in a Buddhist Cave.” Dr. Wang’s presentation was an examination of how various materials found within the shrine caves, namely rock, clay, and stone, can help us to understand how successive generations of devotees to the caves at Maijishan, Gansu Province created, altered, and used the cave shrines. The primary focus of the lecture was on Cave 133, the largest of the Maijishan caves, which consisted of two parallel chambers connected by a large antechamber or entry space. The earliest material in the cave dated back to the Northern Wei dynasty, 4th-6th century CE, yet it also contained newer material and inscriptions dating up to the 17th century, showing that it was visited and altered many times over the centuries by devotees.

By Shizhao – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20431592

Dr. Wang’s presentation on materiality helped bring into focus how interdisciplinary approaches from archaeology, art history, and religious studies can come together in helping shed light on the cave’s history and utilization as a site of devotion and practice over many centuries. I found it fascinating to learn about the three materials of rock, clay, and stone, and how each provided insight to different times and purposes within the cave. For example, “rock” referred to the material of the mountain itself, from how the chambers were carved out and planned with niches for enshrining sculptures of primary Buddhas to how the chambers may have been used as possible temporary burial sites by comparing similarities and differences with other caves and niches at Maijishan. 

In contrast to the rock aspect of the cave, unfired clay was used for the Buddha statues and provided other insight to the offerings made by devotees to adorn the cave, including the use of the thousand Buddhas motif surrounding the major Buddha statues. During the lecture, Dr. Wang explained that the earliest clay sculptures did not have donor descriptions. However, later restorations and newer statues sometimes had inscriptions about the donor, including some inscriptions that noted which ritual a devotee had observed while visiting the cave. The third material that Dr. Wang spoke about was stone, referring to several stone stelae, large tablet-like slabs, that were found against the walls of the cave and were covered on one side with the thousand Buddhas motif. It was interesting that these stelae seemed to be out of place because they were made from stone and not clay or rock, yet, the design seemed to show some thought was put into them as the Buddhas were only on the outward facing side of the stelae and were of similar style to the clay relief. Also, like the inscriptions in the clay items, the inscriptions on the stelae were often made much later than the original etchings and showed the varied use of the cave by devotees over time.

I deeply appreciate Dr. Wang for taking this opportunity to share about the lived religious practices of 6th-17th century Buddhist devotees in this region of Gansu Province, as witnessed through art and materiality, and how different generations made use of the caves and its adornments over time. I’d also like to extend my gratitude to the Institute of Buddhist Studies for providing students and the broader community the opportunity to hear lectures from a variety of scholars through the Numata lecture series.