Dunhuang as a Buddhist Center
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Buddhist masters from India and central Asia, passing through Dunhuang on their way to Chang'an, capital of China, would stop to meditate in the famous painted caves or consult manuscripts in the monastery's library. Dunhuang served as the ideal place for monks to learn Chinese language and culture before entering central China.
Starting in the late third century, Buddhist temples, gardens, pagodas and lecture halls were built to accomadate the growing and vibrant monastic communities.
Elaborate devotional ceremonies attracted Buddhist monks and worshippers from all over inner Asia. In the annual June festival, silk banners bearing Buddha images and sacred writings were hung from the cliff face and the fragrance of incense burning in the caves hung heavy in the air. (Whitfield, Cave Temples 22)
Regional dignitaries and government officials, important monks, wealthy merchants and associations of local people sponsored the construction of new caves. From 571 to 966 construction of the major caves and statues was almost continuous, including several giant statues of the Buddha.
Buddhism becomes Chinese
One of the most important early translator-monks of early Buddhism established his school at the Dunhuang monasteries. Dharmaraksha (266 308 CE) was born in China to parents from central Asia. He studied in a monastery under an Indian teacher and traveled throughout central Asia. As a result he learned Indian as well as several central Asian languages. He made the first Chinese translations of key Buddhist texts such as The Lotus Sutra and The Large Perfection of Wisdom.
Under Dharmaraksha's leadership, his disciples made a critical mass of Buddhist texts available to Chinese readers. With these translations available throughout China, Buddhism began to gain converts from all levels of Chinese society. His disciples went into China itself on missions, established monasteries and generally furthered the spread of Buddhism in China. (Robinson 105)
Printing speeds the spread of Buddhism
The production of printed works corresponds to the height of Buddhism's presence in China. In 751 a Chinese army was defeated in central Asia by Muslims, opening west China to the gradual influx of Islam. In 842-845 CE the Tang emperors of China issued a great proscription against Buddhist monasteries and monks, destroying 4600 monasteries and temples, sending more than 250,000 monks back to their homes and seizing much of the enormous wealth that had been accumalated by the Buddhist monasteries. Although Dunhuang was not particularly hard hit by these government measures, Chinese Buddhism itself never fully recovered. As a result, devotion and donation to the Dunhuang caves gradually declined; the last major cave building occuring in the late 900's.