Explore the Art of Grotto, Experience the Life of Buddhism

BY GERALD GAO (staff writer)

The Buddha's light came down from the sky when I took this picture.

Introduction: Grottoes were originally a form of Buddhist architecture in India. Buddhism advocated seclusion from the world, so monks chose secluded places in the mountains to dig caves for their practices, they were seeking a result from their practices. Since Buddhism was introduced to China from ancient India during the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD), Chinese people have adopted the culture of building grottoes. For over two thousand years, people have used their wisdom to create delicate sculptures and paint marvelous frescos. Famous grottoes such as Yungang, Longmen, Mt. Maiji, and Mogao offer us a better understanding of Chinese culture and history. The article is written as a first person narrative. It describes my trip to Zhangye, Gansu Province, where I visited the Tongzi Grotto. Master Changding, a very close Buddhist master of mine, told me a story that happened in his childhood in the grotto, which inspired me to visit the real place. The original plan was to travel in March, 2020. However, the pandemic kept us in the US. After a long period of waiting, we finally went back to China on February 28th, 2021. I rearranged the whole plan and visited there on April 20th.

“An invasive wind with a ghostly noise smashed into my face. Up close was the impatient flame on a candle, but in the distance was endless darkness. I was sitting in meditation and could feel the characters that were painted on the stone wall talking to me. The statues in the grottoes brought me into a different world. The moon, semi-covered by the cloud, along with melodious bell rings, shone on my back. Although it was horrifying, the joy of sticking with the relics was far greater than the fear”

Master Changding gradually woke up from his narrative trance. However, I was not fully awake. Instead, I was wholly immersed in the grotto though I had not yet been there.

Only a few very famous and well-visited grottoes are recognized by people today. However, those that are not open, that are still hidden in the mountains, or that have not been excavated, may be even more spectacular and exquisite. My Buddhist master, Master Changding, lived in a temple called Tong Zi Temple in Zhangye City when he was a child. He recalled, “Here was an enormous mountain with many caves hidden behind the temple. It is the Tongzi Grotto. Though it is not officially open to tourists, the government does not restrict people from going inside.” Master Changding’s descriptions of the Tongzi Grotto brought about immense curiosity, and I pictured various possibilities of what the grotto could look like.

“It must be mysterious… it must be immemorial…”

The trip to Zhangye in April 2021 was planned for three goals: to experience the culture of the west of China, to explore the grottoes, and to use my experiences studying abroad to do a cultural exchange with local elementary school students.

The trip seemed like an ordinary one, but I had to be prepared for altitude sickness and the way of living as a Buddhist. The airplane arrived at Xining, since it is the nearest airport from Zhangye(张掖). For the next six hours I was in a car. I was not interested in the bustling city around me, so I started to fall asleep to music. When I opened my eyes again, there were no more restaurants and amusement centers. The car suddenly entered a calm and serene fairyland. Looking out from the windows, I saw wild and unruffled animals. Behind was the brown mountains winding on the ground, and I could smell the fresh air even though the windows were completely closed. The grassy prairie corresponded with the azure sky and aroused an ecstatic passion for the pastoral beauty inside me.

Passing through a long tunnel, I saw another fairyland. A thick layer of snow like a huge cotton-padded jacket wrapped up the mountain. Contrary to the previous fairyland I saw, this one was more barren and solemn. I started to feel dizzy because we reached an altitude of 3800 meters. The plastic-paper packing around a biscuit swelled as we climbed up. The drive in the mountain from Xining to Minle of Zhangyecity is about 270.9kms,168.23mi (approximately took 5 hours.) The pathway across the entire mountain was not built until the late 20th century.

Two thousand years ago, in the war with Xiongnu (an ancient army in Mongolia), the great Han general, Huo Qubing and his army traversed 7 times over the mountain called Da Ban Cheng that I was standing on. In 1934, the Red Army, led by Mao Zedong, "crossed snow-covered mountains and grasslands" in order to escape from their rival, the Chinese Nationalist Army. The “snow-covered mountains” refers to this mountain as well.

In the eras of Huo and Mao, there was no pathway, and people rode horses or walked by foot to cross the mountain. What kind of mentality and power pushed them to overcome those hardships? I got out of the car. A fierce wind blasted at me. The deep voice from the mountain grumbled and brought me back to the Han dynasty.

After crossing over the mountain, we finally arrived at the temple. Master Changding toured me around after a short rest. Unlike those tourist attractions, no tourist was in sight here. The meals in the temple were undoubtedly all vegetarian. There were also plenty of table manners one should observe, such as holding the bow as you eat, eating up all the food in the bowl, and absolutely no talking while eating. Although it was hard for me to adapt to all of them, I still did a fine job with Master Changding’s assistance. The food was also unique. The vegetables combined with sticky rice made of highland barley and Jasmine rice tasted like the rice cake I always eat on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

The lamp on the windowsill was burning dully, accompanied by the bells that Master Changding had mentioned in his story. Through the window, I could clearly see the mountain where the grotto was hidden inside. The cloud surrounded it, and the moonlight fell upon it. I eagerly leafed through the documents and books about the Tongzi Grotto. The frescos mainly depict Tibetan Buddhist bodhisattvas, the King Kong statues, and the stories from the famous novel, “Journey to the West” from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The grottoes may have been dated as early as the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (304-439).

Large-scale repainting was carried out in the middle and late Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The existing mural is of great value to study of the excavation of “Hexi” (name for the grottoes near Gansu) grottoes since the Sixteen Kingdoms (304-439), the spread of Buddhism, and the development of Tibetan Buddhism at Tongzi Temple in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Birds and a rooster woke me up early in the morning. Leisurely, I put on slippers. The wooden door creaked as I opened it. The sun shone on my face so that I initially blocked my squinting eyes. I was entirely awaked when I fixed my eyes on the mountain in the distance. I quickly got dressed and entered the mountain with masters.

“Woah!” I shouted in awe. There were many little caves with numerous frescos. Sadly nearly all of them were damaged by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The north wall of the Grotto is about 241cm long, and the south wall is about 237 cm long. There is a niche in the middle. It is 142 cm wide, 200cm high, and 54 cm deep. On the top and both sides of the niche were paintings of five stories from the novel, “Journey to the West.'' The niche was severely damaged. On the lower left side of the North wall, murals are peeled off, which help reveal different layers of murals. There are as many as five layers of the murals, each layer revealing the art of one dynasty. The paintings Buddha and Bodhisattva demonstrate the styles of various dynasties. In one of the murals revealed, a disciple stands on the West side, with a list in front of him, reading from top to bottom: “All Buddhists hold King Kong XXX before people…” Most of the words that appeared on the frescos were “moral” and “life.” Many characters are not recognizable because of the damages.

Master Changding pointed me to the place he mentioned in the story. I sat down, trying to imitate his pose and trying to have the same feelings as him.

Noticing my failure, Master Changding grinned. “Although you are here, your knowledge and feeling of the place is not enough yet.”

The Tongzi Grotto is a grotto without any protection and administration. It has been damaged by rain, wind, natural and man-made disasters for over thousands of years. People from different times and ethnic groups have left here their art which represents their style and culture. Many Buddhist masters have also attained enlightenment here.

Thousands of grottoes like this allow us to understand more about the rich and mysterious Chinese history and culture.


Ding, Detian. “甘肃省敏了先童子寺石窟内容总录." 3 Nov. 2016. PDF

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