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Buddhist Library Cave
Daoist Abbot Wang Yuan Lu (1849-1931)
This English translation is drawn (with photographs) from the original Chinese language text entitled ‘藏經洞’ (Cang Jing Dong), or ‘Buddhist Library Cave’, and which concerns Wang Yuan Lu. He was a simple Daoist monk who had wandered into the Dun Huang Buddhist area and made it his home. This was at a time when no other governmental or religious establishment took any notice of the vast cave-like areas of this once thriving Chinese Buddhist outpost in Gansu province. Under his own initiative, Wang Yuan Lu organised maintenance and repairs in the area, as well as cleaning. Indeed, it was during one of these cleaning projects that the door to a cave that had been sealed for nearly a thousand years was discovered by Wang Yuan Lu. In it was a time capsule and treasure trove of Buddhist literature, art, and statue making. On his own, Wang Yuan Lu did his best to protect the site, but received no official recognition or help in the process. Then, in 1907, the British archaeologist Aurel Stein – representing the British Museum – came to the area and persuaded Wang that for a few of the cave texts, Wang would receive £130 which could be used as funds to repair and preserve the Buddhist Library Cave and surrounding area. Wang agreed to this and Stein gathered the old texts and left. Wang received nothing for his trust. A year later, the Frenchman Paul Pelliot made a similar offer of 6000 pieces of silver for a very large selection, but Wang only received 520 pieces of silver. In Western narratives provided by both Stein and Pelliot, Wang Yuan Lu is treated with what can only be described as ‘racist’ contempt by two representatives of Western imperialism who lied and cheated their way to stealing very important historical (and spiritual) Chinese texts. It is clear that Wang Yuan Lu is the true hero of Dun Huang.
During the Guang Xu reign of the Qing Dynasty, a Daoist priest (道士 – Dao Shi) named Wang Yuan Lu (who was originally from Hubei), wandered into the area and decided to settle. He practiced his Daoist activities in the temples of the Mo Gao Caves (莫高窟 – Mo Gao Ku), but was surprised to discover in the north wall of the 16th cave, the doorway to the ‘Buddhist Library Cave’(藏經洞 – Cang Jing Dong).
During the 5th lunar month of the 26th year of the Guang Xu reign of the Qing Dynasty (1900), Wang Yuan Lu (王圓籙) and his assistants organised the cleaning of sand in the passageway of cave number 16.
He discovered that there were deep cracks in the north wall, and on the morning of the 26th day of the
5th lunar month, he decided to cut open the cracks and discovered that there was a small doorway
which had been covered over with brickwork. The brickwork was cleared away and behind was revealed a room that was full of all kinds of bundles each individually wrapped in white cloth. These bundles were scrolls of all kinds of very old written and printed scriptures. Together there were approximately 50,000 documents with 90% of these texts being Buddhist sutras, with the other 10% comprising of ancient books, historical documents, philosophy, literature, official and private archives, as well as texts written in ethnic minority languages. There were also various silk scrolls containing Buddhist images, as well as other paintings. There were Buddhist banners, and various statues made from copper and wood.
The cave complex was once controlled by the monks He Xi (河西) area of Gansu province, and the last master appears to have been Hong Bian (洪辨). After master Hong Bian died, his disciples commemorated his memory by having a sculpture made of him which was then later found hidden away in the caves. Early in the 11th century the Buddhist Library Cave was closed for reasons unknown. Historical research has failed to reveal any credible reasons for the closure of the cave and its existence remains a mystery.
In the spring of 1908, the Frenchman Paul Pelliot came to the Mo Gao Caves at Dun Huang. He entered into negotiations with the Daoist priest Wang Yuan Lu, and on the 3rdday of the 3rd lunar month, Wang Yuan Lu finally agreed to take Pelliot to the Buddhist Library Cave and look through the collection. He spent around two weeks gathering the best scriptures to take out of China. Pelliot initially offered 6000 pieces of silver for what he took, but in the end cheated Wang Yuan Lu by only giving him just 520 pieces of silver.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2013.