May 20, 2013

Consider the Source: Why did Zen monks live in caves?

Andy Ferguson

While Zen monks did live in caves in part to find refuge from the elements, there’s more to the story than just avoiding thunderstorms—they were also hiding out from the government. Ancient Chinese kings were loath to let too many “home-leavers” skip out on paying taxes, serving in the army, growing food, or having children—the activities needed for a country to survive and for kings to live in style. The king viewed monks who claimed exemption from these activities just because they wanted to practice meditation as deadbeats or brigands. Monks who were caught were defrocked or worse.

So genuine Buddhist monks who wanted to leave the world could find no better place to do so than in a cave on a mountain somewhere where no king could find them. It was a home-leaver’s perfect home away from home, offering shelter in cold winters, concealment from the king, and a quiet place to meditate. But, of course, caves had certain drawbacks: they might be too far from water, for instance, or too far from believers who could offer dana for support. 

DunhuangIn this context, the ancient caves of Western China’s Dunhuang are particularly fascinating. There, meditating monks found natural caves situated near the treasure-laden caravans that traveled the Silk Road. Merchants coming from the Middle East and Europe, eager to get their goods safely to and from China, undoubtedly paid a handsome contribution for lucky blessings or protective charms that would defend them and their treasures against the next sandstorm.

This happy symbiosis between monks and merchants made Dunhuang a vital center of Buddhist activity, a key stop on the path where Buddhism entered China from southern Asia. In Dunhuang, monks in good circumstances had the time and energy to translate newly arriving Mahayana scriptures. Centuries before Buddhism flourished in Tibet or Zen took root in Japan, Dunhuang was the wellhead for Buddhism’s entry into Asia.

The kings of that time saw what was happening in Dunhuang and wanted to control this important activity. So the Northern Liang Dynasty emperor took over the caves and carved new statues of Maitreya Buddha inside of them—in the likeness of his own face! He wanted lay followers to equate the spiritual authority of Dunhuang with the king himself.

In any case, this icon-making activity continued for centuries, until Dunhuang became a staggeringly vast complex of caves filled with magnificent Buddhist icons, art, and translated scriptures. Then countless lay devotees and tourists came to pray and gawk, and the Zen monks had to go elsewhere if they wanted to meditate in peace.

—Andy Ferguson


This post is the first of author and scholar Andy Ferguson in our new “Consider the Source” series. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When drinking water, consider the source.” In the coming weeks, Ferguson will ask and answer seemingly simple (but in the end, profound) questions about the “source” of East Asian Buddhism, weaving a tale of both spiritual inspiration and political intrigue.

This fall, Tricycle will be traveling to the source itself, Dunhuang, in a special pilgrimage led by Ferguson and abbot of the Village Zendo Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Want to come with us? Click here for more information.


Dunhuang, from the website Cultural China.


Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Minette's picture

This article could have been much better.

First, the notion that monks were seen at this point in history as people who were "hiding out from the government" or escaping from being productive members of society sounds to me as either a Chinese Communist re-interpretation or a projection of Western ideology unto an ancient Asian culture. In my research, I have yet to see evidence to support this, (except perhaps during times when monarchs were not Buddhists and sought to repress or expel monks). The assertion that monks were seen as tax evaders by ancient kings runs counter to the historical fact that Chinese kings and high officials were themselves patrons of Buddhism and sought to build these vast monastic complexes and monuments as a means to gain merit.

Second, in "considering the source", we should first consider that the Dunhuang monks were following a tradition begun by the Buddha himself in his lifetime and a tradition that was well established in India before Buddhism spread throughout Asia. Siddhartha spent 6 years meditating in a cave about 12km northeast of Bodhgaya before achieving enlightenment. (Known as Dungeswari in India, Tibetan Buddhists refer to it as the Mahakala Cave.) Thus, those who sought to follow in the Buddha's footsteps venerated and emulated his activities, as students like us do to this day.

The practice of meditating in caves and the royal patronage of establishing cave monasteries was widespread throughout India by 2nd Century BC. The vast Ajanta and Ellora cave complexes are just two examples that were emulated in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afganistan, then throughout Southeast, East Asia and Tibet. By the time the Dunhuang caves, also known as Mogao Caves, were created 4-500 years later (366 CE), cave monasteries were an integral part of the Buddhist landscape. (See:

The Pali canon refers to meditation in a secluded place such as "the foot of a tree, in a forest or cave, on a mountain, in a cemetery, jungle, or in a peaceful and secluded open place" (from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's writings). The cultivation of solitude in living (kaya-vivekka), during short or long periods is understood as useful in separating from mental defilements.

While initially inhabited by hermits, the Dunhuang caves eventually became quite a busy spiritual community because of the traffic of commerce--and thus pilgrims and patrons--from the Silk Road. We can imagine that, far from hiding out in isolation, the monks there served the spiritual needs of travelers and merchants and were in turn supported by them. This is why the caves were eventually abandoned when the Silk Road was no longer in use. (See:

I am curious to know where Andy gets his perspective from. This article is somewhat simplistic, and misses an opportunity to share many fascinating aspects about cave monasteries. For example, in many caves monks did not have to bring water up to the caves. They engineered sophisticated systems for directing natural springs and rainwater across the rock surface and into reservoirs (a practice passed on from monks in India and Sri Lanka.) 

We must always be vigilant in what we read and write about the history of Buddhadharma.
And when we're in the business of producing knowledge, it is essential that we also "consider the source" for what we publish.

M. Mangahas
US Fulbright Fellow in Buddhist Art
Director of AKSHA

J Jason Graff's picture

Thanks for this first installment.

safwan's picture

This is a shamful historical account on the failure of Buddhism to spread to the suffering masses for many centuaries. It also shows the ego-based attitude of these monks sitting in isolation, while people were suffering. The article states that:"genuine Buddhist monks who wanted to leave the world..." is this statement really serious? Genuine Buddhist practitioners do not desire to "leave the world" - and without Shakyamuni's efforts to practice among the people there would have been no Buddhism today.

Practicing in caves, forests, or remote retreats was one of the reasons why women were virtually denied access to Buddhist practice, because women have their social responsibilities: families and constant care they offered around. Some Mahayana schools offered women to get the body of man after death to be able to practice Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra offered all people the possibility to attain Buddhahood in present form, but it could spread in society only after Nichiren (13 c Japan) estabilshed the mantra chanting of the Dharma (Myoho-Renge-Kyo) as the path for practice. Chanting can be performed everywhere, by anyone, regardless of age, gender, situation etc...

Probably that's why Nichiren teachings are practiced today all over the world by ordinary people, living and acting in society.

J Jason Graff's picture

I always question any "Buddhist" who sounds dogmatic. And why is it that those who follow Nichiren "buddhism" often sound dogmatic? I would suggest looking into what the Buddha actually taught, especially the admonishment against dogmatism, ritualism, believing things based on hearsay, or authority.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The sutras are written records of Shakyamuni's oral teachings, available to all of us Buddhists in the present age. Wouldn't the admonishments you refer to also be dogmatic?

J Jason Graff's picture

“And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views; uncertainty; attachment to rites, rituals, and ceremonies; sensual desire; and ill will.” Anguttara Nikaya 10.13

marginal person's picture

Interesting comment, JJason. Much opinion is posted on Trike and that's fine. It's when we mistake our opinions for facts that rigidity sets in and the chance for fruitful discussion is lost.
I'm not aware that the historical Buddha left behind any writings. This means all evidence of what he said is open to dispute.
I think if Gautama were alive today, he wouldn't be a Buddhist, but that is strictly my opinion

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni's teachings were committed to memory by his closest disciples, who in turn passed them along as oral tradition. These eventually were written down as the sutras, which are available to all Buddhists of the present age. What would you like to discuss, MP?

celticpassage's picture

I don't think there is any requirement for a Buddhist monk to shoulder social responsibility and so it is completely compatible with Buddhism. Where these requirements are normally to be found is in theistic religions.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In culture wars between self-interest groups it seems the common people are the usual victims. To be fair the Dunhuang monks appear to have been operating under the delusion that enlightenment meant escaping from reality, the reality of the time being monarchical subjugation.

J Jason Graff's picture

Surely you wouldn't have them do otherwise? To just accept "reality" and live under oppression? Because it appears "reality" is quite subjective and amenable to change.

Dominic Gomez's picture

After Shakyamuni awoke to the true reality of life the first thing he did was talk to people around him about it, not hide in a cave. He challenged the status quo of his time and place.