Explore highlights
Illustration to the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra, ink and colours on silk


Height: 140.000 cm
Width: 115.500 cm

Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein

Asia OA 1919,1-1,0.57


    Illustration to the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra, ink and colours on silk

    From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
    Tang dynasty, late 8th century AD

    Representation of a popular sutra

    Vimalakirti, the hero of the Vimalakirtinirdesha sutra, is a sage who though has a family and lives in a house in the town of Vaishali, manages to defeat the bodhisattvas in a debate about non-duality. Although written in India, the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra became especially popular in China, because filial piety - whereby sons would continue the family line and worship the ancestors - was very important, and thus the requirement of Buddhist monastic life to abandon one's family and ancestors and not produce heirs was seen as particularly difficult. Vimalakirti was an attractive figure, because though a bodhisattva, he continued to live among his family and ordinary people.

    He is shown on the left side of this painting in a box-like curtained Chinese bed, indicating that he was sick and expected visitors. The Buddha Shakyamuni, who was preaching nearby, asked his disciples and many of the bodhisattvas each to visit Vimalakirti in turn, but they were reluctant, because they had previously been defeated by his wit.

    Vimalakirti is shown here, typically, as a sage waving a fan to emphasise the main points of his argument. His main visitor is Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who is also shown on the back of a sketch (see Related Objects). Another bodhisattva brings a miraculous bowl of rice that never emptied and was enough for all. On the left are the white disk of the moon and the red disk of the sun either side of a cosmological mountain rising from Vimalakirti's hand, who was able to show the concept of the relativity of space and time by calling up other universes from within his room.

    Also visible in the foreground are a Tibetan ruler on the left and a Chinese emperor on the right. The presence of the Tibetan ruler suggests a date for the painting to the period of the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang (AD 781-847).

    R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-2, vol. 1 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)


    Browse or search over 4,000 highlights from the Museum collection

    Shop Online

    The discoveries of hidden caves along the Silk Road, £18.99

    The discoveries of hidden caves along the Silk Road, £18.99