One day, a Buddhist monk named Le Zun was on his way to the Western Paradise. He had been told that only those travelers who drank from the spring waters at Sanwei Mountain would be able to cross the Gobi Desert that lay ahead. So Le Zun turned his donkey towards Sanwei Mountain. After several days of struggling through the dense forest, he came to the Great Spring Valley and a source of sweet, refreshing spring water. Le Zun drank deeply. His thirst quenched, Le Zun sat on the sandy river bank to rest and admire the sunset on Sanwei Mountain.

Suddenly, the light turned iridescent and the mountain glistened like blue satin. A giant Maitreya Buddha vision appeared surrounded by an aura of golden rays. Emerging from this radiance were thousands of smiling, laughing and sweetly singing Buddhas. Myriad flying nymphs produced music from various instruments as they danced in the golden light. Le Zun gazed in awe at the golden vision until it faded. He thought of the hardships and suffering he had endured while seeking the Pure Land of the West. Surely he had found the Pure Land here at Sanwei Mountain! Inspired, Le Zun decided he would travel no further in search of the Western Paradise. He would remain on the mountain and establish a place for the worship of the Buddha. Le Zun had learned the skills of painting and sculpting as a youth. He vowed to carve a figure of the Buddha and paint the hosts of attendant spirits.

On the first day he carved a cave in the cliff face. On the second day, he made a mud mixture and plastered the walls of the cave to make them smooth and glossy. On the third day he began to paint a mural. Le Zun faithfully reproduced the vision he had seen at sunset. He painted the jeweled palace in the fairy hills, the flying nymphs and all the Buddhas. When he was finished, Le Zun traveled across the Dunhuang area telling everyone the story of his vision of the golden light of the Buddha.

While Le Zun traversed the countryside, another Buddhist monk, Fa Liang, arrived at the base of Sanwei Mountain. Fa Liang also saw the vision of the Buddha. The golden glow from the Great Buddha filled the sky, shining on the statues and murals Le Zun had created in the grotto. Fa Liang was filled with awe by the vision and marveled at the wondrous depictions of the Buddha the other monk had created. Removing his monk's robes, Fa Liang excavated a second niche in the cave hollowed out by Le Zun and filled its walls with glorious images of the Buddha.

Many people followed Le Zun back to the grotto to see the statues of the Buddha and the murals he had painted. Everyone was very impressed by what he had done and what he said.

Tales of the Buddhist caves at Sanwei Mountain spread far and wide. Where once the area was quiet and peaceful, it now bustled with joyful noise and excitement. People of every station and from all four prefectures of Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan and Dunhuang came to the cliffs. There were aristocrats, government officials, rich merchants and commoners and a steady stream of Buddhists pilgrims, painters, stone masons and carpenters. They all came to help construct more caves.

From north to south along the whole cliff face, the air rang with the sounds of hammers and voices as layer upon layer of the sandstone was excavated. Over the next 1,000 years, hundreds of caves were carved out of the steep sandstone cliffs. For generations, pious women and men have continued to journey to the banks of the Great Spring at the foot of Sanwei and Singing Sands mountains to excavate and repair the grottoes at Mogao which, since Le Zun's vision, have become known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas

According to a Tang inscription, the Buddhist monk Le Zun, was inspired to create the first cave to house his vision of the Thousand Buddhas in the year 366. During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty, 618-907, the number of grottoes was increased to over 1,000.

"The Origins of the Mogao Grottoes" from Frescoes and Fables, translated by Li Guishan. Beijing, China: New World Press, 2000