As we enter a temple's main hall, we may see on either side of us 18 odd-looking characters, nine to a side. With a little imagination, we can picture them listening to the Buddha teaching from the main altar.
And indeed, these 18 belong to a much larger group of shravakas or "hearers," a term that describes anyone who has taken refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the community of his followers). Let's start meeting them one by one in this episode of
These fellows are not just any old shravakas; they are the 18 Arhats (Chinese si ba luohan, Japanese ju hachi rakkan), enlightened disciples of the Buddha. Some temples, as we have already seen, may have 500 such characters, in their own hall; and occasionally these 18, too, may be in separate lodgings. But the main hall, in the presence of the Buddha, seems to be their proper place.
But who are they, exactly?
What, Exactly, is an Arhat?
An Arhat (this is Pali; the Sanskrit is arahant) is, in simplest terms, a follower of the Buddha who has attained her or his own Enlightenment. In Southern Buddhism, this was the Ideal. There is only one Buddha in any given Age, according to the Theravadans, and the best that anyone else could hope for is Arhatship. This is attained through intense meditation.
When we come to Mahayana Buddhism, a shift in the Ideal takes place: one should strive to become a Bodhisattva, for the benefit of all. (I discussed this in Episode 028.) In one scheme, portrayed in the Lankavatara Sutra, there are "Ten Stages on the Way to Bodhisattvahood." But there is a danger at Stage Six of becoming "enchanted by the bliss of the Samadhis" and thus "passing to Nirvana" without completing the Way--thus being always an Arhat, never a Bodhisattva.
However, both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism recognize that the Path of the Arhat is essential; even Bodhisattvas must go through these first six stages, cultivating Wisdom, before moving on to Stages Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten. So the Arhats have been a common motif in Chinese art from the earliest days.
And the 18 Arhats?
Some of the 18 Arhats at Ci'en Temple, Shenyang
The history of the 18 Arhats in Chinese art is tortuous, to say the least. The first paintings in China of groups of luohans (Arhats) involved only sixteen members; and even this was an increase from an original four!
An ancient tradition holds that the Buddha appointed four Arhats--the "Four Great Shravakas," namely, Mahakashyapa, Kundopadhaniya, Pindola, and Rahula--to remain in the world and not achieve final Nirvana until the arrival of Maitreya, the next Buddha (the one often called "The Laughing Buddha"; see Episode 003). They were to guard the Dharma (much like the Temple Guardians we met in Episode 027). The list was later expanded to sixteen, eliminating Mahakasyapa and Kundopadhaniya, but retaining Pindola and Rahula as well as fourteen other, unnamed, Arhats. These were subsequently identified in an Indian text translated in 654 CE by the great monk, traveler, and scholar Xuanzang. This gave the Arhats the names that are still mostly used today.
Okay, so now we're up to sixteen. In fact, sets of sixteen can still be found, especially in Tibet and Japan. But where did the other two come from? They're late additions, which might explain why they keep changing names! Whatever the name, though, these two have consistent attributes: they are always "[Someone] with a Dragon" and "[Someone] with a Tiger." Sometimes they are "taming" or "subduing" the beast, sometimes "riding" it, but they are virtually always in its company. (Some have seen in them a "Buddhist answer" to the Daoist imagery of the Dragon and the Tiger representing Yang and Yin.)
Still, why did the artists expand to the number 18 in particular? There is no one answer, but there have been many suggestions. One of the most interesting came from nineteenth-century scholar and traveler T. Watters. He suggests that the number 18 came from a political model: In the year 621 Emperor Taizong selected 18 Imperial Scholars who came to be known as the "18 Cabinet Ministers." Watters suggests that this may have stimulated the artists to "enhance" the number. The 18 Cabinet Ministers served in groups of three; the Arhats are often portrayed in groups of three. Portraits were made of the 18 Cabinet Ministers, with brief biographies appended; the same was done for the Arhats. And so on.
Others have suggested that the number 18 reflects Daoist influence, it being two nines, and nine being auspicious as three threes; many important numbers in Chinese lore are multiples of nine, such as 72, 108, 180, and 360.
Aside from the addition of these two Arhats, there are also minor confusions within the main sixteen: for example, sometimes it is Asita riding a deer, and sometimes Pindola. A tradition that developed across a wide area in pre-modern times is bound to exhibit some variation; it's a wonder it's as consistent as it is. But there's a good reason for this.
The standard images we see of the Arhats today are based on a dream. In the year 891, a monk named Guan Xiu dreamed that the Arhats revealed their true appearance, and asked him to paint them. Centuries later, the Emperor Qianlong visited these portraits at Shengyin Temple in Hangzhou, and was so impressed that he ordered them to be reproduced and distributed to other temples. (Good thing, as the originals were later destroyed.) That may be one reason there's such consistency from place to place.
The group of Arhats is often called "The Assembly at Vulture Peak." The Mahayana tradition teaches that the Buddha often met on Mount Gridhrakrta in central India--the peak of which is shaped like a vulture's head--with an astonishing assembly of natural and supernatural beings: "monks and Arhats, Bodhisattvas of foreign lands, incalculable numbers of gods, dragons, yakshas, asuras, and other sentient beings." Here he would deliver his sermons, later to become sutras. So the Arhats were key attendants of the Buddha's teachings, and only later came to be seen as guardians.
As with the Christian apostles, some Arhats have extensive legends, and some have only minor ones. Below I will share brief stories about each one, concentrating on details based on the usual iconography. I have also offered an "Intention" for each Arhat, to help focus our thoughts a bit more devotionally. The order here follows the traditional one, and the iconography used is the one most commonly seen; be aware, however, that when visiting a temple you may very well see others. (Note: In Chinese, each Arhat also has a name that is simply a transliteration, an imitation of the sound of the Sanskrit name rendered into Chinese characters. I have chosen to forego these here.)
We'll just meet the first eight in this Episode, and save the other ten for next time.
Meet the Arhats, 1 through 8
Key to the captions: (a) Xia Huayan Temple, Datong; (b) Fuyan Temple, Hengshan; (c) Kaiyuan Temple, Chaozhou.
1. Pindola Bharadvaja (a); 2. Kanaka Vatsa (c)
1. Pindola Bharadvaja (or Pindola the Bharadvaja), called in Chinese Changmei Luohan, or "The Arhat with the Long Eyebrows."
Note: Pindola is his name; he is usually called "the Bharadvaja" because one of the candidates for inclusion as a 17th or 18th Arhat is another Pindola.
The eyebrows make this old fellow one of the easiest of the Arhats to spot. They represent longevity, which translates to seniority, so he is often considered the Arhats' leader.
One story says that Changmei was a monk in a previous life who, try as he might, could not attain enlightenment. He wouldn't give up, and lived to an extreme age--and his eyebrows grew to extraordinary lengths. (A variation says that he strove for so long that eventually, all that was left was those eyebrows!) After death, he was reborn as an otherwise-normal baby--with the same eyebrows! In that life, at long last, he became an Arhat.
As Binzuru, he is often seen alone at Japanese temples, without the eyebrows but with wide, scary eyes. If present at all, he is usually found outside near the front door of the main hall. People will often rub some part of his body for healing.
Remember, he's sometimes confused with Asita (#15, whom we'll meet in the next Episode).
Intention: O Pindola, as your great age symbolizes your leadership of the 18 Arhats, may I, too, as I grow older, develop the Wisdom to gain Enlightenment.
2. Kanaka Vatsa (or Kanaka the Vatsa), called in Chinese Xiqing Luohan, or "The Festive Arhat."
Note: Kanaka is his name; he is usually called "the Vatsa" because of the other Kanaka, #3, called the Bharadvaja.
Kanaka Vatsa is portrayed with various expressions of joy, such as dancing, clanging cymbals, or just letting out a big ol' belly laugh. When seekers asked what happiness was, he would say it came from the five senses; but when asked about Bliss he said it came, not from the outside, but from the inside. Not being subject to changes on the outside, it could then be sustained indefinitely.
Incidentally, I have sometimes seen the figure of Kanaka Vatsa--with a wide-open laugh and arms raised--identified as Cudapanthaka (#16, in the next Episode) perhaps because the whisk on his hand seems like a duster, and the raised hands appear to be a "warding off" gesture for protecting a door. Such was the case in the first temple where I worked.
Intention: O Kanaka Vatsa, you have found inner Joy through the Dharma; may I, too, achieve such Bliss.
3. Kanaka Bharadvaja (c); 4. Subinda (a)
3. Kanaka Bharadvaja (or Kanaka the Bharadvaja), called in Chinese Jubo Luohan, or "The Arhat with the Raised Alms Bowl."
Note: Kanaka is his name; he is usually called "the Bharavadja " because of the other Kanaka, #2, called the Vatsa.
The monk's bowl--used both for begging and for eating--was one of the very few possessions allowed a monk in ancient times. In the earliest days of the sangha, there was no system of temples and donors, so the monk would take his bowl out and beg for food.
Kanaka Bharadvaja is known for raising the alms bowl used for receiving donations. Raising his eyes without shame and looking the giver in the eye runs contrary to proper mendicant etiquette!
He is often seen with one foot in the air, as though dancing with joy, representing one who can receive gifts graciously.
Today in China, the bowl is largely symbolic; even in the early days it could be a symbol, as the bowl which Bodhidharma washed at Guangxiao Temple in Guangzhou (said to be the same bowl the Buddha used) was later passed along to Huineng as a sign of his authority. (This was discussed in Episode 038.)
Intention: O Kanaka Bharadvaja, you accept alms from all; may I, too, learn to graciously recognize giving and receiving as signs of the interdependence of all beings.
4. Subinda (or Nandimitra), called in Chinese Tuota Luohan, or "The Raised Pagoda Arhat."
Tradition says Subinda was the last disciple to meet the Buddha before the Blessed One "achieved Final Nirvana" (died). As the pagoda often represents the remains of the Buddha's body, the legend says that Subinda carried the pagoda to remind himself of the Buddha's earthly presence--this may be because Subinda was near when he passed.
Subinda may also be seen, in some temples, snapping his fingers, alluding to how quickly enlightenment may take place. This may also indicate the impermanence of things: he had just met the Buddha, and then he was gone!
Intention: O Subinda, you knew the Buddha for only a short time, but cherished his memory all your life by carrying a pagoda; may I, too, never forget the Buddha and his teachings.
5. Nakula (c); 6. Bhadra (b)
5. Nakula (or Vakula), called in Chinese Jingzuo Luohan, or "The Silently Seated Arhat."
It is said that Nakula was once a warrior with immense strength; the discipline developed in the martial training of his former life led to an ability to remain seated and focused for long periods as a monk. But even in meditation, he exuded strength. He is sometimes portrayed holding beads, with a small boy by his side. Other portrayals show him with a mongoose, or a three-toed frog, perhaps due to associations with other folk figures.
Intention: O Nakula, you sit silently in meditation; may I also develop strength through stillness and listening to my inner voice.
6. Bhadra (or sometimes identified as Bodhidharma, first patriarch of Chinese Chan), called in Chinese Guojiang Luohan, or "The Arhat Crossing a River."
Little is known of Bhadra, but much can be said about the symbolism of "crossing the river." It is widely used for attainment of "the other side," symbolizing some exalted spiritual state. The Bible shows people "crossing the River Jordan" after their emancipation from Egypt; Caesar "crossed the Rubicon," committing himself to a rebellion (and thus a new life); and the chicken crossed the road simply to get to the other side.
"Crossing over," then, is a goal in itself. Some religions put a bridge in the image of crossing over: the Roman Catholic Pope is called the "Supreme Pontiff," meaning bridge-builder. In India's Jain religion, leaders are called "Tirthankara," meaning ford-maker. Interestingly, England's two major universities have a bridge and a ford in their names!
Bhadra may be seen holding a book, accompanied by a tiger, or, often, with the ringed staff or the "bindle" typical of a wayfarer.
Intention: O Bhadra, you have crossed the river and transcended the ocean of suffering; may I, too, cross over from Samsara to Nirvana.
7. Kalika (c); 8. Vajraputra (a)
7. Kalika, called in Chinese Qixiang Luohan, or "The Elephant Riding Arhat."
Kalika often appears riding an elephant; but he may also be seen cleaning up dust. Both images refer to cleaning the mind. As we've said when discussing Samantabhadra Bodhisattva in Episode 046, a tame mind, like a tame elephant, is useful; but if either is wild, it can be dangerous!
Whatever process one is engaged in--cleaning dust, taming an elephant, or controlling the mind--one needs patience, concentration, and diligence.
Intention: O Kalika, you have tamed the elephant and cleaned the dust from the mirror; may I, too, learn to see things as they really are.
8. Vajraputra, called in Chinese Xiaoshi Luohan, or "The Laughing Lion Arhat," but also "The Persuading Arhat." (What's the connection? Well, who is more persuasive than a lion tamer?)
A little lion is often shown at Vajraputra's side--or in his lap! It was tamed by this master of persuasion; it was he, they say, who convinced the Buddha's cousin and assistant Ananda that both practice and understanding were necessary to achieve Wisdom. He was a lion-killer before becoming a monk, and was later joined by the cub, who seemed grateful that he had given up his former profession. When he appears in the guise of "The Persuading Arhat," he's much harder to identify!
Intention: O Vajraputra, as you persuaded Venerable Ananda to balance Learning and Practice, may I be persuaded of the virtues of a balanced life.
I hope you've enjoyed meeting my buddies so far! We'll get to the other ten in the next episode.
Until then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.
Just one question this time, with several parts: Which of the Arhats' stories do you find most interesting? Most instructive? Most outrageous? And so on…
Subscribers: Although I have enabled comments for this post here on Substack, there's still a "Secret Group" on Facebook where your questions and comments can get more personal attention. If you're not already a member, let me know and we'll figure out how to loop you in! (Of course, if you don't use Facebook--sorry!) Oh, and Non-subscribers? Join the club!
Listen to the audio version of this post at Archive.org.
You may unsubscribe to Temple Tales at any time by simply replying to this Newsletter and writing "Unsubscribe." You will receive one more letter as confirmation.
If you have any problems reading the Newsletter or accessing the Podcast, please write to me at TheTempleGuy@GMail.com, and I'll help you in any way I can!
In the next episode: We'll meet the remaining ten of the 18 Arhats. More thrills in store!