Ep. 058: Meet the 18 Arhats, Part II

The remainder of the Buddha's "hearers"

Last time we learned the background of those wacky characters known as the 18 Arhats, and met the first eight of them. We'll meet the remaining ten in this episode of

TEMPLE TALES!

(If you haven't already, it's really worth your time to go back and read Episode 057.)

Three of the 18 cartoonish Arhats painted on tile in the Main Hall of Dafo Temple, Guangzhou.

The 18 Arhats, enlightened disciples of the Buddha, are often found on either side of the Buddha hall in a temple--as though listening to him teach from the main altar.

Episode 028 discusses the Theravadan "Arhat Ideal" as opposed to that of the Bodhisattva in the Mahayana. Nevertheless, the Arhat is still revered in Mahayana tradition, and their figures are found singly, or in groups of 16, 18, or 500 (!) in many temples in East Asia.

In the last Episode, we met the first eight; it is now my pleasure to introduce to you the remaining ten of this quirky little group of 18. Remember, these descriptions focus on the usual iconography; if you visit a temple, what you see there may not quite match up.


Meet the Arhats, 9 through 18

Key to the captions: (a) Xia Huayan Temple, Datong; (b) Fuyan Temple, Hengshan; (c) Kaiyuan Temple, Chaozhou; (d) Xichan Temple, Fuzhou.
9. Jivaka (d); 10. Panthaka (b)
  • 9. Jivaka (or Gobaka), called in Chinese Kaixin Luohan, or "The Open Heart (or 'Heart Exposing') Arhat."

One of the most notable of all the Arhats is an odd-looking fellow who seems to have another figure emerging from his chest! Jivaka's story goes like this:

In an ancient Indian kingdom, Jivaka was the crown prince, heir to the throne. But having heard the teaching of the Buddha, he decided that to be a monk would be a higher calling than being king.

So he went to his younger brother and declared his intentions. "My brother," he said, "I will leave the throne to you, and pursue the wandering life of a monk."

His brother, however, did not trust him. "It's a trick!" he said. "One day you will return with an army and take the kingdom back. It would be better for me if I eliminated you at once!" And with that, he picked up a sword.

"Wait, brother, wait!" cried Jivaka. "My intentions are pure. I have the Buddha in my heart."

"Mere words!" his brother replied. "Everyone claims to have the Buddha in his heart. But how can you prove it?"

So, opening his garments, Jivaka revealed the face of a Buddha on his chest and commanded, "Just look!"

Intention: O Jivaka, as your heart is open to the words of the Buddha, may I also open my heart to Wisdom.

  • 10. Panthaka (or Panthaka the Elder), called in Chinese Tanshou Luohan, or "The Arhat with Raised Hands."

Panthaka's name, like his younger brother's (#16), means "born on the road," and legend says that both of the brothers were born while their mother was traveling. Others believe the name signifies that they are "on the path" of Buddhism. He's shown with his hands raised above his head because he's yawning and stretching, having just emerged from a long meditation!

Intention: O Panthaka, you sought Wisdom through meditation; may I, too, reach for the highest.

11. Rahula (c); 12. Nagasena (a)
  • 11. Rahula, called in Chinese Chensai Luohan, or "The Contemplating Arhat."

A gentle young monk is seated quietly in rapt concentration, head resting on his hand, elbow resting on his raised knee. This is Rahula, only son of the historic Buddha.

The young prince Siddhartha Gautama had become increasingly dissatisfied with his life in the palace, even though his father the King had shielded him from all unpleasantness. Traveling outside, however, he was exposed to three disturbing sights: an old man, a sick man, and a dead man.

He then encountered a wandering ascetic, who represented a way out of the round of that suffering which is caused by (as the Chinese have it) "Sheng Lao Bing Si"--Birth, Old Age, Sickness, and Death.

Returning home from seeing this monk, the Prince sat in the garden thinking. Suddenly, a servant came running with news: the Prince's wife had just given birth to a baby boy! Hearing this, Siddhartha murmured, "...an obstacle …a fetter "--meaning something that would tie him to the householder's life. The servant thought these words were instructions for the child's name, and so the boy became "Rahula," meaning "fetter" or "obstacle."

By the time Rahula came of age, the Prince had become the Buddha. At his mother's urging, the boy approached his father and asked for his birthright: that is, the crown. The Buddha replied that he could grant that, or he could give him something of much more value: the knowledge of the way to enlightenment.

The boy accepted this higher prize, and through diligent practice, became the youngest of all the Arhats--as indicated by his gentle appearance.

Intention: O Rahula, you learned the Path to Enlightenment from your own father; may I, too, gain Wisdom from my parents, teachers, and other elders.

  • 12. Nagasena, called in Chinese Wa'er Luohan, or "The Ear Cleaning Arhat."

Nagasena means "Dragon Army" (so he is also called Long Jun in Chinese). He was considered to be a great teacher, and some think he was the speaker in the famous Buddhist book The Questions of King Milinda, in which he answers a king's questions regarding the Buddha's teaching.

So why is he cleaning his ear in almost every representation? Well, naturally, the only way to become a great teacher was to be a very good listener when the Buddha spoke! Remember, all of the Buddha's disciples are called shravakas or hearers, and Wa'er was among the best.

Intention: O Nagasena, you clean your ears to ensure proper hearing of the Dharma; let me also be ever-attentive to the teachings, that I may gain Wisdom such as yours.

13. Angida (a); 14. Vanavasa (b)
  • 13. Angida (or Angaja), called in Chinese Budai Luohan, or "The Arhat with a Cloth Sack."

Most temple visitors will know that the fat, jolly figure in the first hall is Mi'le Fo or Maitreya, and that he is the Buddha-to-be, the next in the succession of Buddhas to come in compassion to teach. He has a big belly, a big smile, and a big bag next to him.

They may be confused, then, to see him again among the Arhats in the Main Hall (or sometimes in a separate hall dedicated to the Arhats)--though he's not always shown as fat. This is not Mi'le Fo. This is Angida who, because of the sack, may also be called Budai Luohan, or "Cloth Sack Arhat."

Tradition says he was a snake catcher in India. As an act of compassion, he would capture poisonous snakes, defang them, and release them again so they could not harm the populace.

The sack he carries functions a bit differently from the one carried by Mi'le: Mi'le brings good things out of his stack, but Angida takes away bad things in his.

Depictions of him vary: he is sometimes rotund like Mi'le Fo, but can in fact appear with almost any physique.

Intention: O Angida, you caught snakes in your sack and removed their power to harm; may I, too, labor to eradicate evil wherever I find it, and turn it to good.

  • 14. Vanavasa (or Vanavasin), called in Chinese Bajiao Luohan, or "The Banana Arhat."

Vanavasa is generally depicted as a very old man seated on a banana leaf.

Several stories account for the connection between Vanavasa and bananas, which get him the nickname "The Banana Arhat." One says he was born under a banana tree. Another says when he was born, there was a heavy downpour and the banana trees were making a lot of noise.

But the one I like best is the one that says, in a homely imitation of the Buddha's attainment under the Bodhi tree, Vanavasa sat under a banana tree to achieve enlightenment!

Intention: O Vanavasa, you were born and achieved enlightenment under a banana tree; may I, too, be inspired by nature, and informed by its power.

15. Asita (b); 16. Cudapanthaka (b)
  • 15. Asita (or Ajita), called in Chinese Qilu Luohan, or "The Arhat Sitting on a Deer."

Why is Asita shown riding a deer, you ask? Aside from the fact that (like Pindola's eyebrows) the deer symbolizes longevity, there is a story.

It seems he was once in the service of a king, but decided to sneak off and become a monk. After he achieved enlightenment, he came back to the palace on a deer, a sign that he no longer cared about appearances. ("What kind of crazy man rides a deer?" people may have asked.) Recognized immediately by the palace guards, he was ushered into the throne room, where he taught Buddhism to the king. The king subsequently turned the throne over to his son and followed Asita out to become a monk.

Note: As mentioned at the start of Episode 057, Asita is sometimes switched with Pindola. That is, in some temples, Asita is called Pindola and Pindola is Asita. But you can't go wrong by identifying the attributes: long eyebrows versus riding a deer!

Intention: O Asita, you ride the deer, symbol of longevity; may I, too, live long, that I may continue to grow in Wisdom.

  • 16. Cudapanthaka (or Panthaka the Younger), called in Chinese Kanmen Luohan, or "The Arhat Guarding a Door."

Cudapanthaka means "Little Panthaka" or "Panthaka the Younger," to distinguish him from his older brother, Panthaka (#10).

Cudapanthaka is famed for being slow-witted. So slow was he that he was unable to learn even a single verse, and the other disciples made fun of him for it. But the Buddha, using skillful means, taught him to sweep (in some versions, to wipe) and repeat a simple verse, such as "Sweep the floor, sweep the floor, sweep the floor…" By repeating this over and over, he learned to focus his mind, attained enlightenment, and actually became a great teacher.

Another story says he had great strength, and used to knock roughly on people's doors to beg for food. Once, he knocked on an old, rotten door, and it fell to pieces! So the Buddha gave him a ringed staff (with which he is often portrayed) and told him to pound the ground with it, instead of pounding on the door with his fist.

Being careful of doors, and sweeping carefully, gives us the sense of "watching the doors of the senses to keep things pure."

Intention: O Cudapanthaka, in your innocence you destroyed a door, but later learned to act with care; may I, too, curb destructive tendencies and learn that even the simplest acts can accomplish good.

17 or 18. Dragon Subduing (b); Tiger Taming (b)
  • 17 (or 18). Mahakasyapa, Nantimitolo, and many others, called in Chinese Xianglong Luohan, or "The Dragon Subduing Arhat."

  • 18 (or 17). Maitreya, Pindola Bharadvaja, and many others, called in Chinese Fuhu Luohan, or "The Tiger Taming Arhat."

At last we come to Arhats 17 and 18--who present some problems. Because they are newer than the others, their names are still sometimes in flux, changing with the whim of local custom. Also, they may end up changing places--either one may come before the other.

And yet, they are among the easiest of all Arhats to identify, because they always have the same attributes: one is often called simply "The Dragon-Subduing Arhat," and the other "The Tiger-Taming Arhat." When names are used, they may be called "[Someone] with (or Subduing, or Riding) a Dragon" and "[Someone] with (or Taming, or Riding) a Tiger."

What do they mean?

Although the distinction is fine, it is generally understood that the tiger represents the passions, and the dragon is our deepest inner selves. So the Tiger Tamer overcomes the passions, and the Dragon Tamer calms our inner monsters.

Another explanation is that they represent the "Yin and Yang," as often depicted in Daoist temples. The Tiger can be understood as "Yin," the stealthy animal representing potential action, like a wound-up spring toy. The Dragon, though, holds nothing back, always acting out, so he is "Yang." (Note that these are reversed in some iconographies, so that the Tiger is overtly passionate, and the Dragon mysterious and retiring.) These qualities, by the way, are alluded to in the title of the famous Chinese film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

There is an added story for the Tiger-Taming Arhat. It is said that a tiger was once harassing a village, and when this Arhat heard about it, he suggested feeding it vegetables--making it a tame vegetarian!

Intention: O Dragon-Subduing Arhat, you have controlled your deepest impulses; may I learn to master my own inner dragon.

Intention: O Tiger-Taming Arhat, you have tamed your passions and attained the prize; may I, too, manifest the Wisdom of controlled emotions.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting the rest of my buddies! It was always comforting to run into them when I visited a new temple--and to notice the variations from the standard set. I've even seen a very conventional set (though placed out of order) at a Daoist temple here in the Philippines!

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


QUESTIONS:

  1. Again, just the one question: Which of these eight Arhats' stories do you find most interesting? Most instructive? Most outrageous? And so on…

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In the next episode: Back to Japan for a brief overview of the only pilgrimage I've walked entirely on foot: the Chichibu 34 Kannon course, a 60 mile trek in a mountain valley outside of Tokyo.