Ep. 068: Photo Essay Friday: The 500 Arhats at Home

Come meet the Buddha's enlightened disciples

An Arhat, as I've mentioned before, is a disciple of the Buddha who has achieved enlightenment. They are often seen in groups of 16 or 18, as in Episodes 057 and 058, but less commonly in groups of 500.

I won't try to introduce to all of them, but we'll meet a few--and talk about where they live--in this episode of


In Japan

The first time I "met" the 500 Arhats, as far as I recollect, was on a 1998 visit to Seiken-ji in Okitsu, near Shizuoka, Japan. I was told that these rakkan (the Japanese pronunciation of Chinese luohan, originally aluohan, a transliteration of the Sanskrit arahant) were "the Buddha's students." I did not know then that they were enlightened beings!

My first rakkan, at Seiken-ji.

After that, I saw them a few more times in Japan, notably near the mountain cave of the samurai Miyamoto Musashi (see Episode 042) and at Unpen-ji, Temple #66 of the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage (see Episode 039 about that pilgrimage). Oddly, all of these were outdoors (though there was at least one indoor set on Shikoku, but photos weren't allowed). But once I got to China, I found that the Arhats were usually housed in their own hall (or halls).

Rakkan on the hillside near the cave of Miyamoto Musashi outside of Kumamoto, Japan
Some of the newly-arrived and not-yet-placed rakkan at Unpen-ji, Temple #66 of the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage

But Why 500, Temple Guy?

Why 500, you might ask? Well, 500 disciples gathered shortly after the Buddha's death to codify his teaching at something called the First Buddhist Council. Later writings, such as the widely-respected Lotus Sutra, tell us of other groupings of 500. Chapter 8 of the Lotus predicts that five hundred Arhats present for that teaching would attain full Buddhahood and, "having received predictions from the Buddha, jumped for joy."

These and other ancient sources seem to have inspired the creation of paintings and, more especially, statues depicting the 500.

Typical Old-Style Halls

I have never sat down and tallied how many 500 Arhat Halls I've been in, but it must be two dozen or more. I'd like to show you some of the more notable ones.

Frankly, the older the hall, the less interesting the Arhats (with some exceptions). As at Hualin Temple in Guangzhou (see Episode 038) the older statues tend to be "gilded" (maybe) and rather boring in their characterizations. The arrangement, likewise, lacks imagination: just a bunch of guys sitting side by side. It can be fun, though, to examine their faces. Halls like this are often shaped like the character tian (田), representing fields (hinting at the idea of "cultivation"). And they usually have a Buddhist triad on an altar at one end, and the Four Great Bodhisattvas (see Episode 046) at the center.

The (boring) Arhats at Hualin Temple in Guangzhou

A far more exciting set, and quite new at that, is found at the aptly-named Luohan Temple in Chongqing. The first time I visited, in 2007, I was able to see the ancient rock-carved Arhats in the entryway that give the temple its name, but the Arhat hall was closed for renovation. Thus, when I returned in 2012, I was pretty sure that what I was seeing was no more than five years old. They are dynamic, but still arranged side-by-side.

At Luohan Temple in Chongqing
At Luohan Temple in Chongqing

There are even more cramped arrangements, however. One of China's oldest and most revered sets of Arhats is at Qiongzhu Temple in Kunming, Yunnan. These were created by a Sichuan artist and his students between 1883 and 1890, and are more-or-less just sitting on a bunch of shelves in two very small halls. Lila and I felt lucky to see them, as a fire had swept through the area a little over a year earlier, barely missing the temple (which, in fact, had been destroyed by fire several times in the past).

On the shelves at Qiongzhu Temple in Kunming
At Qiongzhu Temple in Kunming

More Spacious Arrangements

Let's move on to some other arrangements in Arhat halls.

Some of the best places I've been show the Arhats in groups relating to each other in sometimes-humorous ways. The one at Gaoming Temple on Tiantai Shan in Zhejiang was frankly hilarious: musicians playing their hearts out; a pair of kick boxers; a raucous tea party; ear-tugging, joke-telling, prank-pulling, tickling. They were arranged in two halls, one upstairs from the other, and I could have spent hours there.

A huge assemblage, one of several at Gaoming Temple on Tiantai Shan
Rockin' out at Gaoming Temple
An approving fan at Gaoming Temple
"Stop yankin' my ear!" at Gaoming Temple
"Good one!" at Gaoming Temple
Fruitatarians? at Gaoming Temple

Xichan Temple in Fuzhou, Fujian, took a different approach. In its spacious hall, the Arhats are arranged on sort of islands. Xichan had one of the best groups of Arhats I've seen, all done in pastels.

Xichan Temple in Fuzhou
Xichan Temple in Fuzhou

Shuangguitang Temple, in far-flung Liangping County outside of Chongqing--which I visited the day before I went to Dazu (see Episode 065)--kept its shiny new Arhats in the typical side-by-side positions, but still managed to inject some humorous interactions, showing two Arhats having a chat, or one holding a snake and the other reacting appropriately, and so on.

"And then he said…" at Shuangguitang Temple, outside of Chongqing
"Keep that thing away from me!" (alternate title: "Calling Dr. Freud!") at Shuangguitang Temple

More than Statues

But not all of the Arhats are depicted in statuary. Large paintings hold many--if not exactly 500--Arhats, as the murals at Langya Temple in Chuzhou, Anhui, attest. On the upper terrace of the temple, a kindly old monk (in a t-shirt) tended a small, dilapidated hall with fairly primitive paintings on three of its walls.

Part of a mural at Langya Temple in Chuzhou
The cartoonish quality of the murals at Langya Temple shows here.

Ganlu Temple on Jiuhuashan also had a very ancient set of paintings which my informal guide, a young monk named Long Jie, averred were "300 years old." They covered both side walls, and part of the back wall. (Yes, I shot them all!)

Detail of a mural at Ganlu Temple on Jiuhuashan
Wider view of just some of the murals at Ganlu Temple

Arhats may also be represented in bas relief, as at Lingguang Temple in Badachu Park, Beijing. One can only imagine the amount of work that went into this single, cohesive piece.

The yuge, complex bas relief at Lingguang Temple in Badachu Park, Beijing

Zhusheng Temple at the base of Nanyue in Hunan portrayed the Arhats on 250 black plaques, two to a plaque, with white etched figures.

Plaques at Zhusheng Temple in Hunan

Truly Weird

But perhaps the weirdest portrayal of the 500 Arhats I have ever seen was the set of statues at Jinge Temple on Wutai Shan in Shanxi. These were in the "rafters" of the main hall, hovering as though ready to pounce on all and sundry.

"Don't look up, don't look up, don't look up…" at Jinge Temple on Wutai Shan
Another view in Jinge Temple's main hall

And Many, Many More!

There are so many more to share. Take the oddly color-coded statues at Baisuigong Temple on Jiuhuashan in Anhui. Whether these were just primed for later painting, or this was the intended effect, I'll never know. Or the walls of foot-high Arhat figures at Shanghai's Longhua Temple, seated around a central figure of the historic Buddha under a tree. The amazing wall of Arhats seemingly hiding in clouds surrounding the Buddhas at Shuxiang Temple on Wutaishan, or the rather perfunctory yet none-the-less pleasing set at Qingyun Temple in Zhaoqing, Guangdong. Somebody stop me!

At Baisuigong Temple on Jiuhuashan
At Longhua Temple, Shanghai
At Shuxiang Temple on Wutaishan
At Qingyun Temple in Zhaoqing

But perhaps the uniquest Arhats I ever saw were the old ones stacked outside the Arhat Hall when the 500 were being replaced with new ones at Yuquan Temple in Dangyang, Hubei!

The new Arhats at Yuquan Temple are primed for painting.
The old ones are racing around the courtyard.
They really look like they're bobsledding, don't they?


Well, that's about that! Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Let's revisit some of the reflective journal entries I wrote on my 2001 Aki Meguri walk through Japan.