Note: The information
given here was originally written in regard to the images at Hsi
Lai Temple. This information has been reprocessed here, and more
general information has been added. You can see the original page as part
of the Ascent of Hsi Lai Temple Pilgrimage,
including prayer intentions
focused on each of the Arhats.
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
Southerners, and the best that anyone else can hope for is Arhatship. This
is attained through intense meditation, which leads to Wisdom. When we come to Mahayana Buddhism, a shift in
the Ideal takes place. Those who consider Wisdom and the attainment of
Enlightenment for themselves to be the goal, and who pursue this without thought
for the Enlightenment of others, are deemed selfish or, at the least, truncated
somehow. In one scheme, portrayed in the Lankavatara Sutra, there are Ten
Stages on the Way to Bodhisattvahood. There is a danger at Stage Six of
becoming "enchanted by the bliss of the Samadhis" and thus "pass
to their Nirvana" without completing the Way--thus being Arhats, not
Mahayana and Southern 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.
Chinese call these eighteen the "Lohan." This is derived
from "a-lo-han," a phonetic approximation to the Sanskrit
"Arahant." In Japan, the abbreviated "lohan"
has become "rakkan." Read more about them on this
page from my Aki Meguri.
The history of the
Arhats in Chinese art is tortuous, to say the least. The first paintings
in China of groups of lohans (Arhats) involved only sixteen Arhats; and even
this was an increase from an original four!
among others, records a tradition that the Buddha appointed four Arhats-the
"Four Great Sravakas" Mahakasyapa, Kundopadhaniya, Pindola, and Rahula-to
remain in the world and not achieve final Nirvana until Maitreya, the next
Buddha, arrived. They were to guard the Dharma (much like the Temple
Guardians we have already met). A later work, the Mahayanavataraka-sastra,
then expands the list to sixteen, eliminating Mahakasyapa and Kundopadhaniya,
but retaining Pindola, and Rahula as well as fourteen other, unnamed, Arhats.
These were subsequently identified in a Chinese work, the Ta-a-lo-han-Nan-ti-mi-to-lo-so-shuo-fa-chu-chi,
known as the Fa-chu-chi for short.
Now we're up to
sixteen (and sixteen is the standard number in Tibet and Japan). But where did the other two come from? They are in fact
very late. Even in the seventeenth century sets of sixteen could still be
found in China (they are still common in Tibet, and sometimes Japan). The late date of the two additions is attested to by the fact that
they keep changing names! This, at least, is consistent: in almost every case, the additions
are "[Name] with a Dragon" and "[Name] with a Tiger."
Sometimes they are "taming" or "subduing" the beast,
sometimes "riding" it, but they are virtually always in its company.
Why did the
artists expand the number of Arhats to eighteen? 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 eighteen came from a political model: In the year 621 Emperor T'ai
Tsung selected eighteen Imperial Scholars who came to be known as the
"Eighteen Cabinet Ministers." Watters suggests that this may
have stimulated the artists to "enhance" the number. The
Eighteen Cabinet Ministers served in groups of three; the Arhats are often
portrayed in groups of three. Portraits were made of the Eighteen Cabinet
Ministers, with brief biographies appended; the same was done for the Arhats.
And so on. Others have suggested that the number eighteen reflects Taoist
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,
Aside from the
question of why two Arhats were added, there are also minor confusions in the
main sixteen: sometimes it is Ajita riding a deer, and sometimes Pindola.
If Ajita is on the deer, then Pindola has long eyebrows, and vice versa.
The group of
Arhats is often called "The Assembly at Vulture Peak." In
Mahayana tradition, 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,
Boddhisattvas of foreign lands, incalculable numbers of gods, dragons, yaksas,
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 later came to be seen as guardians.
As with the
Christian apostles, some Arhats have extensive legends, and some have only
minor ones. I will give brief stories on each one here. The order here
is the traditional one.
||Click on the
names to see an image from Hsi Lai
Temple, or use the thumbnails in the Gallery below.
The Arhat with Long Eyebrows (1): (Also called Pindola the Bharadvaja)
This Pindola is leader of the Arhats. Sometimes shown with long
eyebrows, he and Ajita are sometimes switched, so he is sometimes shown
riding a deer. The name "Pindola the Bharadvaja" is
sometimes used because one of the candidates for inclusion as a 17th or 18th
Arhat is a second Pindola. The eyebrows indicate longevity, signifying
seniority and, thus, leadership. Another legend says that he was born
with these eyebrows! It seems he had been a monk in a previous life
who tried--but failed--to gain Enlightenment. He hung on to life,
striving for attainment, for such a long time that finally all that was left
were the two long eyebrows! (Image
The Jolly Arhat (2): (Also called Kanaka the Vatsa) He was a great
debater and orator. 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. He is
sometimes seen banging cymbals in his joy. (Image
The Alms Holding Arhat (3): (Also called Kanaka the Bharadvaja) He was
famous for begging with his bowl-and his eyes-upraised, accepting gifts
without shame. He is often portrayed with one foot in the air; this
may be the position of "royal ease" (one raised knee), but looks
more like he is dancing like Shiva! In any case, he represents one who
can receive gifts graciously. (Image
The Pagoda Holding Arhat (4): (Also called Nandimitra) This was the
last disciple to meet the Buddha before his death; afterward, he carried a
pagoda to remind him of the Buddha's earthly presence. The scholar
Watters says that he is sometimes portrayed with an alms bowl and an incense
burner next to him; he holds a scroll in his left hand, and is snapping the
fingers of his right. Watters says, "This gesture is indicative
of the rapidity with which he attained spiritual insight." Given
how briefly he knew the Buddha, it may also signify his understanding of the
impermanence of things. (Image
The Silently Seated Arhat (5): (Also called Vakula) It is said that
Nakula was a former warrior with immense strength; all of the violence of
his former life led to deep concentration as a monk. Nevertheless,
even in meditation, he exuded strength. He is sometimes portrayed
holding a rosary, with a small boy by his side. Other portrayals show
him with a mongoose, or a three-toed frog; these are perhaps due to
associations with other folk figures. (Image
The Arhat Who Crossed the River (6): (Also called Bodhidruma) Little
is known of Bhadra, but much can be said about the attribute of
"crossing the river." From the crossing of the Jordan to the
crossing of the Rubicon; from dreams of "the other shore," to the
silly joke about the chicken and the road, to today's New Age
life-after-life show "Crossing Over": This image is widely used
for attainment of "the other side," which symbolizes some exalted
spiritual state. The Pope is called the "Supreme Pontiff,"
meaning bridge-builder; the Jain leaders were called "Tirthankara,"
meaning ford-maker. Almost every religion uses this imagery, and here
it is embodied in the slim little figure of Bhadra.
The Dust Cleaning Arhat (7): He is sometimes a dust-cleaner; in
other depictions he is an elephant tamer. Can these be reconciled?
Easily: The mind is the elephant, and needs to be tamed; the mind is dusty,
and needs to be cleaned. These are both traditional Buddhist metaphors
for the process and goal of spiritual practice. Both processes require patience,
concentration, and diligence. Kalika represents these.
The Persuading Arhat (8): This is another tough character to track down.
In some iconography, he is a "persuader" who convinced
Ananda that both practice and understanding were necessary to achieve
Wisdom; in other traditions, he is a "persuader" who tames lions!
Having been a lion-killer before becoming a monk, he was later joined by a
lion cub who seemed grateful that he had given up his former profession.
So he is often portrayed with a lion by his side.
The Heart Exposing Arhat (9): (Also called Gobaka) Oh, to have the
heart of the Buddha! Jivaka was a crown prince, meant to become king.
But he wanted to be a monk, and attain Enlightenment. So he went to
his second brother and said, "I relinquish the throne, and I will go
off to be a monk." His brother, distrustful, thought it best to
eliminate him immediately, lest he come back later with an army and stage a
coup. "No need," he said, "I have the Buddha in my
heart." And in proof, he opened his garments, revealing the image
we see at the Temple. (Image
The Arhat with Stretched Arms (10): (Also called Maha-Panthaka, Great
Panthaka, or Pantha the Elder) His name, like his younger brother
Culapanthaka's ("Little Panthaka") means "born on the
road," and legend says that the brothers were born while their mother
was traveling. Others believe the name signifies that they are
"on the path" of Buddhism. This elder Panthaka is often
considered to have had magical powers; others ascribe to him a leadership
role in the early Sangha, and some even say he was a Prince. He is
sometimes seen with raised hands indicating that he has just come out of meditation. (Image
The Arhat in Deep Concentration (11): This is the Buddha's son (and one of
the original "Four Great Sravakas"). His father left home to
seek Enlightenment the day Rahula was born; his name means
"fetters," perhaps suggesting that his father saw him as a bond to
the householder's life. As a young boy, Rahula sought out his father
and asked for his inheritance; the Buddha taught him the Path to
Enlightenment. His gentle appearance here betokens his youth in
comparison with the other Arhats. (Image
The Ear Cleaning Arhat (12): The cleaning (or scratching) of his ear
signifies that Nagasena ("Dragon Army") was anxious to hear
everything correctly. He has been identified with the great scholar
Nagasena, who answered King Menander's questions in the famous early
Buddhist dialogue The Questions of King Milinda. If so, his careful
listening paid off, as King Menander threw at him some of the toughest
possible questions, and he answered them thoroughly.
The Arhat with a Sack (13): (Also called Angida) Because of the sack,
he has sometimes been confused with Maitreya Bodhisattva, and portrayed as
fat and jolly. I have also heard that Maitreya did not take good
things out of his sack, but put evil things in. This may be due to
confusion with Angaja, who was a snake-catcher by trade. He would
catch snakes in his sack, de-fang them, and release them-exchanging bad for
good. This kindness allowed him to achieve Enlightenment. (Image
The Arhat Under the Banana Tree (14): (Also called Vanavasa) Legend
says he was born under a banana tree, or that he was born during a heavy
downpour when the banana trees were making a lot of noise. In a homely
imitation of the Buddha, he sat under a banana tree where he gained
Enlightenment. He is sometimes shown seated on a banana leaf. (Image
The Arhat Riding a Deer (15): (Also called Asita) As mentioned above,
he is sometimes confused with Pindola. This comes from a legend that
he (or Pindola?) had once left the service of a king and snuck off to become
a monk. After his Enlightenment, he rode back into the place
(presumably from the mountains) on a deer, was immediately recognized by the
guards, and was ushered into the king's presence, where he taught him the
Dharma. The king turned the throne over to his son and followed the
Arhat out to become a monk. (Image
The Door Watching Arhat (16): (Also called Culapanthaka, or Pantha the
Younger) This is the younger brother of Panthaka above; his name means
"Little Panthaka," or Road-born. There are two famous
stories about him. One is that he was slow-witted, and unable to learn
even a single verse. But the Buddha, using skillful means, taught him
to sweep (in some versions, to wipe) and repeat a simple verse, such as
"Sweeping broom," to focus his mind. This simple method led
him to Enlightenment. Another story says that he 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
(like that held by Bhadra next to him) and told him to pound the ground with
it, instead of pounding on the door with his fist. Through this (and
the sweeping association) he came to be thought of as one who guards the
doors of the senses, letting only pure things in. (Image
The Tiger Taming Arhat (17 or 18): This is one of our
"guest" Arhats. His identity as Maitreya is something of a problem.
Remember that, originally, the Arhats were to remain "on duty"
guarding the Dharma until Maitreya came. Well, if Maitreya is one of
them, then how…? Anyway, for Maitreya's story, refer back to the
section entitled "In the Hall of the Bodhisattvas." The
tiger here represents the passions; one story of the tiger-tamer (attributed
to the second Pindola--remember, the name is not as important here as the
attribute) says that there had been a tiger harassing a town; when the
Tiger-Taming Arhat arrived in the area, he suggested feeding the tiger to
prevent its depredations. Naturally, the food given was all
vegetarian, and the tiger thus became tame!
The Dragon Subduing Arhat (17 or 18): (Also called Kasyapa) This is
our second "guest" Arhat, who could be designated "X, The
Dragon Subduing Arhat." That he is subduing a dragon--symbol of
our deepest inner motivations--is more important than his name, since that
changes. However, that he is sometimes the Great Kasyapa, first of the original
"Four Great Sravakas" assigned by the Buddha to stay and guard the
Dharma, is very interesting indeed. I do not know how he came to be
"restored," but here he is. He is best known for the
Buddha's famous "Flower Sermon." It is said that on that
occasion, the Buddha simply held up a flower, and said nothing. Only
Kasyapa signified-by a wordless look-that he understood the Buddha's point,
that the Truth is beyond words. Some trace the Zen/Ch'an lineage back
to this moment. (Image
Many temples, notably the Tian Hou Miao, Chiwan
at Chiwan, Shenzhen, and the (fake)
lamasery at the Folk Cultural Villages, both in Shenzhen, PRC.
All photos on this page are
copyright 2004 by James
Arhats in the Main Hall at Tian Hou Miao,
Arhats in the Gate Room at Tian Hou Miao,