information given here is focused on the images at Hsi Lai Temple. This
information has been reprocessed, and more general information has been added,
at the Eighteen Arhats page.
What I have called
"The Garden of Wisdom" is properly called "The Arhats'
Garden." Here's the connection:
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. Hence I
call this the Garden of Wisdom, in contrast to the Avalokitesvara Garden, which
is the Garden of Compassion. 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.
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. 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. The late date of the two additions is attested to by the fact that
they keep changing names! In the Hsi Lai version, Mahakasyapa (from the
original four) has been restored as Mahakassapa, sitting on a dragon; our old
friend Maitreya is the other addition, here portrayed as a bony man riding a
tiger. 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.
So our Hsi Lai friends are specifically "Mahakassapa, The Dragon Subduing
Arhat" and "Maitreya, The Tiger Taming Arhat."
Why did the
artists expand to the number 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.
But these are small matters; my descriptions below will follow the Hsi Lai
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, concentrating on
details that will illuminate the iconography found at Hsi Lai Temple and the
Intention I have assigned to each Arhat. The order here follows the one
used in locating the Arhats in the Pilgrimage section; the traditional order is
given in parentheses.
Click on the
name to see the image from Hsi Lai Temple
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. At Hsi Lai Temple, he is seated on a banana leaf. (Image
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 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 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. The
raised hands indicate that he has just come out of meditation. (Image
The Arhat with Long Eyebrows (1): (Also called Pindola the Bharadvaja)
This Pindola is leader of the Arhats. Shown at Hsi Lai 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 Tiger Taming Arhat (17 or 18): This is one of our
"guest" Arhats. His presence here 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 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. The
image at Hsi Lai shows him banging cymbals in his joy. (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 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): At Hsi Lai Temple he is 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 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 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 Persuading Arhat (8): This is another tough character to track down.
In the Hsi Lai 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 (though not here) portrayed with a lion by his side.
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 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 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
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 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.
As you walk toward the Arhat Garden, you may choose to set your mind on the Perfection of Wisdom. You may do this by contemplating the "Six Perfections" as you walk:
I seek Perfection in Generosity.
I seek Perfection in Morality.
I seek Perfection in Patience.
I seek Perfection in Effort.
I seek Perfection in Meditation.
I seek Perfection in Wisdom.
You may choose to spend more time on a particular Arhat and his trait; or you may recite all of the following brief Intentions, covering the range.
Find the first Arhat, Vanavasin, "The Arhat Under the Banana Tree," in the left foreground area of the Garden. He is an extremely old man, with his elbow leaning on two golden blocks. He is seated on a banana leaf:
O Vanavasin, you were born and achieved enlightenment under a banana tree; let me gain Wisdom from nature, and be informed by its power.
Find the next Arhat, Angaja, "The Arhat with a Sack," to the left of the previous one, holding a sack:
O Angaja, you caught snakes in your sack and removed their power to harm; let me have the Wisdom to eradicate evil wherever I find it, and turn it to good.
Find the next Arhat, Rahula, "The Arhat in Deep Concentration," behind the previous one, with his hand under his chin:
O Rahula, you learned the Path to Enlightenment from your own father; let me gain Wisdom from my parents, teachers, and other elders, and pass it on to my juniors.
Find the next Arhat, Panthaka, "The Arhat with Stretched Arms," to the right of the previous one, with his hands raised above his head:
O Panthaka, you have sought Wisdom through meditation; let me too reach for the highest.
Find the next Arhat, Pindola, "The Arhat with Long Eyebrows," to the right and in front of the previous one, holding a gnarled stick:
O Pindola, your great age symbolizes your leadership of the Eighteen
Arhats; let me, too, as I grow older, develop the Wisdom to lead others to Enlightenment.
Find the next Arhat, Maitreya, "The Tiger Taming Arhat," far to the right of the previous one, seated on a tiger and holding a golden ring in the air:
O Maitreya, you have tamed the tiger and attained the prize; let me tame my passions and attain Wisdom.
Find the next Arhat, Kanakavatsa, "The Jolly Arhat," to the left and in front of the previous one and playing cymbals, the left raised high in the air:
O Kanakavatsa, you have found inner Joy through the Dharma; let Wisdom lead me to such Bliss.
Find the next Arhat, Ajita, "The Arhat Riding a Deer," to the left of the previous one, seated on a deer:
O Ajita, you ride the deer, symbol of longevity; let me live long that I may attain the greatest store of Wisdom in this very life.
Find the next Arhat, Nakula, "The Silently Seated Arhat," to the left of and behind the previous one, with bronzed skin and a hood over his head:
O Nakula, you sit silently in meditation; let me also attain Wisdom through stillness and listening to my inner voice.
Find the next Arhat, Bhadra, "The Arhat Who Crossed the River," to the right of and behind the previous one, standing straight and holding a staff:
O Bhadra, you have crossed the river and transcended the ocean of suffering; let me attain the Wisdom to cross over from Samsara to Nirvana.
Find the next Arhat, Kalika, "The Dust Cleaning Arhat," to the right of the previous one, seated, with a dusting implement in his right hand:
O Kalika, you have cleaned the dust from the mirror; let me attain the Wisdom to see things as they really are.
Find the next Arhat, Cudapanthaka, "The Door Watching Arhat," to the right of the previous one, standing with both hands stretched forward in a warding off gesture:
O Cudapanthaka, in your innocence you destroyed a door, but later learned to act with care; let me attain the Wisdom to curb destructive tendencies and learn that even the simplest acts can accomplish good.
Find the next Arhat, Jivaka, "The Heart Exposing Arhat," to the right of the previous one, with a face emerging from his chest:
O Jivaka, as your heart is open to the words of the Buddha, let me also open my heart that I may attain Wisdom.
Find the next Arhat, Vajraputra, "The Persuading Arhat," to the right of the previous one, holding a censer:
O Vajraputra, as you persuaded Venerable Ananda to balance Learning and Practice, let me develop the Wisdom to persuade others of the virtues of a balanced life.
Find the next Arhat, Subinda, "The Pagoda Holding Arhat," to the right of the previous one, holding a small pagoda in his right hand:
O Subinda, you knew the Buddha on the earth for only a short time, but cherished his memory all your life by carrying a pagoda; let me never forget the Buddha and his teachings, the I may attain Wisdom.
Find the next Arhat, Mahakassapa, "The Dragon Subduing Arhat," to the right and in front of the previous one, seated on a dragon, and with his arms in a banishing gesture:
O Mahakassapa, you have controlled your deepest impulses; let me through Wisdom master my inner dragon.
Find the next Arhat, Kanakabharavaja, "The Alms Holding Arhat," to the right and in front of the previous one, with an alms bowl upraised:
O Kanakabharavaja, you accept alms from all; let me gain the Wisdom to graciously accept gifts as tokens of the interdependence of all beings.
Find the next Arhat, Nagasena, "The Ear Cleaning Arhat," to the right and in front of the previous one, at the far right front of the Garden, with his left hand up to his ear:
O Nagasena, you clean your ears to ensure proper hearing of the Dharma; let me be ever-attentive to the teachings, that I may gain Wisdom.
When you are finished, turn to your right, and proceed to the other end of the transverse corridor, where you will find the Avalokitesvara Garden.