The Buddha Hall

The Pinnacle of the Ascent: The Buddhas

At long last, you have attained the Buddha Hall. This is the central point of any Buddhist temple or monastery, and the place where the Shakyamuni Buddha is seated corresponds to the World Axis or Unmovable Spot. The great historian of religions Mircea Eliade wrote, in The Myth of the Eternal Return, that: "Every temple or a Sacred Mountain, thus becoming a Center." Furthermore, as you may know by now, "The road leading to the center is a 'difficult road' is, in fact, a rite of passage from the profane to the sacred...Attaining the center is equivalent to a consecration, an initiation..."

And so you have arrived at the "Place of Initiation." You are ready to dedicate yourself to the Buddhas in a new and deeper way. As you enter the Hall, look around you; the 10,000 Buddhas on the walls remind you that the universe of 10,000 things is filled with Buddhas, that everything has a Buddha Nature--including you. The Three Great Buddhas in the front have names and attributes, but their real purpose is to remind us of the Buddha Nature in everything. Thus they are "special" in their function, but their nature is no more special than that of all things; it is just that they have realized (made real) that Nature.


Let's start our examination of the Three Buddhas with the figure on the right. This is Bhaishajyaguru, better known as "The Medicine Buddha" (and it's easier to say!). He is holding a pagoda, symbol of the Buddha's body. Pagodas developed from Indian stupas, which in turn developed from mounds of earth piled over a human being's earthly remains. So the pagoda is a kind of reliquary wherein the Buddha's remains are deposited; one room in Hsi Lai Temple's Museum holds such a relic, and is therefore designated as a stupa.

The association between the Buddha's body and the Medicine Buddha's Vows to help us attain health are clear. Many devotees visit this figure to pray for healing. Thus in the Intention section I have made him the Buddha of "Body."


The Three Buddhas may also symbolize a complicated idea, that of the Trikaya or Three Bodies of the Buddha. You may have noticed that, except for the items held in their hands, the Three Buddhas are almost identical, as though they were three aspects of the same person. This is not accidental. The Trikaya is the idea that the One Buddha has Three Bodies--a kind of Buddhist Trinity. The first is the Dharmakaya, the "true nature" of the Buddha that pre-exists any earthly appearance. It is the bond between the Buddha and all existence. The word "Dharmakaya" may be translated "Law Body," but it signifies his oneness with the cosmic order. The second is the Sambhogakaya, the "Body of Delight" in which a Buddha dwells when he is resident in a Paradise or Pure Land. This would be the body out of which a Buddha descends to Earth, and into which he returns after "death." Finally, when out of compassion a Buddha does come to Earth to teach sentient beings, he dwells in a Nirmanakaya, or "Body of Transformation."

When we see a Buddhist Triad, it sometimes signifies the Trikaya. In the Triad at Hsi Lai, the Shakyamuni Buddha who came to Earth to teach is the Nirmanakaya; and the Amitabha Buddha of the Western Pure Land is the Sambhogakaya. But what about the Dharmakaya? This is usually represented by Vairocana, the Great Sun Buddha sometimes identified with the AdiBuddha or First Buddha. Why is Bhaishajyaguru here instead? As it turns out, Bhaishajyaguru and Vairocana are somewhat interchangeable in art. There are mandalas, for example, in which the place usually occupied by Vairocana is held by Bhaishajyaguru instead--and vice versa.


So the Medicine Buddha, the least discussed of the Three Buddhas at Hsi Lai, is standing in for the ineffable cosmic order, and represents the Buddha's Dharmakaya or "Body of the Great Order." His history as Bhaishajyaguru hints at this possibility. While still a Bodhisattva, he made Twelve Vows which were extraordinary in their depth. The Vows are lengthy, but can be summarized as: (1) to radiate light to all beings; (2) to proclaim his healing power; (3) to fulfill the desires of all beings; (4) to lead all by the Mahayana way; (5) to reinforce all in observing ethics; (6) to heal; (7) to lead all to Enlightenment; (8) to change women into men in their next appearance [so they can gain Enlightenment]; (9) to ward off false teaching and endorse the truth; (10) to save all beings from a bad rebirth; (11) to feed the hungry; and (12) to clothe the naked. He also resides over the Pure Land of the East. Note that several of the Vows focus on healing both the bodies and the minds of devotees; thus, when he attained Buddhahood, he was called the Medicine Buddha.


Next we will discuss the Amitabha Buddha, who is one of the most popular figures at Hsi Lai Temple. The tradition at Hsi Lai (as at many Chinese temples) is a combination of Pure Land and Ch'an (Zen) practice. There is in fact a Ch'an Meditation Hall on the property, and there are meditation classes held there Sundays at 11:00. But by far the most popular practice is the Pure Land practice of chanting the name of the Amitabha Buddha. Through meditation, one can attain one's own Enlightenment; but, since most of us don't have time to do this, we can attain the Western Pure Land through chanting. There we will have time to meditate, and so can achieve Buddhahood.

In Chinese, "Amitabha Buddha" is pronounced "O-Mi-To-Fo" or "A-Mi-To-Fo." This is used as a greeting and farewell, as a thanks and a blessing, by monastics and laity at the Temple. It is also, of course, chanted in the Buddha Hall (also called the "Main Shrine").

The Amitabha Buddha is seated at the left side of the Hall. He holds a lotus, which, among its many meanings, symbolizes potential. The lotus is rooted in mud, grows up through water, and blossoms out into the air. So we are born in this world and, through successive stages, reach our full potential. Look above the Buddhas and notice the lotus motif in the architecture; this is continued throughout the Temple's corridors, etc.

Legend says that Amitabha was ages ago a king who heard the preaching of the Buddha of his age. He renounced the throne and became a monk named Dharmakara. He received instruction from the Buddha Lokeshvararaja, and resolved through forty-eight vows to found a Buddha-land. Exploring many lands to assess their perfections, he then brought together the best traits of all to create Sukhavati, the Western Pure Land, where he now rules. Any who chant his name with sincerity will be transported there upon their death.


Finally, we turn to the central figure in the Hall, and the Central Point of the Temple: the Shakyamuni Buddha, formerly Siddhartha Gautama. His story is well known. Born a prince in a small kingdom of northern India, he was protected from the less pleasant aspects of life. After beholding an old man, a sick man, and a dead man (as well as a monk), he left the palace at age 29 and spent six years searching for The Answer. Finally, sitting under a fig tree, he resolved to remain Unmoved until he attained Enlightenment. And so he did, through his understanding of Dependent Origination, the idea that everything arises in connection to everything else, and thus all things in this world are impermanent. He returned to society and taught until his death (or "final Nirvana") at age 80. He left behind a great body of teachings ("The Dharma") and a well-established monastic order ("The Sangha"). His teachings have remained relevant to this day.


In the Pilgrimage section, I have used various aspects of the Buddhas to distinguish one Buddha from another. Briefly:

Bhaishajyaguru is the Dharmakaya, representing the Body
Amitabha is the Sambhogakaya, representing the Spirit
Shakyamuni is the Nirmanakaya, representing the Mind

Some might think that I have reversed the Bhaishajyaguru and Shakyamuni Buddhas. After all, as the "Body of the Cosmic Order" or Dharmakaya, shouldn't Bhaishajyaguru be the Mind? And as the Nirmanakaya, the physical manifestation of a Buddha, Shakyamuni should have been "Body," right? But I see the Medicine Buddha as intimately concerned with the health of our physical Bodies; and the Shakyamuni came to teach us Wisdom and the approach to Buddhahood through the Mind; and so I have made my designations. Amitabha, of course, as the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, accords well with the concept of Spirit.

* * * * * * * *

With your dedication to the Shakyamuni Buddha, your formal pilgrimage is over. You may be reluctant to leave, however, and you don't have to (unless it's past 5:00!). You may eat in the Dining Hall if it's still open; browse in the small Library located in the Tea Room as you have a cup of tea; stroll through the Museum, visiting old friends, experiencing the Universe of Interconnectedness, or kneeling before the relic of the Buddha in the Stupa Room (in front of the large "Sleeping Buddha"); relax in the Information Center; or purchase a memento of your pilgrimage in the Gift Shop downstairs.

In future days, you may choose to return to the Temple and repeat small parts of the pilgrimage, giving one or two elements your full attention. Once you've done this, you may wish to repeat the full experience with deeper understanding. Whatever you choose to do, I hope this site will have been of some benefit to you.



Focus for a moment on the Buddhas that surround you; contemplate the idea that Buddha Nature is found throughout the Universe.

Now approach the Great Buddha on the right. After a moment of silent contemplation, say:

O Bhaishajyaguru, Great Buddha of the Healing of the Body!

I ask you to help me.

Through your Twelve Great Vows, you have promised to bring healing and comfort to all.

Through this Vow, you have shown us the importance of helping others.

Let me also, by emulating your Vows, attain this excellence.

Help me to be always attentive to the needs of others.

Help me to be strong and healthy in body,

that I may fulfill my Vows with great vigor.

O Medicine Buddha, hear my prayer!

O great Bhaishajyaguru Buddha, hear my prayer!


Now approach the Great Buddha on the left. After a moment of silent contemplation, say:

O Amitabha, Great Buddha of the Progress of the Spirit!

I ask you to help me.

Through your establishing of the Western Pure Land, you have made it possible for all to share in its blessings.

Through this great endeavor, you have shown us the way to spiritual bliss.

Let me also, by chanting your name, attain this excellence.

Help me to be dedicated in making spiritual progress.

Help me to envision your Pure Land,

that I may dwell there someday, and lead others to it.

O Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, hear my prayer!

O great Amitabha Buddha, hear my prayer!


Now approach the Great Buddha in the center. After a moment of silent contemplation, say:

O Shakyamuni, Great Buddha of the Wisdom of the Mind!

I ask you to help me.

Through your teaching of the Dharma, you have opened the way to salvation for all.

Through this generosity, you have shown us the means of Enlightenment.

Let me also, by following your teachings, attain this excellence.

Help me to keep my mind fixed on you.

Help me to master all of the Dharma,

that I may teach others the way.

O Great Sage of the Shakya Clan, hear my prayer!

O great Shakyamuni Buddha, hear my prayer!

* * * * * * * *

Your pilgrimage is now completed. You may linger at the Temple, or return home in quietude. It is recommended that you not engage in other activities for the remainder of the day, allowing the experience you have had to take root until bedtime.

Return to the Courtyard ||| INDEX ||| Continue to the Mantras

The Courtyard and the Third Ascent

The Path of Cultivation
The Last of Three Ascents toward Buddhahood:
From the Courtyard to the Hall of the Buddhas

Look closely at the Courtyard and you'll see what the designers had in mind: It's meant to resemble the pattern of rice fields often seen in the Asian countryside. The common, everyday term for growing a crop is "cultivation." This is also the term Buddhists use for learning the Dharma and developing virtues. So the Courtyard is a place for gradual developing and nurturing of one's Buddha Nature.

This is often done through walking meditation. One could simply walk mindfully from the bottom of the Courtyard to the base of the steps of the Buddha Hall. But a better way is to picture the Courtyard as a kind of labyrinth: start in one corner, and walk across the courtyard, as on a sidewalk. At the end, turn and walk back the other way on the next row. And so forth to the top. Some people like to "power walk" their way up. Another way is to walk slowly, hands folded in front of the belly, eyes downcast, at a Tai-Chi-like pace, placing the feet carefully and concentrating on every part of the body. This is true mindfulness; this is true walking meditation. Be warned, however: depending on your pace it can take upwards of an hour!

Along the way you will see several figures off to the side: turtles and dragons, and lions at the steps. These are not necessarily "Buddhist"; they are more like elements of Chinese culture. Nevertheless, they have their meaning: turtles for longevity, lions for strength, and dragons for the dynamism described above.

The Third Ascent is short, being only thirty steps including the landing. Because of this, I strongly recommend the technique of stopping to recite a mantra on each step. This is "The Buddha Path," so I have suggested either "Taking Refuge" or three Buddha Mantras. (Note that these are both three lines each, allowing ten repetitions on the way up the steps.)

"Taking Refuge" is one of the earliest and most basic of all Buddhist "prayers." In Mahayana Buddhism, these words may use in a ceremony of initiation. In Southern Buddhism, Zen, and many traditions (including the Mahayana Schools), they are recited daily. They are known as "The Triple Gem," each element being important.

The Buddha, of course, is our Great Teacher. The Buddha Hall at Hsi Lai Temple is called "The Precious Hall of the Great Hero," because the Buddha, like any hero, went out, attained something, and brought it back as a gift to his community. The gift he brought was the Second Gem, "The Dharma," meaning his teachings. Although the Teacher is gone, the Teachings remain here to guide us. Finally, "The Sangha" is the community of Buddhists, and more especially the monastic community that has maintained and promulgated the Buddha's teachings through the centuries.

The other approach I suggest is a simple homage to the Three Buddhas who await you inside. You are encouraged to offer them incense on the Front Porch of the Buddha Hall. Even if you recited the "Taking Refuge" on the way up the steps, it would be a good idea to recite the three mantras as you present your incense. 


Walk up the Courtyard mindfully. You may choose to clear your mind, concentrating only on your breathing and your movement; or you may choose to recite something: The Universal Vows, the Six Paramitas, or one of the other Mantras or Intentions.

Climb the stairs to the front porch of the Buddha Hall; you are on the Buddha Path.

As you climb, recite this:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

or this:

Namo Shakyamuni Buddha.
Namo Amitabha Buddha.
Namo Bhaishajyaguru Buddha.

or this:

Namo Shijiamouni Fo.
Namo Amito Fo.
Namo Yaoshi Fo.

Return to the Four Kings ||| INDEX ||| Continue to the Buddha Hall

The Four Heavenly Kings

Keepers of the Four Directions

Moving further down the Garden, we note four imposing human figures. These are the four Deva Raja, the Kings of the Four Directions. These four figures have Hindu predecessors. In chart form, here are some associations:

[Incidentally, Mo-li (魔力) indicates "magic power"; Hung is "Vast," Ching is "Pure," Shou is "Age" (longevity) and Hai is "Sea."]

The Hindu gods appear in a passage of the famous epic The Ramayana:

May He whose hands the thunder wield
Be in the east thy guard and shield;
May Yama's care the south befriend,
And Varun's arm the west defend;
And let Kuvera, Lord of Gold,
The north with firm protection hold.

"He whose hands the thunder wield" is Indra; "Varun" and "Kuvera" are alternate spellings for "Varuna" and "Kubera." Kubera is sometimes also called "Soma"; incidentally, the four gods are associated not only with four directions, but with four planets as well: Yama with Mars, Indra with Jupiter, Kubera with Venus, and Varuna with Mercury.

These same gods appear in stories of the Buddha. For example, when he left his palace in the middle of the night to seek Enlightenment, each of the Four held up one of his horse's hooves so that his family wouldn't be awakened. Later, they appear transformed as Buddhist figures with important roles to play, as indicated in the "attribute" column. Their images are common in temples all through Asia; some temples in Japan, instead of having the "Ni-O" gates described above, have "Shi-tenno"--Four Heavenly King--gates, with two figures in alcoves on either side of the front of the gate, and two more in alcoves on either side of the back.


Now let us meet the Four Heavenly Kings one by one. Starting on the front left is Virudhaka, who is holding a sword. His Chinese name is Mo-Li Hung, and he is associated with the Hindu god Yama, the god of death and the Underworld. He is King of the South, where he lives in a palace made of glass and rules over the Jambudvipa continent. He is known as "The One Who Enhances Virtue" (Zeng Zhang), using his Sword of Wisdom to control evil. Sometimes called "The Enhancement Heavenly King," by controlling evil he enhances or improves the lives of all sentient beings.

He is also King of the Kumbhandas, a kind of gourd-shaped demon. Sometimes he is depicted trampling a demon under foot, representing the control of evil, but also reminding us that all of these Kings have a wrathful aspect. The control of evil can be a messy business, and as many have observed, "If you want to make an omelet, you're going to have to break some eggs." However, overall, his actions are of great benefit. His Sanskrit name "Virudhaka" indicates "growing large," with an overtone of bringing prosperity. (picture)


Next, behind Virudhaka, is the King known as Dhrtarastra, seen here holding a lute. His Chinese name is Mo-Li Ching, and he is associated with the Hindu god Indra, Lord of Thunder. He is King of the East, where he rules the continent of Purva-videha from a palace of gold. He is "The One Who Upholds the Land" (Chi Guo) through Harmony. As his lute represents ease, comfort, and the good things of civilization, it also symbolizes Harmony or balance: the strings must be neither too tight nor too loose, and so all human affairs must be conducted with moderation. He is also referred to as "The Kingdom-keeper Heavenly King."

He is King of the Gandharvas, who are celestial musicians and often appear in art looking like angels. In his wrathful aspect, he is able to pluck the strings of his lute and raise up winds. As his enemies stop to listen, the wind whips up their campfires, and their camps burn to the ground, so the Kingdom is protected. He, like Virudhaka, is sometimes seen holding a sword. This reinforces the meaning of Dhrtarastra, "Protector of the Nation," and reminds us that even as a musician he embodies great strength and power. (picture)


On the right we come to Vaisravana, holding an umbrella. He is actually the leader of the Four Heavenly Kings. Sometimes he is depicted alone, but represents all four; this is the case with his popular form in Japan, Bishamon-ten. His Chinese name is Mo-Li Shou; he is also the Hindu god Kubera, Lord of wealth. He is King of the North, where he rules over the Uttarakuru continent from his palace of crystal. He is "The One Who Listens Incessantly" (Duo Wen), and his umbrella symbolizes his protection of the Dharma assembly.

He is also known as "The Knowledgeable Heavenly King," using his umbrella to shut out delusions and distractions, enabling us to focus on the pure Dharma. Sometimes, instead of the umbrella, he holds a banner of victory, or a pet mongoose commemorating his victory over the Nagas (Serpents). In popular thought, this mongoose can bring forth priceless jewels. Though Vaisravana is superficially a god of wealth, we soon learn that the "wealth" he represents is knowledge of the Dharma. He, too, may hold a sword, or a trident. Sometimes in his left hand we see a vessel or stupa containing treasure.

He is also King of the Yakshas, a kind of tree or nature spirit. In his wrathful aspect, he uses his umbrella to create darkness and chaos, scattering his enemies. (picture)


Finally, we come to Virupaksa, the figure on the front right holding a snake in one hand and a wish-fulfilling jewel in the other. He is known as Mo-Li Hai in Chinese, and as Varuna, Lord of the Cosmic Order, in the Hindu tradition. Just as Virupaksa is "The One With Broad Perception," so the Hindu Varuna was said to watch over the world with a thousand eyes. He is King of the West, and ruler of the Apara-godaniya continent from his silver palace.

The snake in his hand signifies that he is King of the Nagas (Serpents), and he serves to raise up our awareness and inspire in us the Bodhi mind. Thus he is the "The Broad-eyed Heavenly King" (Guang Mu). His negative aspect is also represented by the snake: snakes are neither good nor bad, but they are volatile. If one is not ready for the change represented by the serpent-power, it can seem like a disaster! (picture)


This same power is symbolized by the Dragon Emperors of the Four Great Oceans. These Dragon Kings (one of whose sons Kuan Yin rescued above) hold power over the elements: rain, storms, earthquake, wind, etc. Think about rain for a moment: is it good or bad? If you are a farmer, and it comes in moderation, it's "good"; if you are going on a picnic, it's "bad." If your city is experiencing a drought, it's "good"; if there is a flood, it's "bad." And so the dynamism of these elements brings change, which may be good or bad depending on your perspective.

The Dragon Emperors are not strictly Buddhist figures, representing some of the powers in Chinese cosmology. They often appear in popular literature, such as The Journey to the West.


So what are all of these characters--a boy and a girl, Heavenly Kings, and Dragon Emperors--doing in Kuan Yin's Garden? Simply, they are her minions, available to do her bidding. She hears a cry: "Help me, Kuan Yin, I cannot absorb the material I am studying!" And she sends off Vaisravana to protect the supplicant with His umbrella, enabling him to concentrate. "O, Kuan Yin, we are having an earthquake in Australia!" And off she sends the Dragon Emperor of the Southern Ocean to quell the disturbance.

And so this Garden represents the "war room" for Kuan Yin's battle against suffering. The pond in its center is symbolic of this function: in Chinese temples, people would bring live aquatic animals purchased in the marketplace and release them into ponds built specially for that purpose. (Hence the sign asking people not to put turtles in the water--it's full of chlorine!) The animals scattered about the Garden (can you find the elephants and tigers?) remind us that Kuan Yin is not just there for humans, but for all sentient beings.

We have now completed our focus on Compassion; it is time to move up the Courtyard of Cultivation.


Now turn your attention to each of the Deva Kings, starting at the front left and moving clockwise to the front right:

O Virudhaka, Great Heavenly King of the South Who Defends Truth and Controls Evil!

Help me with your sword of Wisdom to conquer evil in my life.

Help me to develop greater virtue.

Help me to enhance the lives of all sentient beings.

O Dhrtarastra, Great Heavenly King of the East Who Brings Ease and Creates Harmony!

Help me to appreciate the good things life offers.

Help me to conduct my affairs in moderation.

Help me to uphold the smooth functioning of society.

O Vaisravana, Great Heavenly King of the North Who Knows All and Protects Everyone!

Help me to accumulate the Wealth of Knowledge.

Help me to focus my thoughts on the pure Dharma.

Help me to see victory.

O Virupaksa, Great Heavenly King of the West Who Sees All and Brings the Serpent-Power!

Help me to see beyond my limited preoccupations.

Help me to appreciate the benefits of change in my life.

Help me to be aware, and manifest the Bodhi mind.


Now consider the Four Dragon Emperors in the ponds:

O Dragon Emperors of the Four Great Oceans!

Protect us from disaster.

Brings us beneficial conditions.

Teach us the virtues of change.

Return to the Kuan Yin Garden ||| INDEX ||| Continue to the Courtyard

The Avalokitesvara (Kuan Yin) Garden

The Great Compassionate Mother
The Bodhisattva and Her Two Attendants

Leaving the Arhats, we move across the bottom of the Courtyard from this Garden of Wisdom to the Garden of Compassion, retracing in a way the history of Buddhism as we leave the presence of the Buddha's early followers and approach an arrangement representing the fully-flowered Mahayana tradition.

We have already met Kuan Yin in her more masculine, Indian form of Avalokitesvara in the Bodhisattva Hall. Here, in the Garden, she appears more typically Chinese: seated on Mount Potala, wearing an Amitabha in her hair, and accompanied by her two attendants, Lung Nu the Dragon Maiden and Sudhana (or Shan Ts'ai) the Virtuous Talent. It is unnecessary to say much about her here, beyond highlighting the elements just mentioned. But we will inevitably have to discuss her as we explore the Garden, as she is its central figure and reason for being.

Just as the Arhats in their Garden exemplify the school of Southern Buddhism, the figures in this Garden represent the Mahayana. In Temple literature, the Garden is sometimes referred to as "The Salvation Paradise of Guang Shih Yin P'u Sa," or Kuan Yin; every figure in the Garden relates to her vows to save all sentient beings who call on her name. This is the fullest expression of the Mahayana Bodhisattva Ideal.

Standing just below Kuan Yin as she sits on her mountain are a boy and a girl. Perhaps it is natural that such a "mother figure" would have acquired children, but it is interesting to note that, while she encounters both of the children individually in scriptural sources, the three were never seen together until popular art and storytelling reworked the materials. Some feel this is a popular Buddhist imitation of the Taoist figures of the Golden Boy and Jade Girl who have been accompanying the Jade Emperor since the Tang Dynasty.


Most of Kuan Yin (as Avalokitesvara)'s scriptural encounters with the Dragon Maiden Lung Nu appear in esoteric texts in which the Bodhisattva brings esoteric rituals to the Dragon King; the King's daughter in return presents Avalokitesvara with a precious Jewel. The Dragon King's daughter also appears in Chapter 12 of The Lotus Sutra, where she presents a Jewel to the Buddha (and not incidentally is turned into a man and achieves Enlightenment). Although Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was present at this event, no dialogue is recorded between them.

It remains for popular literature to bring the two together. In one story, it seems that Kuan Yin (as Miao Shan) heard the cries of a very special fish who had been caught. This fish was the Third Son of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, who had been out for a swim "incognito," disguised as a carp. Of course, Kuan Yin rescued the hapless creature. (By the way, when you see Kuan Yin with a dragon, it's usually this Third Son.) In gratitude for Kuan Yin's help, the Dragon King sent his granddaughter with--you guessed it--a Jewel to present to Kuan Yin in thanksgiving for her uncle's rescue.

Well, despite growing up with dragons--or perhaps because of it--Lung Nu was overwhelmed by the Presence of Kuan Yin, and asked to become her disciple on the spot. Kuan Yin accepted the young lady as her attendant, and the rest is--er--history.


Shan-Ts'ai is another story. As far as scriptural sources are concerned, the boy and the Bodhisattva meet in one of the best-known Buddhist scriptures. In the Hua-yen (Avatamasaka or Flower Garland) Sutra, Shan-Ts'ai as the monk Sudhana sets out to study the Dharma from fifty-three teachers; Avalokitesvara is stop number twenty-eight on his itinerary.

Later, in popular literature, he is an orphan living a hermit's life, and desires to return to her tutelage (now as Miao Shan). To test his sincerity, Kuan Yin arranges to have various immortals dress up as bad guys. They play-act a scene in which, to escape the ruffians, the lady jumps off a cliff. Undaunted, the boy jumps off, too, following her even to certain death.

And in fact he does die. Kuan Yin shows him himself as he ascends from his battered body down below and, now free, he can accompany her on any necessary adventures.

Kuan Yin is often depicted with the virtuous young monk and the elegant princess. Looking at their statues, we can see a sort of Yin and Yang present:

female vs. male

lay vs. monk

elegant vs. plain

Chinese vs. Southern

supernatural vs. human

And so, just below the Bodhisattva, we see this pairing of opposites.


Face the figure of Kuan Yin and say:

O Kuan Yin! From your place on Mount Potala, hear the cries of all sentient beings.

Come swiftly to our aid.

Send your attendants Lung Nu and Shan Ts'ai to help us.

Send the Four Deva Kings of Heaven to help us.

Send the Four Dragon Emperors of the Deep to help us.

And help us, too, to help others when they call, being your eyes, ears, and hands.

Now turn your attention to each of the figures in turn, starting with the Dragon Maiden Lung Nu and the Virtuous Talent Shan Ts'ai:

O Lung Nu, Grand-daughter of the Great Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean:

You have dedicated your life to serving others through serving Kuan Yin;

Let me do the same.

You have presented Great Jewels to the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas;

Let me present my most precious things to these Great Ones.

You have grasped Enlightenment despite the doubts of others;

Let me also persevere in my progress.

O Shan Ts'ai, diligent monk who traveled far and wide to learn the Dharma:

You were willing to serve others through serving Kuan Yin even unto death;

Let me do the same.

You have sought out Kuan Yin not only for her Compassion but for her Wisdom;

Let me also keep these in balance.

You stand before Kuan Yin in reverence, with palms joined and hands upraised;

Let me also maintain my devotion.

Return to the Arhat Garden ||| INDEX  ||| Continue to the Four Kings

The Arhat Garden

The Garden of Wisdom

Note: The 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 becoming Arhats, not Bodhisattvas.

However, both 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!

The Ekottara-agama, 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, and 360. [You can see the Chinese transliterations of some of the names as given by Watters here.]

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 iconography.

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, Bodhisattvas 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.


[The links lead to articles with pictures; most are in pairs, and their various Chinese names are used. See also the "Gallery" of images from Hsi Lai's Arhat Garden at the bottom of this page.]

  • Vanavasin, 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. (picture, with Subinda)
  • Angaja, 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. (picture, with Kalika)
  • Rahula, 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. (picture)
  • Panthaka, 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. (picture, with Ajita)
  • Pindola, 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! (picture, with Vajraputra)
  • Maitreya, 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 (connected 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! (picture, with "Dragon-Taming Arhat")
  • Kanakavatsa, 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. (picture, with Kanakabharavaja)
  • Ajita, 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. (picture, with Panthaka)
  • Nakula, 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. (picture, with Cudapanthaka)
  • Bhadra, 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. (picture, with Nagasena)
  • Kalika, 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. (picture, with Angaja)
  • Cudapanthaka, 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. (picture, with Nakula)
  • Jivaka, 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. (picture)
  • Vajraputra, 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. (picture, with Pindola)
  • Subinda, 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. (picture, with Vanavasin)
  • Mahakassapa, 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. Kasyapa 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. (picture, with "The Tiger-Riding Arhat")
  • Kanakabharavaja, 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. (picture, with Kanakavatsa)
  • Nagasena, 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. (picture, with Bhadra)


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.

Return to the Five Mudras ||| INDEX  ||| Continue to the Kuan Yin Garden

Buddhas of Five Mudras

A Brief Meditation in the Bodhisattva Hall

On the sides of the Bodhisattva Hall, just above the re-duplicated images of Kuan Yin, there is a row of Buddha figures. This is the Shakyamuni Buddha, portrayed with five mudras, or hand gestures. You can start at the left end of the Hall; count out to the tenth figure from the front, showing the Buddha in a brown robe. (This will put you in a place with little foot traffic.)

There are five mudras.

  • The first is the Buddha in meditation, or dhyana; one hand lies on the other, resting in the lap. This is the pose the Buddha held until he achieved Enlightenment. (brown robe)
  • The next mudra (to the left) shows the Buddha touching the Earth (bhumisparsha) with his right hand (palm in). At the end of his meditation, he was attacked by Mara the Evil One, and tempted to sin. By touching the Earth the Buddha literally "grounded" himself, and the evil dissipated like static electricity when you touch a doorknob. (blue robe)
  • The next figure is similar, but here the palm is turned outward. This is the Boon-bestowing (varada) mudra, where the Buddha offers us his gift of Wisdom. (orange robe)
  • Next, the hand is raised (palm outward) in the gesture Allaying Fear (abhaya). (green robe)
  • Finally, there is a mudra in which the fingers seem intricately entwined. It is like two circles touching, and is called "The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma," (dharmachakra) or the beginning of the Buddha's teaching. (One Buddhist scholar says the Buddha is simply counting off his points on his fingers, like any good teacher!) (white robe)

[2023: These can be five images of Shakyamuni at different points in his life, as described here; but they are also identified with five different "Dhyani" or "Wisdom" Buddhas, thus:

  • dhyana mudra: Amitabha
  • bhumisparsha mudra: Akshobhya
  • varada mudra: Ratnasambhava
  • abhaya mudra: Amoghasiddhi
  • dharmacakra mudra: Vairocana

See the Wikipedia article for much more.]


Brown Robe, the Meditation Mudra:

O Buddha, help me to concentrate on achieving Enlightenment.

Blue Robe, the Earth-touching Mudra:

O Buddha, help me to avoid evil.

Orange Robe, the Boon-bestowing Mudra:

O Buddha, help me to accept the gifts you offer.

Green Robe, the Fear-allaying Mudra:

O Buddha, help me to conquer all fear.

White Robe, the Teaching Mudra:

O Buddha, help me to understand your teachings.

Return to the Diamond Sutra ||| INDEX  ||| Continue to the Arhat Garden

The Diamond Sutra (Emptiness)

The Final Word on the Nature of Reality

We are finished, then, with the Bodhisattvas, but not with the Bodhisattva Hall. Under the Bodhisattvas is a large panel containing approximately 5,000 Chinese characters. This is the full Chinese text of The Diamond Sutra, one of the central sutras of the Mahayana tradition. Its primary teaching is emptiness, an idea that was mentioned above. An excellent translation of this sutra can be found in Edward Conze's Buddhist Wisdom. The Sutra says that the Bodhisattva "should regard the ego's temporal world/ As a falling star, or Venus chastened by the Dawn,/ A bubble in a stream, a dream,/ A candle-flame that sputters and is gone." This indicates the insubstantiality of the world.

However, emptiness should not be confused with nothingness. There is something there; it just doesn't have its own, independent reality. Remember the exercise on "mindful breakfast"? Thinking about the people and elements that went into your bowl of corn flakes helps you to see that you are not a free-standing entity.

The Buddha's description of this involved an image known as "Indra's Net of Gems." Imagine an infinite, three-dimensional net; this is the universe. At each knot in the net there is a jewel; these are the things in the universe. Now, every gem is reflected in every other gem; conversely, all gems are reflected in one gem. So if one gem moves, every gem in the universe changes. This exemplifies the idea of emptiness: nothing is unaffected by any change in the universe; all is intimately interconnected. (There is a special room in the Museum that portrays this idea; check it out after your pilgrimage!)

So it's good to take a moment, look at The Diamond Sutra, and consider the implications of emptiness.


Now focus on the Chinese characters under the Bodhisattvas, as you move slowly toward the left end of the room. This is the Diamond Sutra. Contemplate the idea of emptiness, and recite these words:

This world is empty, and all things change,

Impermanent as a shooting star, or the Morning Star at Dawn;
Like a bubble in a stream, or a fleeting night's dream,
Like a candle-flame that sputters and is gone.

Return to Manjusri ||| INDEX  ||| Continue to the Five Mudras