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

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