Tiger and Dragon Arhats

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on December 19, 2016.)

The Dragon-Taming Arhat, Kaiyuan Temple, Chaozhou

At last we come to Arhats 17 and 18--who present some problems.

The earliest sets of Arhats had only 16 members. The addition of two more seems a fairly late occurrence in Han Chinese temples. Sets of 16 can still be found in the Tibetan and Japanese traditions.

Also, as can happen with "new" things, their names are still sometimes in flux. Depending on the temple, these two can have a wide variety of names.

And yet, they are among the easiest of all Arhats to identify. That's because they always have the same attributes, so they are often called simply "The Tiger-Taming Arhat" (Fu Hu) and the "Dragon-Taming Arhat" (Xiang Long). When names are used, they may be called "[Name] with a Dragon" and "[Name] with a Tiger."

What do they mean?

Although the distinction is fine, it is generally understood that the tiger represents the passions, and the dragon is our deepest inner selves. A more likely explanation is that they represent the "Yin and Yang," as often depicted in Daoist temples. The Tiger can be understood as "Yin," the stealthy animal representing potential action, like a wound-up spring toy. The Dragon, though, holds nothing back, always acting out, so he is "Yang." (Note that these are reversed in some iconographies, so that the Tiger is overtly passionate, and the Dragon mysterious and retiring.)

There is an added story for the Tiger-Taming Arhat. It is said that a tiger was once harassing a village, and when this Arhat heard about it, he suggested feeding it vegetables--making it a tame vegetarian!

The Tiger-Taming Arhat, Fuyan Temple, Nanyue

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