The 500 Arhats

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on November 30, 2015.)

Five hundred small Arhats in a hall at Longhua Temple, Shanghai

Many temples have a subsidiary hall featuring 500 Arhats. This raises two questions.

First, what is an Arhat? This is a Pali word, meaning "Noble One"; the Sanskrit is Arahant, which was transliterated Aluohan or just Luohan in Chinese.

In southern Buddhist tradition, an Arhat is an enlightened disciple of the Buddha. Since becoming a Buddha is rare, this is the highest state most devotees can achieve. Many of the Buddha's followers, like Ananda (Enan) and Kasyapa (Jiaye) were Arhats.

In Mahayana Buddhism (as found in most of China) every living thing is considered to be a Buddha in the making. An Arhat, then, is someone who has achieved an intermediary stage. In some sects, it is considered a sort of error, a dead-end on the way to becoming a Buddha.

Nevertheless, the Arhat is considered worthy of respect. In some sutras, there are gatherings of 500 Arhats assembled to listen to the Buddha speak. Their names are never given, so the names of the Arhats found in different Five-Hundred Arhat Halls can vary widely.

Some such halls are arranged in the shape of the Chinese character tian (田), hinting at the Buddhist concept called in English "cultivation." I have seen one in the shape of a swastika. Others are more random, allowing the visitor to wander from room to room. And sometimes miniature Arhats are all arranged in one hall.

In large halls, some visitors enjoy playing a game called "counting Arhats." You choose a random Arhat, and then count from him in a clockwise direction, up to your age. The personality of the final Arhat can tell you something about yourself!

No comments:

Post a Comment