The Eighteen Arhats

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on February 29, 2016.)

Painting of the Eighteen Arhats at Yufo Temple, Shanghai

I have written from time to time about those uniquely Buddhist figures called "the Arhats." Today, let's look at the most popular group, comprised of eighteen of them.

Although they are sometimes found in their own hall (or halls), most often the Eighteen Arhats are found in the main Buddha Hall, ranged nine on a side, in an attitude of listening to the Hall's main figure. This is consonant with their roles as sravakas or "hearers."

But who are they, exactly?

Tradition says that just before the Buddha "attained final Nirvana" (died), he told four of his hand-picked disciples to wait for the arrival of the next Buddha, Maitreya (popular in China as Mi'lefo, the "Laughing Buddha"). The number later grew to ten, and later still sixteen. The great monk, traveler, and scholar Xuanzang translated an Indian text in 654 CE that gave the Arhats' names; these are still mostly the ones used today.

Shortly thereafter, the list grew to 18, but no one knows why exactly. It may have been in imitation of other traditional Chinese groupings, or perhaps because eighteen is considered a lucky number. The number sixteen is still sometimes found, and is more common in the traditions of Tibet and Japan.

The two additions are fluid--their names may change from temple to temple, but they all have the same attributes: they are the Dragon Taming Arhat and the Tiger Taming Arhat. Some see these as a rebuke to the popular dragon/tiger pair found in the entries to many folk Dao temples!

Each Arhat has his own story, worth looking into for those who are interested. [We'll be exploring them in other articles in this series; see the Article List.]

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