Jivaka, the Open-Hearted Arhat

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on June 22, 2015.)

A statue of Jivaka the Arhat at Xichan Temple, Fuzhou

In the main hall of many temples, one can see a collection of 18 statues, nine on a side, facing toward the main altar. These are the Eighteen Arhats (Chinese 罗汉, luohan), enlightened disciples of the Buddha. In the tradition of Southern Buddhism they are sometimes called sravakas or "hearers"--hence their attitude of harkening to the Buddha.

There are sometimes as many as 500 (in their own hall), each with his own name and story.

One of the most notable is an odd-looking fellow who seems to have the head of another figure emerging from his chest! This is Jivaka, sometimes called Gobaka (戌博迦), and his story goes like this:

In an ancient Indian kingdom, Jivaka was the crown prince, heir to the throne. But having heard the teaching of the Buddha, he decided that to be a monk would be a higher calling than being king.

So he went to his younger brother and declared his intentions. "My brother," he said, "I will leave the throne to you, and pursue the wandering life of a monk."

His brother, however, did not trust him. "It's a trick!" he said. "One day you will return with an army and take the kingdom back. It would be better for me if I eliminated you at once!" And with that, he picked up a sword.

"Wait, brother, wait!" cried Jivaka. "My intentions are pure. I have the Buddha in my heart."

"Mere words!" his brother replied. "Everyone claims to have the Buddha in his heart. But how can you prove it?"

So, opening his garments, Jivaka revealed the face of a Buddha on his chest and commanded, "Just look!"

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