China is known as a non-religious country but it is home to many amazing Buddhist temples. While traveling we got to see these temples and learn about Arhats.
What’s an Arhat you ask? Well allow me.
According to Buddhism an Arhat is a person who has reached enlightenment (nirvana) and is lifted out of the cycle of reincarnation, thus not being reborn again. It sounds like what a Buddha is, but an Arhat does it through learning from others where a Buddha does it by himself. (It is interesting to note that the original Buddha, Siddhartha, is considered both a Buddha and an Arhat. Man, is there nothing this guy hasn’t done?)
Some say the Arhat is the selfish form of the Buddha. They want to reach nirvana for personal gain where a Buddha tries to share his enlightenment with others. Also, an Arhat doesn’t achieve a high a level of enlightenment as a Buddha, but high enough to enter nirvana so it is a little easier to obtain. If you are interested in reading about the four stages of becoming an Arhat you can check that out here.
It takes a few lifetimes to achieve so if you’re interested you might want to get a start now.
Arhats are also the perfect excuse for an artist to go wild and crazy. Many sculptures and carvings in a Buddhist temple are similar. Fearsome guardians, serene Buddha’s, blooming lotus flowers, they have a similar look to them no matter where they are.
But the Arhats I saw were completely different. They weren’t just different in facial structure and clothing, they had bulges on their heads, arms 8 feet long, and hearts shooting out of their chests. (In one temple, which we were not allowed to photograph, Arhat’s were riding dolphins, tigers and white elephants along a wall of water.)
In the Wuyou Temple near the Giant Buddha in Leshan they had a whole section dedicated to 1000 life-sized Arhats. It was surreal to walk around this giant dusty chamber of bizarre looking statues. At some points I felt like a defendant at a trial and other times I felt like I was watching the audience at a Jerry Springer show.
At the bamboo Temple outside of Kunming the Arhats are sadly hidden away in a dark chamber so we couldn’t get too close a look. They were older, and not painted as brightly, but they had many similar features of the others such a bulging heads, long eyebrows, and things coming out of their chests.
The head artist of these sculptures got a lot of flack from his fellow artists at the time for being so zany that as soon as he finished he packed his bags and disappeared, never to sculpt again. Well, he got the last laugh anyway as travelers from all over go to the temple precisely because his sculptures are so odd.