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The Eighteen Arhats

The talks titled “The Eighteen Arhats” were conducted over two sessions on 29 & 30 July, and attracted an audience of close to 200 people (including FGS members, FGS students and the public) in total.

Venerable Youlu kick-started the first talk by announcing the completion of the English version of “Encyclopedia of the Buddhist Art”. A set of the books was on display and the audience were given a chance to browse through them.

The topic was introduced with a definition of an “arhat” as the “worthy one, free from the 10 fetters and who had overcome afflictive obstruction but not noetic obstruction (i.e. knowledge)”. Venerable Youlu shared that in the <<Record of Dharma Abiding As Spoken by the Great Arhat Nandimitra>>, there were only 16 arhats and not 18 as we are familiar with in modern days. These 16 arhats were assigned by Buddha to reside in the North, South, East and West and act as fields of merit. Later, with Taoism’s influence, two additional arhats were added – the subduing green dragon and the taming white tiger arhats.

Venerable Youlu also shared on the evolution of Buddha arts depicting the arhats. The very first painting of the 16 arhats was by Master Guanxiu – pioneer of Chan art. During the Song dynasty, sculptures of the arhats appeared. Images of these arhats underwent transformations over the decades as can be seen in the paintings and sculptures that appeared in different dynasties.

In Taiwan’s Buddha Memorial Centre (BMC) today, the 18 arhats on display deviate from tradition to include three female arhats: Mahaprajapati, Uppalavanna and Bhadra Kapilani. Venerable Youlu explained that this was a deliberate choice by Master Hsing Yun who wanted to show that Buddhism embraces gender equality. She also shared interesting anecdotes of these three female arhats. Venerable also introduced Buddha’s ten disciples who form the 18 arhats in BMC.

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