Arhats or lohan in Chinese and rakan in Japanese are the original disciples of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (SHAHK-yah-moo-nee). This sculpture is one of a set of five-hundred arhats that was created for a temple in Edo (now Tokyo). The figure sits in a casual pose, with the left leg folded under and the right knee raised. The face is that of a mature man, beardless and head shaven, who stares thoughtfully at a small lotus blossom that he holds in his left hand.
Arhats are a popular subject of monastic art in Japan, and they play a large role in Zen Buddhist imagery. Arhats may appear in both scroll paintings and sculptural sets in groups of four, sixteen, eighteen, one-hundred, or five-hundred. These works of art were often placed in special chapels for veneration. Images of arhats often take on a portrait-like quality, with highly-individualized or exaggerated features such as domed heads or long eyebrows. Although lists that identify each arhat exist, the descriptions are vague, and precise identifications are difficult.
Arhats or lohan in Chinese and rakan in Japanese are the original disciples of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (SHAHK-yah-moo-nee). This group of “perfected saints” or holy men has achieved a level of enlightenment equal to that of the Buddha but, like bodhisattvas [bo-dee-SAHT-vah], has put off Nirvana to remain in the human world and help Buddhist followers on the path towards enlightenment. Worshippers believe that arhats’ extraordinary spiritual levels have endowed them with super-human capabilities, and they are a popular subject in Buddhist art.
Monks and ascetics often portrayed arhats, and they play a large role in Zen Buddhist imagery. Arhats may appear in both scroll paintings and sculptural sets in groups of four, sixteen, eighteen, one-hundred, or five-hundred. These works of art were often placed in special chapels for veneration.
Images of arhats in the form of monks or ascetics often take on a portrait-like quality, and many artists depicted the figures with highly-individualized or exaggerated features such as domed heads or long eyebrows. Although lists that identify each arhat exist, the descriptions are vague, and precise identifications are difficult.
This sculpture is one of a set of five-hundred arhats that was created for a temple in Edo (now Tokyo). Stylistically, it closely follows the exaggerated realism of Ming dynasty religious sculpture, which was transmitted to Japan in the 17th century with a new sect of Zen Buddhism, known in Japan as Obaku Zen. The figure sits in a casual pose, with the left leg folded under and the right knee raised. The face is that of a mature man, beardless and head shaven, who stares thoughtfully at a small lotus blossom which he holds in the left hand. The realism and individuality of the face are accomplished through the generous modeling of the facial features, such as the eyes, the fleshy nose and ears, the deep furrows of the cheeks, and the sharp edges of the lips. The same fullness and generosity of carving characterizes the treatment of the robe that covers both shoulders and the legs.
Buddhism originated in India and is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha (sid-DAHR-thah) Gautama (go-ta-ma). Prince Siddhartha was born in 567 B.C. and became known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One. He taught that all life is suffering, but renouncing desires and the self can lead to a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Buddhism is no longer widely practiced in India, but has spread to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East through missionary activity. Today it is one of the world’s largest religions.
Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Siddhartha is also often referred to as the Buddha Shakyamuni (SHAHK-yah-moo-nee). The Buddha was born into the Shakya clan, and the name Shakyamuni may mean “glory of the Shakya” or “sage of the Shakya.”
Though Buddhism is considered to have officially been introduced to Japan by diplomatic envoys from Korea in 538 A.D., it may have been brought by foreign monks long before that. At the time of Buddhism’s introduction, some in Japan opposed the arrival of this new religion due to the prevalence of Shintoism, a religion that deifies nature spirits and the spirits of ancestors. Many early Japanese-Shinto spirits eventually fused with Buddhist holy figures.
Several forms of Buddhism gained popularity throughout Japan, most famously Zen Buddhism. Like all forms of Buddhism, Zen originated in India but became a formalized cult in China. Known as Ch’an Buddhism in China, Zen Buddhism was transmitted to Japan in the thirteenth century. It flourished during the Edo period and was the choice religion amongst the samurai warrior class.
Zen Buddhism follows the doctrine of traditional Buddhism but emphasizes the importance of meditation and lived experience over inherited knowledge or theory, such as Buddhist scriptures or the worship of deities. Followers of Zen Buddhism are encouraged to seek their existing internal wisdom during lengthy periods of meditation and reflection on koans. Zen teaches that one is already an enlightened being and only has to awaken to this realization to achieve full enlightenment.
Kamakura period (1185-1336)
The Kamakura Period saw the shift in power from courtly nobility to landowning military persons in the provinces. This system of government, whereby the military shogunate wielded political power and the emperor served as a figurehead, lasted for seven centuries. In 1333, supporters of the Emperor attempted to restore political power to the throne rather than continuing to allow military rule of Japan by shoguns and their samurai warriors. Shortly thereafter Ashikaga Takauju, a member of the shogunate, usurped the northern court in Kyoto, and the exiled Emperor Go-Diago established a southern court in Yoshino. The establishment of the northern and southern courts marked the end of the Kamakura period.
Military rule and the establishment of a warrior class created a new set of patrons of the arts. The warrior class preferred realism and subject matter that communicated honesty and energy rather than restraint and idealism. Realism and deep carving are two characteristics of sculpture produced during the Kamakura period and are evident in this sculpture. Buddhism during the Kamakura period also saw many reforms and counter-reforms. The courtly and warrior classes continued the traditions of Amida worship and Esoteric Buddhism, and during this period, more Japanese than ever before ascribed to Buddhism.
The sculpture is hollow and composed of joined sections of lacquered wood, which is the technique typical of the period. Pigment and gold were added to highlight certain features, remnants of which appear on the arhat’s face and back of his robe.
1. Study the facial expression and body language of this figure. What emotion is communicated by the face and posture of this sculpture? Take the pose and expression of this figure and describe how you feel.
2. Consider how this figure stares thoughtfully at a small lotus blossom in his hand. Think of a time that you gave quiet, meditative focus to one idea or one object and share your thoughts with the class. What benefits may come from slowing down to focus on the simple and beautiful things around us?
1. Together with your class, view a series of images of faces with diverse expressions of moods. These images could be a collection of photographs from the web or from magazines. Mimic the expressions that you see in the series of images and write a short response about how you feel when you assume each expression. Review the series of images and share thoughts and ideas associated with each expression.
Compare and contrast Portrait of an Arhat
with another Japanese Buddhist sculpture, Emma-O
. What similarities and differences do you notice? Review the information included with each sculpture and discuss the context or meanings that may be shared by the two works.
3. Consider how facial expressions and body language varies by culture. Have students research the expressions and gestures of another culture and share their findings with the class.
4. This sculpture would have appeared in a Buddhist temple alongside many other Buddhist objects. In groups, research a particular religious or sacred structure from the list provided. Create a presentation with images that shows the types of materials, sculptures, and other artistic elements used throughout the space. Potential structures: The Hanging Church (Cairo), Notre Dame Cathedral (Paris), Hagia Sophia (Istanbul), Temple of Heaven (Beijing), Angkor Wat (Angkor), Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem). Compare and contrast your discoveries to Portrait of an Arhat.
5. The body of this seated arhat is accentuated by the lines of his clothing. Experiment with drapery and draping figures through gesture drawing. As a class, set up the studio or classroom in a circular arrangement to place focus on a central figure. Select a classmate to serve as the model. Drape the model with textiles or fabric that can be overlapped, folded, and gathered in ways to create interesting lines and forms. Have the model switch between standing, sitting, and other body positions. Have classmates draw quick, gestural sketches of the model. Start with 2-3 minute sketches and then challenge to class to 30 second sketches. Conduct a class critique of the sketches.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997. Page 45.
Leidy, Denise P. The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History & Meaning. Boston and London: Shambhala, 2008.
Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.
Watson, William, ed. The Great Japan Exhibition: Art of the Edo Period 1600-1868. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1981.
Books for Students:
Heinrichs, Ann. Japan – a true book. Children’s Press, 1997.
Iijima, Geneva C. Billin-Frye, Paige. The way we do it in Japan. Albert Whitman & Company, 2002.
Streissguth, Tom. A Ticket to Japan. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1997.
Williston, Theresa P. Marsh, Dilleen. The Bamboo Cutter & the Moon Maiden – a Japanese folk tale. Leatherwood Press LLC, 2006.
This resource from the Asia Society talks about teaching comparative religions.
This resource packet from the Asian Art Museum discusses Hindu and Buddhist art.
On this website, the British Broadcasting System offers a history of Buddhism.
This is a short essay on Buddhism and Buddhist art.
Learn more about the Kamakura and Nanbokucho Periods of Japan from this website.
This website provides a detailed description of Zen Buddhism.
This video discusses Japanese Buddhism.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”