Kim Byeongho — a farmer and his wife — used to be frequent visitors to a hillside in Yeongwol, Gangwon-do province, Republic of Korea that had long been known to locals as the Mudeomchi (Hill of Graves) temple site. After each visit Mrs Kim’s health improved, so they purchased a portion of the land to move there. After relocating, Mrs Kim saw the Buddha in an auspicious dream and asked her husband to build a modest temple in gratitude.
In 2001, Mr Kim was clearing some of the land with this intent when he found carved stone heads. He reported his findings to the authorities, prompting archaeological excavations led by the Gangwon Research Institute of Cultural Heritage in 2001–02.
Roof tile fragments inscribed with the characters for ‘changnyeong’ (green mountain ridge) were unearthed identifying the site as that of the Changnyeonsa Temple, believed to have been built between about 800 and 1000 years ago during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392 CE).
Korean scholars knew of this temple from historical records such as the Sinjeung Dongguk yeoji seungnam (Newly Expanded Geographical Encyclopedia of Korea) dating from 1530 CE. Among the ruins were 328 whole or partial carved stone statues, 317 depicting arhats believed to have been part of a larger set honouring the Five Hundred Arhats revered in Korean Buddhist tradition. The other 11 statue fragments found at the site were from a Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Only 64 of the 317 arhats were still wholly intact.
They were found scattered outside the nahanjeon (arhat hall), and many bear the marks of being struck — indicating the temple and its contents were probably destroyed during an attack, or attacks, by Confucian scholars amid repression of Buddhism by the new state ideology of Confucianism around the middle of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897 CE).
Arhat is an English word, derived from Sanskrit. In Buddhist tradition arhats — also known as nahan in Korean, luohan in Chinese or rakan in Japanese — are enlightened beings who defer their entry to nirvana so they can remain in an earthly state to help others attain spiritual liberation.
The first reference to the Five Hundred Arhats appears in the Ekottara Agama Sutra, (known in English as the ‘Numbered Discourses’ or in Korean as ‘Jeungilahamgeyong’), a Sanskrit Buddhist text dating to 435–443 CE that tells how 500 disciples of the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama (known as Shakyamuni in Korean) gathered following his death and entry to nirvana to compile his teachings in the Buddhist sutras.
In East Asia — including China, Korea and Japan — a smaller set of 16 or 18 arhats are often the focus of religious texts and art.
Most historians agree the arhat cult that developed in Korea during the Goryeo dynasty is related to the Zen (Chan in Chinese or Seon in Korean) school of Buddhism that was spread from India to China, and later Korea, by the monk known in Korean as Dalma (or Bodhidharma in Sanskrit).
The Great Tang Record on the Western Regions, a book compiled in 646 CE by the Chinese Buddhist scholar Xuanzang documenting his 19-year pilgrimage, contains various descriptions of arhats; attributing to them three super wisdoms, six psychic supernatural powers and eight kinds of liberation. The Record includes many references of people praying to arhats.
Influenced by the Chinese tradition, the arhat cult was widespread in Korea during the Goryeo period as people believed they were supernatural beings who could answer prayers. An official history of the period, the Goryeosa (History of Goryeo) written between 1392–1451, contains 29 references to Nahanjae, a rite dedicated to the arhats praying for rain.
The first Korean written record of the Five Hundred Arhats can be found in the Samguk yusa 18BCE – 660CE (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, 18BCE – 660CE), written by Iryeon (1206–89).
The oldest existing Korean painting depicting the Five Hundred Arhats together was made in the 14th century and is today housed at Choin-in Temple in Japan. It depicts all 500 disciples gathered around a Buddha triad within a natural landscape.
Another significant depiction was a set of portraits, produced in Korea around 1235–36 CE showing the name of each arhat. Of the 500 paintings, 13 survive today.
Five Hundred Arhats on display at Powerhouse, Ultimo from 2 December 2021 – 15 May 2022 presents one Buddha and 50 arhats of Changnyeongsa Temple Site, generously on loan from Chuncheon National Museum of Korea in a re-imagining of the installation designed by contemporary Korean artist Kim Seung Young titled Five Hundred Arhats of Changnyeongsa Temple Site, Yeongwol: Reflections of Our Hearts.
Straddling the secular and sacred worlds, the candid faces of the arhats ask us to listen to our own inner voices and let their enlightenment resonate within us every day.
It is my hope that the soul-touching beauty of the Five Hundred Arhats of Changnyeongsa Temple, created by unknown Korean artisans in the distant past, will bring solace to the minds of Australians weary from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Written by Min-Jung Kim, Powerhouse Museum Curator
(김민정, 파워하우스박물관 큐레이터)
This blog is based on a longer article the same author originally published in The Journal of The Asian Arts Society of Australia, TAASA Review, Vol. 30 No. 4 December 2021.
About the exhibition, find here.