Musing on the Dharma through a Flower: A Medieval Japanese Arhat from the Smart Museum

Upon closer examination...

By Jie Shi|March 26, 2015

In a hanging scroll newly acquired by the University of Chicago's Smart Museum, a bald Arhat sits in the foreground under a tree, with a young monk and a little lay-girl at his right side. Behind them, a tree with stout trunks, sprawling leafs, and rosy blossoms emerges from behind the rocks. 

A golden incense-burner in the shape of a lotus flower hangs from a tree branch above the head of the Arhat who, as a perfected being, has reached reached nirvāṇa (in Theravāda Buddhism). The golden halo glittering behind his head indicates that the Arhat has divine status.

Wearing a Buddhist robe with his right shoulder uncovered, the Buddhist saint’s long sagging eyebrows, aquiline nose, and deeply set eyes, as well as a circular earring, revealing his exotic Indian provenance to East Asian viewers. 

Upon closer examination, this Arhat is not just sitting, but meditating, with all his attention focused on a tiny red flower held in his hands.
Legend has it that during a sermon, the Buddha picked up a flower in his hand without uttering a single word. Only one of his disciples, Mahākāśyapa, grasped the meaning and responded with a smile. In Zen (or Chan in Chinese) Buddhism this wordless sermon is called “Flower Sermon.” 

Even for the Arhat, musing over the Buddhist law, or Dharma, is an arduous task. The meditation lasts for so long and in such a silence that the girl attendant gets bored and falls into sleep. A hand scroll, possibly a Buddhist scripture, falls out of her hand, opens up, and hangs over the edge of the table. 

Whereas in some paintings of Arhats, the saint is depicted as reading the scroll, here the artist cleverly evades the intervention of words in favor of a wordless contemplation.
Worried, to the left, stands another young monk who leans towards the child, his left hand on her head as if he is about to wake her up. Unlike the master both attendants demonstrate typical East Asian physical features, suggesting that the Arhat is preaching the Dharma away from his homeland. 

The young monk’s robe bears delicate landscape images, which suggest a Japanese inspiration. In contrast, the brushwork of the rocks and tree is typical of Southern Song (1127-1279 CE) landscape paintings in China.
The popularity of Arhat paintings was a result of the development of the Arhat cult or belief which began to thrive during the late 9th or early 10th Century in China. The Sanskrit term Arhat (Rakan in Japanese, Luohan in Chinese) refers to those who leave behind all suffering but are not yet fully enlightened. By the order of Śākyamuni, they gained miraculous power after the death of the Buddha to permanently defend and maintain the Right Dharma (right teaching) after the nirvāṇa (death) of Buddha.
Today, in Japan, “Arhat” usually refers to one of the sixteen Arhats. The initially Indian and Western styles of images of Arhats were adapted to Chinese tastes while the number of Arhats expanded, ranging between eighteen to 500.

The Smart Museum’s 14th Century Japanese Rakan (Arhat) scroll is the first in a series of sixteen scrolls, each portraying one of the 16 Arhats. Though of superb quality, this work was influenced directly or indirectly by a Chinese original made in the Southern Song dynasty and imported by Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE). 

It was during the Southern Song dynasty that Japanese monks who traveled to China brought back home a number of Buddhist images including Arhat paintings, along with the Arhat cult. While these paintings, representing the highest artistic achievement of figure painting of the time, barely survive in China, those in Japan are in better condition.
The earliest example extant in Japan, currently in the collection of the Seiryoji monastery in Kyoto, dates to about 986. In the following centuries, each of the sixteen Arhat paintings continued to be meticulously copied by Japanese artists, circulated among and cherished by devout believers of the Arhat cult.
Hanging scroll, ink and gold pigment on silk: Rakan, 14th Century, Japanese, late Kamakura Period (1185–1333) / early Muromachi Period (1338–1573), Smart Museum of Art, 2013.12.


Chen, Qingxiang. “Dongdu Riben de Song dai Luohan hua” (The Arhat Paintings of the Song Dynasty That Were Imported Eastwards to Japan). Hua-Kang Buddhist Journal 7 (1984): 235-59.

Ueno, Ryōshin. “Rakan: Sono bijutsu to shinkō” (Arhats: Art and Belief). In Rakan: sono bijutsu to shinkō: tokubetsuten (Arhats: Art and Belief: Special Exhibition), 124-32. Edited by Shiga Kenritsu Biwako Bunkakan. Ōtsu: Shiga Kenritsu Biwako Bunkakan, 1994.

Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago.
Image: 14th Century Japanese hanging scroll of a Rakan, reproduced with permission from the Smart Museum of Art.

 Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud

To subscribe to Sightings and receive it by email every Monday and Thursday, please click here.

Author, Jie Shi, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at the University of Chicago. He has published several articles on early and medieval Chinese art. He is currently co-curating “Signed and Sealed: Connoisseurship of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Paintings,” a part of the exhibition, “Objects and Voices: A Collection of Stories,” at the Smart Museum of Art.