Four Arhats and Dharma – Rubin Museum Research Paper:
Being new to this city is not easy.
As someone who grew up in a small farmers’ village, in addition to the language
barrier, the culture shock and the unique pace of New York city I also find it
hard to adjust to this concrete jungle which lacks the open green spaces I am
used to. Perhaps this is the reason why I find so much peace when I visit the beautiful
public parks here. The recent weather, which is another thing that it might
take me a while to get used to, has made it nearly impossible to visit those
parks and green urban spaces that have been used as a sweet escape for me
during the five months I have been here. I am certainly not surprised that the Four
Arhats, by the Fourteenth Karmpa Tekchok Dorje is the artwork
that attracted me the most during my tour at the Rubin Museum.
Sitting on the grass, reading a book in the
shade of a tall tree and earing the sounds of birds nearby is my ideal fantasy
of peacefulness and freedom. The scene painted in this artwork is almost
perfect to describe that feeling I miss so much. In this well-preserved
artwork, four men are seen in the middle of what I interpret as a group study.
They are sharing their books and their knowledge while enjoying a beautiful day
that allows them to sit together outside and join the calming atmosphere that
is illustrated by the flying bird and the light-colored sky. The four men are
wearing similar cloths, what indicates about their mutual purpose and engagement.
They seem to be communicating among themselves and cooperating, what adds to
the calming, peaceful overall atmosphere. One major distinction that is noticeable
about this Buddhism associated painting is the missing presence of Buddha, who
is mentioned in nearly all other artworks of the museum.
Not including Buddha in the
painting as well as using normative colors that illustrate a “realistic”
scene are both mentioned as techniques that are most recognized with the Chinese
Karmapa artists. Karmpa Choying Dorje was a Chinese artist and
religious leader who was born 1604 and died in 1674. The
idiosyncratic style of his painting and unique technique has inspired many
followers in future generations that are believed to be his incarnations with
the Fourteenth Karmpa, Tekchok Dorje, who is associated with this specific
painting being one of them.
The Fourteenth Karmpa, Tekchok Dorje lived as
an example of the ideal simplicity. He was a gifted poet and he participated in
the ri-me movement which was very popular among other great scholars at that
time who shared each other’s’ traditions and teachings. Tekchok Dorje taught
mostly in Tibet and he passed into parinirvana in 1845, when he was 71 years
old and left detailed instructions to his next incatrnation. The painting of
Four Arhats is believed to be either his own work or painted under his
supervision at his workshop with this painting of arhats being one of the five
paintings set that is associated with his work. In most artworks that include
arhats (“the worthy ones”), they appear as individuals and not as a
group of arhats. In Tekchok’s set they appear as a community, groups of arhats
who are all participating in a shared activity.
The arhats in Teckchok’s painting are
four out of sixteen arhats who were instructed by Buddha himself to maintain the
Dharma (his teaching) and preserve the world until the “new Buddha”
arrives. The arhats (the worthy ones) are not only the Dharma’s protectors, but
they are also symbols for moral behavior within the community. These 16 arhats
are worshiped and they are considered as ‘saints’ who have fully realized the
Buddhism. They are mostly represented in China and Japan, usually in paintings
and may be shown as young or old men. According to Buddhism, right before
Buddha was about to enter final nirvana he assured that his teachings are taken
care of and will be passed on to future generation by selecting great sixteen
arhats and appointing them for that important matter. Some Buddhist believe
that those sixteen saints have extended their lives in order to be helpful for
people in need until this day.
The Arhants have all reached enlightenment
but are not considered Buddhas because they all did so by following Buddhas
methods and not by themselves like Buddha did. However, Buddha himself is
considered Arhat and he is often addressed as one in Chinese and Japanese
literature. Though Arhat is a very high rank of Buddhahood, religion critics
distinguish Arhats from Buddhas using the claim that Arthats is a rather
selfish act of achieving self-nirvana while Buddha focuses on the benefits of
all people and seeks salvation for the many.
In a way, the existence of the
Arhats and their mentioning through art and literature is a real living proof
of the Buddha’s success. These saints are set as an evidence to the spread of
and continuity of Buddha’s word and teachings. At the years after Buddha’s
death, the Arhats were a visual element of what was left of him and the fact
that the 19th century set of paintings show those Arhats can be seen
as reminder to Buddhist of that time and today that Buddha’s way did not die with
him, and the Dharma is still alive and still here to follow, as Buddha himself
said on his deathbed: “It may be that after I am gone that some of you think
that now you have no teacher, but that is not how you should see it. Let the
Dharma and the discipline that I have taught you be your teacher.” 1
Dharma is the truth and the right
way to be followed by all that was claimed by Buddha. Dharma is
one of the “Three Jewels” that enable refuge for Buddhists along with
Buddha and the sangha. Thought the word dharma can be translated to many
different meanings, the most significant use for it is referred as
“teachings” or “doctrines”. Some religion scholars believe that
the Dharma, as its role in refuge is referred to the third and fourth of the
“Four Noble Truths” and that the meaning of Dharma in this formation
is that it “holds one back” from falling to the state of suffering.
In order for one to understand Buddhism,
understanding the meaning of Dharma is essential. In chapter four of Living
Religions, by Mary Pat Fisher, Dharma is described as “a raft to take us
(Buddhists) to the farther shore, rather than a description of the shore or
something to be carried around once we get there”. Buddha’s teachings and
the path to enlightenment he had paved is the core of Buddhism. After reaching enlightenment
on his own, Buddha began spreading his knowledge to help others release
themselves from their suffering. In a way, his teachings and his reach to so
many people are what made Buddha what he is known today and without passing his
discipline to others he would not have become the key figure he is. The most
basic principles and doctrines of Buddhism such as impermanence, emptiness, Antman
and nirvana are all a part of Buddhas Dharma that is used as a tool for understanding
The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the path to enlightenment. In
order to become a real Buddhist, one must accept the Dharma and Buddha’s
teachings as a way of life and believe in the path of the Dharma completely.
The Dharma itself is not the life story of Buddha himself or the story of
creation like holy bibles of other religions, but a set of instructions given
by Buddha and his experience and viewpoint.
The period after Buddha’s death is
called by Buddhists historians “the time of the true dharma”. It is
believed that back than the Buddhas instructions were so well followed that it
many people in need and made Buddhism even more popular than it was during
Buddha’s lifetime. The sixteen Arhats have of course a big part of the
preserving and spreading the Dharma at that time, acting as the messengers of
Before reaching enlightenment,
Buddha did mention the dharma he received from his teachers. His enlightenment
is then called “turning the wheel of dharma”. This means that the
Dharma he had followed (Hindu Dharma) is different from the Dharma he will
teach, the Dharma that he believes to be the path to enlightenment. Being born
into the Hindu tradition, Buddha’s teachings are in a way his reform of
Hinduism and his “new Dharma” can be seen as a correction of the
former Dharma. “True Dharma” is a term that is used often by Buddhists
to distinct Buddhist Dharma and Hindu Dharma.
Dharma in Hinduism is understood as
the law, order or the duties of Hindu people. It is a general name of the instructions
that Hinduists are meant to follow. Hinduism itself is not one religion but a
name given by westerns to various religious movements that are practiced in
India (or originated in India). The Dharma is considered by some scholars as
the mutual ground for all movements that are under the wide Hinduism umbrella.
The Dharma as a connector between those various traditions contains the cast
system and the authority of Veda within its doctrine.
Total submission to one’s Dharma is
something that is highly associated with Hinduism. Being born into a specific cast
level is accepted as one’s dharma and should not be questioned or interfered. That
is the Dharma, the destiny, the law, according to Hinduism. The only way to
move up into a higher caste is to live up to the Dharma that is set for you in
this life and then expect good karma and to help you be born again in a higher
caste in your next life. According to Living Religions, by Mary Pat Fisher,
Chapter 3: “Dharma is thus a holistic approach to social coherence and the
good of all, a concept corresponding to order in the cosmos”. It can be
understood that the Hindu concept of Dharma is to be accepted by everyone as an
order or a way of life because that is what will maintain world order.
For me, the real distinction between
Hindu Dharma and Buddhist Dharma is the fact that Buddha’s Dharma is often used
as a guide, an arrow pointing the way towards enlightenment and pure wisdom,
while the Hindu Dharma is a set of rules that have to be followed on order to
avoid punishment (bad karma). The doctrine of Dharma itself tells the whole
story of the difference between these two religions. Buddhist Dharma clearly
indicates about Buddha’s belief in human’s power to alter, learn and reach
enlightenment while Hinduist Dharma suggests that one should accept upon self
the Dharma as it is and should only live up to the best possible in a very
specific framework set upon birthday and one’s faith. The Hinduist Dharma
includes detailed instructions of how worship the gods while Buddhist who
follow the Dharma do not worship Buddha or any other god as common ritual
associated with the Dharma. That is why declaring Buddhism as a religion has
been controversy over many years.
While discussing whether Buddhism
is a religion one should bear in mind to complexity of the issue. While others
might say the Buddhism is not a religion I think it is indeed a religion. Religion
is defined by Ninian Smart (Course Reader) as one that has all following seven
dimentions: rituals, narrative and mythic, experimental, social and
institutional (belief system), ethical and legal, doctrinal and philosophical
and material: ordinary objects that symbolize sacredness. I do see each and
everyone of these seven in Buddhism and that is why I claim that it is a
Meditation and yoga can obviously be seen as rituals of practicing Buddhism.
The life story of Buddha who came back to live one last life on this earth to
help humanity deal with suffering is the narrative along with all his
path towards enlightenment. The experimental and emotional processes
that are a part of Buddhism is the Buddha’s search of understanding the nature
of suffer, the enlightenment that is considered the goal of Buddhism is definitely
an emotional goal. The social and institutional aspects of
Buddhism are the Dharma, the For Novel Truths and Eightfold Path that set a way
of life or a system of beliefs for practicing Buddhists. The ethical and
legal dimension of Buddhism can be seen in Buddhas decision to reject the
caste system and see everybody as equal. Later on, he also approved his wife’s
request of becoming a nun and by that called for gender equality. The doctrinal
and philosophical dimension of Buddhism is very wide and is well
spread with, Impermanence, Atman and Emptiness being the most distinctive
doctrines. Lastly, the thousands shrines are the material dimension of
Buddhism, with the most holy ones built in four holy locations that are
described in The Buddha (Directed by David Grubin): the place where Buddha was born, where
he had reached enlightenment, where he began his teachings and where he died.
Some people may claim that because
Buddhism is non-theistic it is not a religion, that is because some people see
religion as the answer of all world creation questions. Buddhis at the 1993 Parliament
of World’s Reiligions in Chicgo (chapter four of Living Religions, by Mary Pat
Fisher) refute those claims by explaining that “unlike those who believe
in God, who is separate from us, Buddhist believe that Buddha which means
“one who is awake and enlightened” is inherit in us all as buddhamind,”
Buddhists believe that all living creature have “Buddha seed” inside
them, and there is no reason to believe that anyone cannot reach enlightenment.
Reaching enlightenment, nirvana or
moksha are all spiritual states that are achievable according to Buddhism and
Hinduism. As someone who knew very little about these two religions I see this
spiritual perfection pursuit as both the most amazing thing and what differs
these two religions from the Abrahamic religions. The journey that one has to
take in order to truly understand where our suffering is coming from and to
wake up and realize how things work and why sounds to me like an important
thing that requires a lot of effort. While I see the Abrahamic religions as
religions that share interpretations of how the world was created and what is
our purpose on earth (mostly serve god or not to sin in order to go back to
heaven), I can see how setting moksha or enlightenment as a life goal is much purer.
Prior to this project I was not sure what the difference was or if there was
one between Hinduism and Buddhism and now, after learning a lot about these two
fascinating religions I find a lot of sense and see myself relating to Buddhism
in particular even more than I do to my own religion.
“Dharma.” Britannica Online Academic
Edition, 2017, pp. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc
Cochran, Mindfulness Meditation, Media Center, The Rubin Meuseum Website,
September 6, 2017, http://rubinmuseum.org/mediacenter/tracy-cochran
Keown, D. “Sixteen Arhats.” A
Dictionary of Buddhism, 2004, pp. A Dictionary of Buddhism.
“Arhat.” Oxford Reference. 2003-01-01. .
Date of access 20 Jan. 2018, http://www.oxfordreference.com.rpa.laguardia.edu:2048/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095423442
“dharma.” The Princeton
Dictionary of Buddhism, edited by Robert E. Jr. Buswell, and Donald S. Jr.
Lopez, Princeton University Press, 1st edition, 2013. Credo Reference,
Accessed 20 Jan 2018.
tenzin gyurme, The Golden Rosary, Chapter 3, Page 83, Published by Karma Triyana
AGRAWAL, Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. VIL No.1, 2000, pp.
Cochran, Mindfulness Meditation, Media Center, The Rubin Meuseum Website,
September 6, 2017, http://rubinmuseum.org/mediacenter/tracy-cochran
Directed by David Grubin, narrated by Richard Gere, PBS, 2010
10. Knott, Kim, ‘Hindu dharma, Hinduism, and hinduisms’ in Hinduism: A Very Short
Introduction, 2nd edn (Oxford, 2016; online edn, Very Short Introductions
online, Feb. 2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/actrade/9780198745549.003.0009,
accessed 20 Jan. 2018.
11. “dharma.” The Hutchinson Unabridged
Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, edited by Helicon, 1st edition, 2016. Credo Reference,
Accessed 21 Jan 2018.
1 The Buddha. Directed by David Grubin,
narrated by Richard Gere, PBS, 2010