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China's Dragon Culture

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Shaolin Guardian Luohan and the Chinese dragon.

September 29, 2015


The Luohan are characterized in Buddhist scriptures as forest or mountain dwellers, descriptions which made them sound like the Daoist masters who withdrew to the mountains in search of immortality. Chinese works of art often present luohan in landscape settings like those used in the portrayal of Doaist masters. The association of Buddhist monks and Daoist sages was made not only on the basis of their similar preference for wilderness retreats, but also because both were believed to have wonder-working powers over life and death and over the immense forces of nature. Buddhist writings make much of the correlation between enlightenment and supernatural abilities such as controlling nature and extending one’s life, powers associated with Daoist masters. In spite Buddhist excoriations of displaying magical powers before the laity, Buddhist monks enjoyed great success at imperial courts during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (265-581) doing just that. Two such powers in particularly impressed the Chinese: the ability to 'subdue dragons', and the ability to 'tame tigers'. Both were used to demonstrated Buddhist mastery over ancient, native, Chinese forces. The phrase “to subjugate dragons and tame tigers” had entered Daoist lexicon, not only in its literal sense, the control of the forces of nature, but also as a metaphor for conquering the passions. These powers were also added to the domain of the Buddhst Luohan with the addition of two luohan to the existing 16 which were imported from India: Taming Dragon Luohan (降龍羅漢 Xianglong Luohan) and Taming Tiger Luohan (伏虎羅漢 Fuhu Luohan). These two additions took place some time between the late Tang Dynasty and early Five Dynasties dynasties period, a time which included a great persecution of Buddhism in favour of Daoism. Out of this oppression arose a fervor for the Luohans as guardians of the Buddhist faith amongst Chinese Buddhists. The painting below, housed at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, from the Yuan Dynasty, circa 1300, and painted centuries after its first introduction, attests to the enduring power of Xianglong Luohan. It shows Xianglong Luohan summoning a dragon from the turbulent waters. The chanting monk’s eye are locked on the dragon, compelling it to enter the monk’s bowl in submission. The act of summoning a dragon is terrifying and its powers frightening, shown by the concerned expression of the Chinese Guardian King, the lohan's superior power is however shown by his size, position and bulging eyes, and is further convincingly demonstrated by the confidence of the calm smaller monk who is restraining an equally calm but curious boy. 

 

Arhat Taming the Dragon, housed at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, from the Yuan Dynasty, circa 1300. 

 

 

A detail of a Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) fresco in Baiyi (White Robe) Hall at Shaolin Monastery. The fresco shows of one of the 18 Luohan,  Taming Dragon Lohan  (降龙罗汉 Xiang Long Luo Han), also called Nantimitolo, who is endowed with power that knows no bounds is full of valour and is awe-inspiring dignity, defeating the Black  dragon.

 

Luohan summoning a dragon.

 

 

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