Arhats in a Dream

Shi Zhen, Ed.

PureInsight | August 11, 2003

[] Guan Xiu was a monk from Lan Xi, which was in the Prefecture of Wu, between the Epoch of the Five Dynasties (907–960 A.D.) and the end of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.).

Guan Xiu was accomplished in poetry, penmanship, and painting. When Wang Jian began establishing the Kingdom of Shu, Guan Xiu moved to the Shu region (or today's Sichuan Province) and resided in the Long Hua Temple where he had a personal meditation room in his living quarters.

During this time, he created portraits of sixteen arhats, a portrait of a Buddha, and two portraits of Bodhisattvas in the Chinese style of painting using ink and water. In his paintings, boulders were enveloped by clouds and mist, while pines were knotted, serpentine, and dark green with ancient vines warped around them. The countenances of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and the sixteen Arhats looked ancient and rustic, yet superb and prominent, making them very different from similar portraits done by others.

To give an idea of Guan Xiu's style of painting, here are some imitations of Guan Xiu's Portraits of Arhats, by Chou Yinglin of the Ming Dynasty.


Guan Xiu often said, "It was in a dream that I saw these Gods and Buddhas. After I woke up, I painted what I saw in the dream. So, I guess I can refer to these Arhats as 'Arhats in a dream.'"

His disciples Tan Yu and Tan Fu secretly kept the paintings, considering them invaluable works of art. The King of Shu once summoned Guan Xiu to the royal court and highly praised his art in person. The King of Shu described Guan Xiu's style as unrestricted and elegant. After a month at the palace, Guan Xiu was assigned to the Imperial Academy. A member of the Imperial Academy, Ouyang Jiong, observed Guan Xiu closely, and wrote the following poem for him:

The eminent monk Guan Xiu from the Western Ranges,

his individuality steep and lofty, and cool as the autumn.

Heaven inspired him to paint the Arhats,

with a brush, depicting their original demeanor and appearance.

Spending countless hours facing silk and walls as canvass for portraits,

and at day's end meditating with incense.

Perhaps in his dream he saw the real appearance of Arhats,

so he took off his monk robe and used miraculous strokes to paint.

High in the air his supple wrist moved freely,

brandishing his brush with unrestrained elegance.

In hesitant and forward movements, various images appeared,

unlike those craftsmen who waste much time in their work.

Bewildering boulders embedded with withered and rejuvenating plants,

the real monks line up in their meditative postures.

Shaped like thin cranes, spirits invigorating, crowned like a unicorn,

with their skulls protruding.

Leaning against the pine roots, or the crevices,

the bodies of the Arhats appeared to be in motion.

The disciples reading the scripture seemed to be hearing,

the drowsy young shepherd seemed to be in a dream.

Not knowing how many winters had passed,

in deep thought, a hand supporting the cheek, the shoulder bare.

Some with mouths opened as if in conversation,

others as if just learning to meditate.

Patterns consisting of crouching elephants with trunks drooping,

on the riverbank are apes swinging with outstretched arms.

Amongst the flowers of the banana trees, some stained with red,

veins amidst the moss, some in emerald green.

Stiff bamboo staff, low pinewood bed,

and snow-white eyebrows an inch long.

Tied to ropes are two or three slats of Buddhist verses,

the clothes with tens of thousands of rows of stitches.

Amidst the forest, leaves drop slowly in succession,

the incense almost extinguished.

Leather-strapped wooden clogs never worn,

bamboo slither cushions withstand lengthy use.

Eminent Guan Xiu, having elegant skill with no peers,

and a reputation that spread far and wide.

A thousand pieces of five- and seven-word poems,

ancient calligraphic skill of thirty styles.

In the Tang Dynasty were countless persons with literary skills,

like Xiao Ziyun together with Wu Daozi.

Painstakingly challenging eminent Guan Xiu in painting and calligraphy,

but I am afraid they are like the rise and fall of the tide.

Eminent Guan Xiu, who entered Qin from south of the river,

until today, has no close friends or relatives in Shu.

Your poems and paintings are all extra-ordinary,

and those who look upon you as ordinary are but ordinary themselves.

The porcelain coffin temple of Wei Mojie,

the She Wei city establishing a branch of Buddhism.

When compared, this painting remains the best in the human world.

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