In contemplation and tranquillity, in thought and bliss, the five hundred faces of the arhats of Changnyeongsa are fixed in an eternal meditation. For a millennium they have turned their mind inward and closed their eyes to the changing world.
Discovered at the turn of the century, these statues represent the first followers of Gautama Buddha, to whom his Four Noble Truths were first told: those of suffering, the causes and cessation of suffering, and the means of eliminating suffering. Following his path, these disciples liberated themselves from the cycle of birth and rebirth, becoming “one who is worthy,” an arhat.
Buried for six hundred years in the ruins of the ancient Changnyeongsa temple of South Korea’s Yeongwol, the arhats still today radiate nirvana from their faces. The ages seem to have only made them wiser, with their granite faces either softened and blurred into a state of anattā (non-self) or hardened into those of world-weary philosophers.
Visiting the Powerhouse Museum exhibition Faces of Arhats, between earthly and saintly, you will meet the arhats face-to-face. Among them are the thinker and the sullen, the jolly and the peaceful, a congregation of monks who came into higher-being during the golden age of buddhism in Korea, the Goryeo Dynasty of the 10th-14th centuries. Under the Goryeo Dynasty, followers of the Buddha enjoyed the patronage and privileges of the ruling court, effectively becoming the state religion of Korea.
Among their faces, however, there are some arhats who reveal violent scars and disfigurements. It is said that they were smashed by Confucian scholars in anti-Buddhist purges of the 15th century following the rise to power of the Joseon Dynasty, which favoured Confucianism over Buddhism. Victims of dynastic power-struggles and culture wars, the arhats of Changnyeongsa were buried in the rubble of the temple and forgotten until today.
What would these arhat think should they open their eyes onto our world? After six hundred years of silence, what would they say? Surely — confronted with the incessant noise and activity of modernity — they would return to their eternal meditation.