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Arhat: Hvashang (Patron)

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Hvashang, the Chinese patron to the Sixteen Great Arhats. Although appearing under the iconographic category of 'Arhats' Hvashang is not an arhat himself. He belongs to the Tibetan and Chinese narrative of the Sixteen Great Arhats.

Hvashang (along with Dharmata) is ONLY depicted in compositions with Shakyamuni Buddha and the Sixteen Arhats. These depictions can be in a single painting containing all of the figures or created in sets of paintings up to twenty-three in number. Both Hvashang and Dharmata are narrative figures belonging to the iconographic story of Shakyamuni and the Sixteen Great Arhats. They are never employed as meditational deities. (See Hinayana Buddhism represented in Tibetan Art).

Hvashang is a human figure, often dark in complexion with the right hand holding a crystal 'mala,' a garland of beads for counting prayers. In the left hand he can hold a bowl of precious substances as an offering to the arhats, or a persimmon fruit. Adorned with opulent robes he is seated in a casual fashion. The key iconographic features are his portly size and the bead mala, which can be in either hand, along with a bald head and leisurely posture, surrounded by numerous small children sporting and playing.

Hvashang, meaning a 'Chinese monk,' is considered an historic figure who was sent by the Tang Emperor of China to invite the Buddha Shakyamuni to come and visit China. Since the Buddha had already passed away the invitation was relayed to the Sixteen Great Arhats. From approximately the 16th century onwards most paintings of the Buddha Shakyamuni and the Sixteen Arhats depicted in Himalayan Style Art have included the patron Hvashang. In paintings earlier than the 16th century Hvashang is conspicuously absent.

Curiously in Himalayan and Tibetan art Hvashang is always depicted as a layman wearing jewelry and fancy silk robes. Although he is referred to in some historical accounts as a monk he is more commonly described as the patron, or the patriarch to the Sixteen Arhats, because he presented the invitation and was the representative of the Emperor of China. However neither of the two early Tibetan liturgies of the ritual practice of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Sixteen Arhats, made popular by both the Lord Atisha and the Kashmiri Pandit Shakyashribhadra, include the patron Hvashang.

In Chinese Buddhism depictions of a figure similar to Hvashang are believed to be the Buddha Maitreya and are commonly found as an individual painting, mural or sculpture.

Jeff Watt 6-98 [updated 10-2011, 5-2017]