Disciples of the Buddha: living images of meditation

Living images of meditation

Robert Newman

Includes an interview with Chögyam Trungpa
a translation of The Torch of Precious Jewels:
a Sadhana of the Buddha and Sixteen Arhats — by Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje Dudjom Rinpoche.

153 pages, four color and black & white photographs

ISBN 978-1-887276-20-7 • PB 16.95 HC 27.95

Disciples of the Buddha brings together the imagery, historical placement and philosophical backdrop to arguably the most renowned of all surviving works of Eastern art which appeared in the Peking art market in 1913. The eight surviving ceramic “I- Chou Lohan” statues, discovered in a cave in China, are representations of the Awakened One’s direct disciples, the first practitioners to experience the fruit of the path as revealed by the Shakyamuni. Chögyam Trungpa’s commentary sheds revealing light on these little known statues.

Part two of this book offers an illustrated text— The Torch of Precious Jewels: a Sadhana of the Buddha and Sixteen Arhats— by Dudjom Rinpoche, a rare glimpse into a Tibetan oral tradition celebrating the legendary Lohans.

“ I think that these statues are expressions of nonverbal experience that the artist had in the state of arhathood. The statues are powerful because they are filled with a state of experience….We could say that these images present the particular realization of Buddha’s sanity in his disciples…The images are done with a sense of awe and reverence, in a very sacred application. And so the images are very human at the same time kind of superhuman”.—Chogyam Trungpa (from the introduction)

• “Robert Newman’s Disciples of the Buddha results from many years of study from both inside and outside the Buddhist community.  This thoughtful study of the remarkably life-like ceramic sculptures of the Tang Dynasty casts a searching light on a tradition long lost. Are these images more than their physical substance? Can one define their spirituality?  This work teases us into an urgent sense of reality.” 

—Ronald M. Bernier, Professor of Art History, University of Colorado.



Introduction by Chogyam Trungpa

Interview by Robert Newman –

Transcription by Francesca Fremantle – Boulder, Colorado, August 1974

RN: Many people in America have had striking experiences with these I-Chou Lohan* statues but there’s limited understanding of what the statues are and how they were made.

CT: I think we have to look at it very simply. These statues represent, according to the tradition, individuals who had left their homes, and before they left there had been a lot of traumatic experiences of pain and suffering. They then established their relationship with their teacher, in this case the Buddha himself. The sense of simplicity they experienced in monastic life after being ordained by the Buddha brought a sense of non-verbal experience. I think these statues are expressions of non-verbal experience that the artist had of the state of arhathood. The statues are powerful because they are filled with a state of experience.

These individuals had left their homes and established themselves in a monastic situation, which in the early days of Buddhism was just living in the jungle or meditating in a cave. They became healthier physically and psychologically. These particular beings represented had that sane living situation and also had the sanity of communication with the Buddha. We could say these images present the particular realization of Buddha’s sanity in his direct disciples.

Would you say that these are images of vipashyana** meditation?

I think you could say that the expressions of the statues are very definite. The practice of meditation becomes a day-to-day life situation from the shamatha experience to the vipashyana experience. Therefore many of the postures we see the statues in are very casual ones. The natural habit of meditation has already been built up and they feel a continuous vipashyana experience. They don’t have to pose for it. They have become used to just being that way. These images are actual portraits of how they handle themselves. They also illustrate the particularly Chinese tradition of reverence and respect for teachers. The flowing robes and powerful expressions are comparable to imperial portraits, like a king or monarch who doesn’t have to work to improve his subjects. He just handles himself very casually. I would say of the artist that he may have experienced some practice of meditation and some insight. But these images are done with a sense of awe and reverence, in a very sacred application. And so the images are very human and at the same time kind of superhuman.

* Lohan is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word arhat, meaning disciple of the Buddha. It also means a stage or state in the path of meditation.

** Shamatha-Vipashyana: Shamatha (sanskrit; shinay, Tibetan) means “calm abiding,” “remaining in quiescence”. This is the widely used practice of calming the mind through various concentration techniques, such as following the breath, in order to shift attention from mind to open awareness. From the concentration practices of shamatha, effortless vipashayana meditation naturally arises, a spontaneous “clear seeing”, “panoramic awareness”. Vipashyana is the direct practice of “extraordinary insight”.


Several ceramic statues of Lohans, legendary disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, were brought into the Peking art market in 1913. They had been found by pirates in a secluded shrine cave, high on a mountain, not easily accessible, near I-Chou, Hopei Province. The statues may have been in the cave for centuries. They are called the “I-Chou Lohans”. All are distinguished by a dramatic life-like presence. We do not know who made the statues or where they were made. There were probably 16 or 18 in the original set. They may have been made in a ceramic factory or in a monastary. We will never know the external circumstances of their creation and yet these disciples look as fresh and alive as if they just came out of the kiln. We can sense from them the depth and range of the entire original work.

The original set of statues was a large scale work representing direct connection to the Buddha. The statues are human images with superhuman features. They are living portraits of meditation that connect us to our potential, the awakened state.

Fredrick Perzynski remembers when the first of the I-Chou Lohan statues appeared in the Peking art market. “At the time we called him a priest since, despite his traditionally elongated ears, he emanated the striking pictoral power of a portrait.” Upon discovering another of the I-Chou Lohans he notes: “His neck is broken off, as well as a piece from his shoulder and his feet. In his hands he holds a scroll. His head leans against the wall next to the torso. In its coloring of faded ivory it appears like the head of a decapitated man. As on the previous occasions in seeing [I-Chou Lohan statues] its powerful expression affects me like an electric shock.” *

Sometime in 1969, I was wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I walked into the presence of two of the I-Chou Lohan statues. At the moment that I started to step closer to one of them, I had what is the most remarkable experience I’ve ever had with a work of art. I saw something impossible, something miraculous. The statue was alive. I thought what I was seeing was a living form. I was then moved by the sense of flesh, the tissue quality in the throat, in the mouth, up into the cheekbones, into the enlarged brows, over and between the eyes. The statue had large buddha ears. The mouth was closed and the expression was silent. The eyes were open and I felt that they were seeing me. There seemed to be a force in the eyes, and knowledge of flesh and mind; a real sense of the world; a haunting smile; and stillness. I began to ask about the statues. People thought they were extraordinary, and some had striking experiences with them, seeing them as alive.

* See Marion Wolfe’s article, “The Lohans From I-Chou” Oriental Art, Vol. XV, #1, Spring 1969. Perzynski’s involvement in the discovery of the I-Chou Lohans is described there. He seems to have been centrally responsible for the placement of several of the I-Chou Lohans in western museums.


Robert Newman has taught at the City University of New York and the University of Colorado. A long time practitioner of Buddhist meditation techniques, he is currently president of the World Health Foundation, which has researched and developed programs for the medical uses of meditation now offered in various hospitals and medical centers. Segments of the present work were featured in LOKA, a journal from the Naropa Institute, (Anchor Press/Doubleday) 1975.

Robert Newman is the author of Calm Birth: New Method for Conscious Childbirth and Calm Birth: Empowering Preparation for Childbirth (audio companion for children), published  by  North Atlantic Books (December 10, 2005)