As noted elsewhere on this blog, luohan are the Buddhist equivalents of Christian saints. They are people who have attained enlightenment, but they cannot be elevated higher within the cosmological pantheon. These “saints” also figure big in temple decor and Buddhist art in general.
To a casual observer, the exact number of these luohan in scripture can be confusing. Are there 500 of them? 100? 18? 16? There are reasons behind each number. In the Lotus Sutra, for example, Buddha addresses and gives advice to a gathering of 500 luohan or “saints.” Specifically in Chinese Buddhism, there are 16 with actual names with stories behind them, and later, two more were added later. The original 16 appeared to the Chinese monk Guan Xiu, who made paintings of them.
For me, it’s always interesting to compare interpretations and visualizations of these holy men you can find in Changzhou. At Tianning Temple, for example there are two halls of golden statues in various poses. Over at Dalin Temple in Wujin’s northeastern arm, there is a whole hall dedicated to them. Here, you see them in vivid color. You have luohan with absurdly long legs. One seems to have an arm so long his hand is holding a star or some sort of celestial disk. Many of them are ride animals that are either real or mythical — Chinese unicorns, dragons, elephants, and tigers, for example. The attention to detail is so tremendous, you could return here multiple times and see something you missed during each prior visit. Each statue comes with plaque in Chinese explaining who is who, but even if you had ability with the language, dust obscures many of them, leaving an casual onlooker like myself with a sense of mystery as to who they are and what their story is.