The Arhats: Changnyeongsa Temple, Korea


Arhats are disciples of Buddha who having attained nirvana, and gained insight into the existence of being, but have chosen to stay on earth to help others. A find in 2001 was just the start of the rediscovery of the ancient Changnyeonsangsa Temple in South Korea.

South Korea, along with its unruly neighbour to the north, has been a potential global flash point since 1953 when the armistice between North and South Korea was signed calming hostilities and ending the Korean War that had raged from June 1950. The war was a conflict between East and West, good and evil, communism and capitalism with the Americans fighting for the south and Russia and China – each pursuing their goal of a universal communist hegemony – the north. Today, the demilitarised zone (DMZ) – a strip of land that runs from one side of the Korean peninsula to the other – acts as a buffer between the two sides since.

Discovery of Arhats at Changnyeongsa Temple in Gwongol Province

One hundred kilometres south of the DMZ, or there about, in Gwongol Province hundreds of granite arhats lay gently below the topsoil and had done so for 500 years, waiting to be discovered. Arhats are disciples of Buddha who having attained nirvana have chosen instead to remain among us mortal sinners to proselytise the Buddha’s words. They lay beneath the ruins of a long-neglected Buddhist temple that few people even knew existed and none were certain of the temple’s name. That was until May 2001, when Kim Byung-ho, a local farmer and a resident of Yeongwol, Gangwon Province, took up his shovel and set about levelling a patch of land among the ruins.

As he dug, he unearthed a small human-shaped stone and within no time at all had turned up several more of similar shape and size, none were more than 40 centimetres in height. He reported his find to the Korean cultural heritage authorities setting in train a major archaeological excavation and research project that would encompass a dozen years.

Although the area was acknowledged to be the location of a temple, its actual name was lost in history until the excavations uncovered a roof tile with Chinese characters for Changnyeongsa (Changnyeong Temple). Supposition suggested the site was in fact the ruins of the Changnyeong Temple, built during the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) and mentioned in the 1481 book Dongguk Yeoji Seungnam (Augmented Survey of the Geography of Korea). Records show that the temple was an active Buddhist monastery and remained so until the 18th century, when it was destroyed in the mid-Joseon dynasty (1392-1879).

Total of 317 Arhats Recovered

In all, a total of 317 arhats were recovered from the site. Sixty-four of them were complete while the remainder had significant damage; heads were missing for example. Many bore the signs that they had been exposed to a fire and deliberate vandalism, the suggestion being that Confucian students had wilfully destroyed the Buddhist statuary and temple as the local government cracked down on the religion. Confucianism’s rise in popularity pushed Buddhism to the margins. The temple as a result became obliterated from memory.

‘Before the excavation [of this site], the existence of the Changnyeong Temple was unknown,’ Choi Seon-ju, head of curatorial affairs at the National Museum of Korea told the English-language newspaper, Korea JoongAng Daily, in 2019, when the National Museum exhibited the arhats. Choi continued, ‘The site had been called a temple site of Changwon-ri. But thanks to the discovery (of the roof tile), we were able to assume that it was the Changnyeong Temple that enshrined 500 Arhats’.

While 500 arhats were not actually discovered at the temple, 317 were. It was customary for arhats to appear in groups of 6, 8, 16, 100 or 500 in East Asian Buddhist art, according to Choi, therefore Changnyeong Temple was presumed to have originally held 500.

Importantly, arhats are not gods or deities, but ordinary people who are one footstep away from stepping into Nirvana. And it is this very ordinariness that makes this Powerhouse exhibition so accessible and intriguing. The figurines may be small in stature but in their self-imposed semi-transcendental realm, they are giants.

Each Arhat is Individually Modelled

That this exhibition is so engaging is that no two figures are the same. All are men, some are grumpy, some benign, some smile, some are grim, others seem to sit in meditation, many are obviously monks – 40 in all seem to wear Buddhist robes – and all are rather portly men (perhaps even old men) while others contemplate the travails of the world. One wonders what they would have made of today’s stand-off up on the DMZ? It is their individuality that makes them so appealing. One suspects that the sculptors worked from life delivering in the process a physiognomic time capsule that had lain undiscovered underground for centuries until that farmer stuck his shovel into the ground and experienced a eureka moment. Some were broken, but many were not.

For Western eyes, the arhats may not appear as culturally significant as the Xian Terracotta Warriors in China that predates the arhats by 1,500 years, but they are imbued with the same sense that the sculptors looked for models with interesting features from which they could make their sculptures.

Contemporary Korean Artist Kim Seung-young

Contemporary Korean artist Kim Seung-young, who is responsible for the design of the Powerhouse exhibition, commented, ‘The expressions on their faces are so universal, or even modern … I think this installation shows the harmony between cultural heritage and contemporary art’. Known for his contemporary site-specific installation works exploring the themes of communication and memory, his design has half the figures sitting in a room with a moss-covered brick flooring that conjures up their original setting while the rest are embedded in a ‘wall’ of 700 speakers, from which a soundscape of dripping water and bells emanates.

Produced in collaboration with the Chuncheon National Museum of Korea, the Australian premiere marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Australia. Chuncheon National Museum Director, Kim Woollim has no doubt about the charm of the arhats: ‘Although the expressions of the arhats are plain and simple, they have a mysterious power that touches the human heart’.

First Time Shown Outside Korea

This exhibition is the first time that the arhats – 50 are on show in Sydney – have been shown outside South Korea and it is an obvious coup for Powerhouse, as Chief Executive Lisa Havilah noted, ‘This was Korea’s most popular exhibition in 2019 and the Powerhouse is thrilled to present the exhibition outside of Korea for the first time’. Forging new collaborations with international institutions and artists is a key focus going forward for the Powerhouse, whose recent history has been mired in controversy and uncertainly as it struggled to justify closing its current central Sydney location in favour of a purpose-built building 20 kilometres or more west of the city on the banks of a river prone to flooding. Current plans are in favour of retaining both sites although whether that is set in concrete, so to speak, is yet to be seen. Opposition to the move remains ferocious.

Min-Jung Kim speaking about the arhats explained, ‘Unlike images of the Buddha or bodhisattvas, the arhats from Changnyeongsa Temple resemble ordinary people, yet their childlike simplicity and spiritual aura touch our hearts and teach us that we can all be enlightened beings’. We can only hope that such enlightenment will embrace those who currently police the unfinished business up on the DMZ.


From 2 December to 15 May, 2022, Five Hundred Arhats of Changnyeongsa Temple, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney,