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Hundred Heavenly Dragons

At BTRTM main hall, above the One Hundred Buddhas, there are One Hundred Dragons dancing around in harmony and peace to pay tribute to the Hundred Buddhas.

Hundred Dragons in BTRTM

These specially accented One Hundred Dragons form an enchanting swirling ring around the Maitreya Hall, providing protection and vitality to all who worship in this Hall. If you look carefully, you will see them in pairs, with one dragon with closed mouth (Om) and the other with its mouth open (Ha).

Mounted a storey high along four walls surrounding our main prayer hall, there are twenty dragons depicted on the side facing Buddha Maitreya’s statue, thirty nine dragons each on the left and right sides and one dragon each at the wall corners at the back of Maitreya’s statue, making a total of a hundred dragons alto rilievo (high relief) carvings.

The dragons are exquisitely sculpted with two long whiskers, antlers, dark glaring eyes and a bulging forehead. They have golden scaly serpentine bodies and four limbs sporting powerful grasping claws. If they open their mouths, terrifying fangs and tongues reveal their pernicious nature.

Striking a vivid contrast with the peaceful Buddha statues in the hall, the densely packed dragons writhe, entwine with each other amidst thick billowing clouds and swelling ocean waves, posturing themselves as wrathful formidable creatures never to trifled with.

About Nagas and Dragons

Mythological animal and cosmological symbol of Chinese origin. The Dragon is a symbol of Chinese culture; it is also one of the world’s oldest and most vitalized cultural icons. It is the soul and spirit for all Chinese descendants since thousands of years. The beginnings of dragon myths are obscure, but belief in such a creature predates written history.

 

Types of Dragons
In both Chinese and Japanese mythology, the dragon is closely associated with the watery realm, and in artwork is often surrounded by water or clouds. In myths, there are four dragon kings who rule over the four seas (which in the old Chinese conception limited the habitable earth). In China, a fifth category of dragon was added to these four, for a total of five dragon types:

  1. Celestial Dragons who guard the mansions of the gods
  2. Spiritual Dragons who rule wind and rain but can also cause flooding
  3. Earth Dragons who cleanse the rivers & deepen the oceans
  4. Treasure-Guarding Dragons who protect precious metals and stones
  5. Imperial Dragons: dragons with five claws instead of the usual four

In China, dragon lore existed independently for centuries before the introduction of Buddhism. Bronze and jade pieces from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (16th – 9th centuries BC) depict dragon-like creatures. By at least 2nd century BC, images of the dragon are found painted frequently on tomb walls to dispel evil. Buddhism was introduced to China sometime in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

In India, the birthplace of Buddhism around 500 BC, pre-Buddhist snake or serpentine-like creatures known as the Naga were incorporated early on into Buddhist mythology. Described as “water spirits with human shapes wearing a crown of serpents on their heads” or as “snake-like beings resembling clouds,” the Nagas are among the eight classes of deities who worship and protect the Historical Buddha. After the Historical Buddha (Siddhartha, Guatama) attained enlightenment, the Naga King Mucilinda (Sanskrit) is said to have protected Siddhartha from wind and rain for seven days. This motif is found often in Buddhist art from India, represented by images of the Buddha sitting beneath Mucilinda’s hood and coils.

Nāga (Sanskrit: नाग, IAST: nāgá, IPA: [nəɡá], Burmese: နဂါး, Javanese: någå, Khmer: នាគ neak, Thai: นาค nak, Chinese: 那伽, Tibetan: ཀླུ་, Bengali: নাগ) is the Sanskrit and Pāli word for a deity or class of entity or being, taking the form of a very great snake—specifically the King Cobra, found in Hinduism and Buddhism. Note: For more information about Nagas, see section on “Naga Trees”.

When Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese, naga was rendered in Chinese as lung, or dragon. Dragons are one of the eight kinds of non-human beings held to be guardians or protectors of Buddhism. Dragons figure importantly in popular folk beliefs and Taoism, often serving as a vehicle for immortals.

 

By 9th century AD, the Chinese had incorporated the dragon into Buddhist thought and iconography as a dharmapala or Dharma protector. These traditions were adopted by the Japanese (Buddhism did not arrive in Japan until the mid-6th century AD). In both China and Japan, the character for “dragon” (龍) is used often in temple names, and dragon carvings adorn many temple structures.

Most Japanese Zen temples, moreover, have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their assembly halls.

The mortal enemy of the dragon is the Phoenix, as well as the bird-man creature known as Karura. In contrast to Western mythology, Asian dragons are rarely depicted as malevolent. Although fearsome and powerful, dragons are equally considered just, benevolent, and as bringers of wealth and good fortune. The dragon is also considered a shape-shifter who can assume human form and mate with people.

In China, Japan and Southeast Asia, the dragon serpents are deities of the waters and a benign creature that inhabits the seas, rivers, lakes and clouds and has similar qualities to the Indian naga, which means snake or serpent. They are mainly benevolent and said to have various powers, such as the ability to cause rain. They are also considered to be the depositories of the cintamani. There are stories where dragons demand Buddhist treasures, especially relics, sometimes in exchange for quelling storms. In their kingdoms beneath the sea they guard treasures, such as jewels and Buddhist texts.

 

The dragon is associated with water, and is often shown emerging from vapor and clouds to produce rain. Living in the sky it is considered closely related to heaven, and from ancient times was used as a symbol of imperial power.

In addition to serving as a deity of rain and of Heaven, the blue-green dragon seiryuu 青竜 is the directional symbol of the east, and thus one of the “guardian animals of the four directions” *shishin 四神.

In both Chinese and Japanese mythology, the dragon is one of Four Legendary Creatures guarding the four cosmic directions (Red Bird – S, Dragon – E, Tortoise – N, and the Tiger – W). The four, known as the Four Celestial Emblems, appear during China’s Warring States period (476 BC – 221 BC), and were frequently painted on the walls of early Chinese and Korean tombs to ward off evil spirits.

The Dragon is the Guardian of the East. According to the theory of Five Elements, dragon is identified with the season spring, the color green/blue, the element wood (sometimes also water), the virtue benevolence, the Yang male energy; it supports and maintains the country (such as controlling rain and is a symbol of the Emperor’s power). In Indian and Buddhist culture, the Phoenix or Garuda is the mythological enemy of all Nagas, a Sanskrit term covering all types of serpentine creatures, including snakes and dragons. In traditional Chinese culture, however, they are seen in another way. The Dragon (East) and Phoenix (South) both represent Yang energy. The Dragon represents the wood element and lesser Yang energy, while the Phoenix signifies the fire element and full Yang energy. In Five Elements, dragon (wood) generates phoenix (fire). They’re also often depicted together in artwork as partners. The Dragon is the male counterpart to the female Phoenix, and together they symbolize both complementing and wedded bliss—the emperor (dragon) and the empress (phoenix).

In Chinese zodiac, the dragon is one of the animals in the 12-year lunar cycle.

About Dragon Kings

Kings of the dragons (Japanese: ryuuou 龍王) are said to live at the bottom of the seas. Eight dragon kings are depicted in the Lotus Sutra in the assembly at Vulture Peak:“There were eight dragon kings, the dragon king Nanda, the dragon king Upananda, the dragon king Sagara, the dragon king Vasuki, the dragon king Takshaka, the dragon king Anavatapta, the dragon king Manasvin, the dragon king Utpalaka, each with several hundreds of thousands of followers.”In chapter 12 of the Lotus Sutra called Devadatta, The eight-year old daughter of the dragon king Sagara attained Enlightenment after offering a jewel to Buddha Sakyamuni:“Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated questioned Manjushri, saying, “This sutra is a profound, subtle and wonderful, a treasure among sutras, a rarity in the world. Are there perhaps any living beings who, by earnestly and diligently practicing this sutra, have been able to attain Buddhahood quickly?”

Manjushri replied, “There is the daughter of the dragon king Sagara, who was just turned eight. Her wisdom has keen roots and she is good at the understanding the root activities and of living beings. She has mastered the dharanis, has been able to accept and embrace all the store house of profound secrets preached by the Buddhas, has entered deep into meditation, thoroughly grasping the doctrines, and in the space of an instant conceived the desire for bodhi and reached the level of no regression. Her eloquence knows no hindrance, and she thinks of living beings with compassion as though they were her own children. She is fully endowed with blessings, and when it comes to conceiving in mind and expounding by mouth, she is subtle, wonderful, comprehensive and great. Kind, compassionate, benevolent, yielding, she is gentle and refined in will, capable of attaining bodhi.”

Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated said, “When I observe Shakyamuni Thus Come One, I see that for immeasurable kalpas he carried out harsh and difficult practices, accumulated merit, piling up virtue, seeking the way to the bodhisattva without ever resting. I observe that throughout the thousand-million fold world there is not a single spot tiny as a mustard seed where this bodhisattva failed to sacrifice body and life the sake of living beings. Only after he had done that was he able to complete the bodhi way. I cannot believe that this girl in the space of the instant could actually achieve correct enlightenment.”

Before his words had come to an end, the dragon king’s daughter suddenly appeared before the Buddha, bowed her head in obeisance, and then retired to one side, reciting these verses of praise:

“He profoundly understands the signs of guilt and good fortune and illuminates the ten directions everywhere. His subtle, wonderful pure Dharma body is endowed with the thirty-two features; the eighty characteristics adorn his Dharma body. Heavenly and human beings gaze up in awe, dragons and spirits all pay honor and respect; among all living beings, none who do not hold him in reverence. And having heard his teachings, I have attained bodhi – the Buddha alone can bear witness to this. I unfold the doctrines of the Great Vehicle to rescue living beings from suffering.”


At that time Shariputra said to the dragon girl, “You suppose that in this short time you have been able to attain the unsurpassed way. But this is difficult to believe. Why? Because a woman’s body is soiled and defiled, not a vessel for the Law. How could you attain the unsurpassed bodhi? The road to Buddhahood is long and far-reaching. Only after one has spent immeasurable kalpas pursuing austerities, accumulating deeds, practicing all kinds of paramitas, can one finally achieve success. Moreover, a woman is subject to the five obstacles. First, she cannot become a Brahma heavenly king. Second, she cannot become the king Shakra. Third, she cannot become a devil king. Fourth, she cannot become a wheel-turning sage king. Fifth, she cannot become a Buddha. How then could a woman like you be able to attain Buddhahood so quickly?”

At that time the dragon girl had a precious jewel worth as much as the thousand-million-fold world which she presented to the Buddha. The Buddha immediately accepted it. The dragon girl said to Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated to the venerable one, Shariputra, “I presented the precious jewel and the World-Honored One accepted it – was that not quickly done?”

They replied, “Very quickly!”

The girls said, “Employ your supernatural powers and watch me attain Buddhahood. It shall be even quicker than that!”

At that time the members of the assembly all saw the dragon girl in the space of an instant change into a man and carry out all the practices of a bodhisattva, immediately proceeding to the Spotless World of the south, taking a seat on a jeweled lotus, and attaining impartial and correct enlightenment. With the thirty-two features and the eighty characteristics, he expounded the wonderful Law for all living beings everywhere in the ten directions.

At that time in the saha world to the bodhisattvas, voice-hearers, gods, dragons and others of the eight kinds of guardians, human and non-human beings all from a distance saw the dragon girl become a Buddha and preach the law to all the human and heavenly beings in the assembly at that time. Their hearts were filled with great joy and all from a distance paid reverent obeisance. Immeasurable living beings, hearing the Law, understood it and were able to reach the level of no regression. Immeasurable living beings received prophecies that they would gain the way. The Spotless World quaked and trembled in six different ways. Three thousand living beings of the saha world remained on the level of no regression. Three thousand living beings conceived a desire for bodhi and received prophecies of enlightenment. Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated, Shariputra and all the other members of the assembly silently believed and accepted these things.” There is also The Dharma-Seal Sutra Spoken by the Buddha for Ocean Dragon King, translated into Chinese during Tang Dynasty by Tripitaka master Yi-Tzing: “Thus have I heard, At one time the Bhagavan was in Ocean Dragon King’s palace, along with one thousand two hundred and fifty great monks, and many Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas.

At that time, Sagara the dragon king arose from his seat, went ahead, bowed to the feet of the Buddha, and said: “World-Honored One, is it possible to accept and uphold a few Dharmas but gain a lot of blessings?”

The Buddha told Ocean Dragon King: “There are four especially exalted Dharmas, if one can accept, uphold, read, and recite them, and can understand their meanings, although he spends little effort, he will gain lots of blessings. The merits and virtues that he gains will be the same as reading and reciting eighty-four thousand Dharma-Stores.”

“What are these four? They are:
All movements are impermanence.
All beings suffer.
Everything has no ego.
The tranquil extinction is the Bliss.”

“Dragon king, these are the four especially exalted Dharmas, which can grant the exhaustless Dharma-wisdom to the Bodhisattvas, make them achieve the uncreated stage earlier, and reach the Perfect Tranquility quickly. Therefore, you all should often recite and be mindful of them.”

When the World-Honored One spoke this Dharma-Seal Sutra of the four sentences, those Voice-Hearers, great Bodhisattvas, and the eight kinds of super-mundane beings, including the gods, dragons, Asuras, Gandharvas, and so forth, having heard the Buddha’s words, were greatly delighted. They accepted the teachings with faith, and began upholding and practicing them.

Art

The earliest representations of dragon like creatures are Shang and Zhou period (ca. 16c – 9c BCE) bronzes and jades bearing abstract animal or monster designs.

By the Warring States or Han period (ca. 8c BC – AD 3c), dragons were frequently painted on tomb walls to ward off evil spirits. Beginning in the late Tang period (9c), the dragon was painted in ink monochrome *suibokuga 水墨画.

Naga King Mucilinda (Sanskrit) is said to have protected Siddhartha from wind and rain for seven days. This motif is found often in Buddhist art from India, represented by images of the Buddha sitting beneath Mucilinda’s hood and coils.

A depiction of this event can be found in our museum artefact titled ‘Naga-protected Buddha’ (right; ZZ012). Donated to BTRTM by the late Justice Karthigesu, this statue shows Buddha sitting in a relaxed posture (lalitasana) on top of the body of Mucalinda with His right hand in the fear-dispelling mudra (abhaya mudra) and His left in meditative equipoise (dhyana mudra).

The five-headed naga forms a canopy to shelter the Buddha from rain. This portrayal deviates from other more conventional representations of Naga-protected Buddha where He is usually shown seated in full lotus posture (vajrasana) with both hands in the dhyana mudra.

Dragons figure importantly in folk beliefs throughout Asia, and are dressed heavily in Buddhist garb.

 

The image of the reptilian dragon as known today throughout East Asia had achieved its form by the 9th Century in Tang ink painting.

The Dragon has a long serpentine body with a scalloped dorsal fin, the head of a camel, horns of a deer, large eyes with bushy brows of a hare, flaring nostrils, long whiskers and sharp teeth, covered with scales of a carp, paws of a tiger, claw-like feet resembling those of an eagle and pointed tail. In addition it has a bright jewel under its chin, and a measure on the top of its head which enables it to ascend to Heaven at will.

 

This is merely a general description and does not apply to all dragons, some of which have heads of so extraordinary that they cannot be compared with anything in the animal kingdom. The breath of the Dragon changes into clouds, from which come either rain or fire. It is able to expand or contract its body, and in addition it has the power of transformation and invisibility. The ancient Chinese Emperor Yao was said to be the son of a dragon, and many rulers of that country were metaphorically referred to as dragon-faced.

Dragons often appear as decorative items in temples, as roof ornaments to protect buildings from fire or as water fountains and ablution basins at the entrance to temples.

They are also used as decorative motifs for priestly objects, sculptures, paintings, ceilings, walls, etc.

Large-scale dragon compositions came to be painted on the walls of imperial buildings and of temples. In paintings for the Zen (禅) sects, especially, depictions of dragons and tigers *ryuuko-zu 竜虎図 were frequently paired. The famous ink paintings by Muqi 牧谿 (Jp: Mokkei, late 13c) at Daitokuji 大徳寺, Kyoto, served as the model for countless later Japanese painted versions.

Depictions of dragons came to Japan long before ink painting. Examples are found in handscrolls, such as “Caricatures of Animals” Choujuugiga 鳥獣戯画 and Kegon engi 華厳縁起. In Buddhist paintings a dragon appears as the crown of the Dragon King (Ryuuou 龍王, one of the *Hachibushuu 八部衆). Japanese dragon painting reached its apogee in the late 16c-early 17c paintings by Kanou and Kaihou artists (*Kanouha 狩野派, *Kaihouha 海北派). It is often suggested that these dragon paintings were intended as symbols of heroic leadership because the dragon calling forth rain is a metaphor for the enlightened ruler seeking able ministers.

The ryuuou may be shown entirely as dragons, as humans with snake’s tails, or as humans (usually in Chinese dress) with dragons or snake hoods or some other indication of identity. If multiple heads are shown, they may indicate the identity of the ryuu.

Particularly when termed Dragon Kings ( Japanese: ryuuou), they may appear independently in paintings, or they may be shown in groups or as attendants to Buddhist deities. When water is shown in a Buddhist painting, there will often be a dragon in it.

Development of BTRTM Dragons

Venerable Shi Fa Zhao’s concept was for the Hundred Dragons to soar in the clear sky and above the blue sea; each posing gracefully with many different postures; exhibiting their aura of auspiciousness from their majestic and dignified appearance; bestowing prosperity; and bringing security and blessings to all beings. They are all exquisitely hand crafted and gilded, from Canadian cypress wood in China by highly skilled carvers from Yueqing Global Arts and Crafts Factory of Zhejiang Province, China, led by Mr Zhang Wei Cheng. The sponsorship of each Hundred Dragon was $10,000.

BTRTM Dragon Ceremonies

During the official Opening ceremony on 30 May 2007, there were more than 80 Chinese dragon dance troupes dancing and prancing on the South Bridge Road and from the verandahs of the temple to welcome guests and visitors.

The stretch of South Bridge road and surrounding area around the BTRTM was also lighted with dragons.

During the official Opening ceremony on 30 May 2007, there were more than 80 Chinese dragon dance troupes dancing and prancing on the South Bridge Road and from the verandahs of the temple to welcome guests and visitors.

The stretch of South Bridge road and surrounding area around the BTRTM was also lighted with dragons.

Bibliography:

  1. Dragon King of the Sea Sutra, translated by Dharmaraksha, during Western Chin dynasty (265 – 316),
  2. Lotus Sutra, Chapters 1 and 12 – Devadatta, translated by Kumarajiva, 406
  3. Meher McArthur, Reading Buddhist Art, An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols, Thames & Hudson, 2002, ISBN 0-500-28428-8, page 137
  4. Soka Gakkai, Dictionary of Buddhism, Motilal Banarsidass, 2002, ISBN 978-81-208-3334-0, page 136 – 137
  5. Louis Frederic, Buddhism, Flammarion Iconographic Guides, Flammarion, 1995, ISBN 2-08013-558-9, pages 276 – 279

Websites:

  1. The Dharma-Seal Sutra Spoken by the Buddha for Ocean Dragon King
  2. The Lotus Sutra
  3. Lotus Sutra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  4. Dragon – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  5. Chinese dragon – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  6. JAANUS / ryuu 龍
  7. Dragons, Dragon Art, and Dragon Lore in Japan, Buddhism & Shintoism Photo Dictionary
  8. The Chinese Dragon – EverythingDragons.com
  9. Chinese Dragons – dragon mythology of China
  10. Chinese Dragons – Draconika
  11. Dragon King
  12. Dragon
  13. 龙王
  14. Five Elements Chart
  15. 阴阳五行对照表
  16. 五行
  17. Five Elements
  18. 妙法莲华经
  19. 佛为海龙王说法印经

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