The 16 Arahats
According to Waters (1890's,) in the main hall of Chinese Buddhist temples were two rows of large yellow figures -- one along the east and an other along the west wall. They are the numbered, labeled figures known as the Eighteen Lohan, (16 plus 2 patrons) or Buddha's great disciples called in Sanskrit, shravaka or the hearers.
However, the names given show that the information is not quite correct since some are unknown to the original Buddhist canon. In old Buddhist temples of Korea, the similar figures are sixteen in number. In Japan, the Rakan also number only Sixteen. ( Lohan and Rakan derive from Alohan, the Chinese pronunciation of Arahant or Pali, Arhat. )
In Tibetan Buddhism
In Tibetan these figures are called Natan Chudug from Sanskrit, 16 sthaviras.
Text on the back of Wisdom Publications Tibetan calendar for 1996 says that Lamas Lumes and Dromchung introduced them to Tibet after they had visited China. In Tibet, they are considered custodians of the Buddha's spoken word and function as guardians of his teachings.
Jeff Watts' notes at Tibet Art tell us that the sadhana or ritual service and offerings to Buddha Shakyamuni with the 16 Arhats was made popular by Atisha (982-1054) and the Shakya pandita, Shribhadra (1127-1225).
Following tradition, at Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche's Vajra Vidya Institute in Sarnath, in the main shrine room, a set of eight appear along the east wall, and the other eight are against the west side:
Also in that image are the 4 directional guardians plus Huashang, Dharmatala and also Buddha Amitabha.
The arhats have incense burnt before their images but generally speaking they are not worshipped or consulted like gods and divinities.
Where does the doctrine of an elite group of disciples originate?
Buddhist literature, once preserved in the libraries of great Chinese monasteries, mentions only sixteen "the number eighteen being apparently unknown even to the comparatively modern  native treatises." The likenesses derive from the works of one or two T'ang dynasty painters.
About the year 880, according to Waters, an artist named Kuan Hsiu made pictures of the 16 which were given to a Buddhist monastery near Ch'ien-t'ang in the province of Zhejiang (Chekiang.) These became famous and were preserved with great care and ceremonious respect.
In the reign of Qianglong [or, Chen-lung] (ca. 1750) an official had copies made by competent artists and sent them to the emperor who had further copies made, printed and distributed. When it was found that names were incorrectly assigned, he took care to see that the copies be compared with the originals and correctly transcribed.
Who are these Arhats?
Buddhist scripture indicates that they are the patrons and guardians of Shakyamuni Buddha's system
and of its adherents both lay and monastic.
The propagation of his system was entrusted to the four Great Bhikshus: Mahakashyapa, Pindola, Kun-te pan-t'an and his son, Rahula. These were to remain in existence and not experience final Nirvana until the advent of Maitreya as Buddha. Three of the names are well known, and the characters of the unknown one according to Waters, indicates Kundovahan, a Pali name meaning "Mongoose-bearing," according to a spelling from a sutra of the last century BCE.
Then in a treatise or shastra composed in the 1st century of our
era and translated into Chinese in 384 CE, the title of which is Arya
Vasumitra-bodhisattva Sangiti Shastra, we find mention of sixteen "brahmins"
-- the word Buddha used to designate the "exalted" or "noble ones" -- that is, the bodhisattvas.
Those are probably the Sixteen Arhats, although a note gives the name of the second
one as Ajita, that is Maitreya.
These guardians are said to be dispersed over the world and the names of some of their spheres are: Purva-Videha, the Wheat (Godhuma) region, the Spice (Priyangu) region, the Lion (Simha) region and Bhadrika place.
The text from which all our knowledge of the names of the Sixteen Arhats of the far east is likely derived is the Record of the Duration of the Law* by the great Arhat Nandimitra. The actual author lived long after the legendary Nandimitra and was not a native of that arhat's country, and the Chinese translators say they are indebted to a previous translation.
The Record of the Duration begins with the [Chinese Buddhist] tradition that within
800 years of Buddha's decease, an arhat named Nandimitra lived at the capital of King Sheng-chun in the Chih-shih-tzu country.
Though the scholar Nanjio took Sheng-chun to be King Prasenajit and Chih-shih-tzu to be Ceylon, Prasenajit's capital was
at Shravasti in Kosala. Besides, no king with that name is in the annals of Ceylon.
And Chih-shih-tzu is probably Shih-tzu-kuo which was in Vrijjian territory.
Waters thought that the Chinese name Sheng-Chun might stand for either Prasenajit or Jayasena.
Waters gives the list from the Record with the Chinese, Japanese, and variations noticed in other lists. He reminds us "we must remember that these, whether merely works of art or consecrated to religion, are not supposed to be faithful representations of the men . . . . The pictures and images are to be taken merely as symbols or fanciful creations."
At his congregation's request Nandimitra named these 16 Protectors, their spheres of action, and the
size of their retinues. According to this Record of the Duration of the Law
here is the order:
He has a retinue of 1,000 arhats, and his place is the Godhanga region in the west. Sometimes he is just called Bharadvaja. Pindola, "with a voice like a lion's roar" was one of Buddha's great disciples distinguished as a successful disputant and defender of orthodoxy. However, he had a weakness for exhibiting his magical powers before all sorts of people, and sometimes for unworthy objects. Once, according to the Pali and other editions of the Vinaya, in order to show his superhuman powers, he rose in the air, took a sandalwood bowl off a very high pole, and floated about with it for a time over the heads of an admiring crowd. This brought a severe rebuke from the Master, and was the occasion of a rule prohibiting the use of sandalwood bowls (?!)
The Buddha also on this occasion said that Pindola was not to "take Nirvana," but was to remain in existence protect Buddha's system until the coming of Maitreya.
He is also said to have worked a miracle with a hill in order to go to a breakfast given by Sudatta's wife, and some make this to be the occasion on which Buddha rebuked him. But Pindola sometimes wrought miracles for good purposes, such as at Rajagriha where it led to the conversion of an unbelieving lady.
Pindola has been living ever since Buddha's time, and he has appeared on several occasions to pious workers for Buddhism. In India it was once the custom for lay believers when giving an entertainment to the Buddhist monks to "invite Pindola." (As Jews invite Elijah the Prophet to the Passover feast.) The arhat could not be seen, but the door was left open for him, and it was known by the appearance of the flowers or the condition of the mat reserved for him whether he had been present (cf. Santa Claus' cookies in the USA.)
When King Ashoka summoned his great assembly, Pindola was living on Gandhamali (or Gandhamadana) mountain with a company of 60,000 arhats. When summoned, he flew swan-like to the meeting where, on account of his undoubted seniority, he was chosen president. He was then a very old man with white hair and long eyebrows which he had to hold back with his hands in order to see.
As he often has very long eyebrows in his pictures and images, the Chinese have come to know him popularly as the
Ch'ang-mei-seng or "Long-eyebrowed Monk." But other arahats are also depicted
with this characteristic.
In a far-back existence Pindola had been a bad son and a cruel man
which led to his suffering in hell for a long period. Here his food was "tiles and stones," and even when he was born to be a pious arhat
he is said to have retained this diet. No wonder he is thin and ribbed.
As Nakula, the name is found in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese temples, but in some lists we find instead Pakula, that is Bakula or Vakula. This was the name of one of Buddha's great disciples, often mentioned in the scriptures. Vakula was a typical shravaka in that he led a solitary, self-contained life never preaching or teaching. He was remarkable for his exemption from bodily ailments and for his longevity.
In the Tibet Art tangka, the name of arhat #9 is given as Bakula and he holds a mongoose. Yuan-chuang's text also says the name means Mongoose, but recall the arhat called Kundo-vahan or Mongoose-bearer already mentioned.
When King Ashoka visited his stupa and is said to have only offered one anna (a 1,000th of a coin) N/Bakula is said to have shown disdain for the King's poor understanding of the nature of an arahat as shown by that paltry offering and he rejected it. Could this be the origin of the magical mongoose and its jewel-spitting?
We know there is in the scriptures a father referred to as Nakulapitra [father of Nakula,] who is a devoted lay adherent of Buddha's teaching.
Nakula was a Vrijjian resident at Uruvilva, but there is not much about him in the scriptures. He may be the same person that Nakulapita converted when he was 120 years old who was made young again and happy by Buddha's teaching.
He is represented with a mongoose as his emblem, but also through a
mysterious transposition with the three-legged frog under his left arm.
(See also the eclipse.) Sometimes he is represented as meditating or as teaching with a little boy by his side.
Kalika holds a gold earring in each hand is #4 in the
Tibet Art tangka.
8. Vajraputra (Chinese pron. Fa-she-lo-fuh-to-lo)
In the Trayashtrimsat Heaven he is attended by 1,300 arhats. Called simply Pantha or sometimes Ta or Mahapanthaka to distinguish him from his young brother who is no. 16 below.
The name is explained as "born on the road," and a legend relates how it was given to both boys because their births occurred by the roadside while their mother was travelling. But it is also explained as "continuing the way," that is, propagating Buddhism, and the Tibetan means "doctrine of the way" but this explanation is better suited to the younger brother.
Panthaka was among the highest of Buddha's disciples, who " by thought aimed at excellence." He holds a book and performs the mudra of explication as #13 in the Tibet Art list. He was expert in resolving doubts and difficulties in doctrine for weaker students but he also had extraordinary magical powers or siddhis. He could pass through solids and shoot through the air, and cause fire and water to appear at his pleasure.
He was said also to be able to shrink himself down to nothing. These
siddhis were called upon when Buddha made an expedition to subdue and convert the fierce
#14 in the Tibet Art listing, Nagasena holds a vase and staff.
In the discussion, he defends the unity and consistency of Buddha's teachings, and explains and expands hard doctrines with great learning and richness of illustration.
He then becomes "the head of the Church in Milinda's country to watch over and maintain Buddhist orthodoxy."
His treatise must have existed in various lands and in different forms from a comparatively early
period since the various Chinese versions seem to quote from a text earlier than
the "Questions," as we know it.
There is an old seer Asita who came from his distant home to see the newly-born infant who
will become Buddha. Waters doubts that he is the same as the arhat.
Chudapantaka has both hands in meditation as #11 in the Tibet
Once the King invited Buddha and the disciples to breakfast, but Little Pantha was excluded. When Buddha discovered this he refused to sit down until the despised disciple joined them.
Later, when Little Pantha was expelled by his brother for his stupidity, Buddha would not allow it and brought him back comforting the sorrowing disciple and gave him the words "Sweeping broom" as his practice.
With that mantra and accompanying practice his mind was "stimulated, and he came to see that the two words meant that all attachment to things of this world was defilement and to be swept away by the broom of Buddha's doctrine." He achieved perfection, and became noted as one of the first disciples in 'mental aiming at excellence'; he was chiefly occupied with the mind and mental contemplation."
Later, he "expounded these with such power and eloquence that even giddy nuns, who came to laugh and mock, remained to be impressed and edified."
Little Pantha also later accomplished the powers of flying through the air and of assuming
various forms. Once he produced 500 "strange oxen" and proceeded to ride one.
Some Chinese have supposed that there were formerly 18 gods regarded as protectors,
but more probable is the idea that the Buddhists imitated a certain 7th century Chinese
They became known as the Eighteen Cabinet Ministers, and were popularly said to have
teng-ying-chou or Immortals. Waters thinks that it is this Hall of the Eighteen which
led to the idea that there ought to be Eighteen Arhats in Buddha's Hall.
He thinks that in China the characteristics of the two groups became
intermingled and that this was further confounded by the fact that in some temples
the Lohan are arranged in groups of three.
In some temples, Maitreya or his supposed incarnation, Pu-tai ho-shang, hempen or Calico-bag (cushion) Monk is added He is the special patron of tobacco-sellers and his jolly little fat image often adorned shop-fronts. This sixth century [CE] monk was not honoured as a Lohan until modern times.
Another interesting person sometimes found among the Eighteen Arhats is the Indian master Dharmatara (or Dharmatrata,) in Chinese Fa-Chiu. This may be the Dharmatara who was a great master of dhyana or meditation, and a learned author, and who probably lived about the middle of the first century of our era. He is sometimes called a great upasaka or adept, and is represented as receiving or introducing the Sixteen (or Eighteen) Lohan.
Chandra Das in Narrative of a Journey to Lhasa (145) wrote that:
Waters noticed this saying that "Dharma Tala" is Dharmatara who was not
Chinese but Indian. He adds that in many Chinese temples Kuanyin P'usa
appears as one of the lohan sometimes in the capacity of a dharma protector.
In the legend of the events following Buddha's first teaching, Theravadins tell how Assaji, one of his five former companions, while out begging for alms, met two followers of a famous nihilist philosopher called Sanjaya Belatthiputta. Those two students, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, impressed by Assaji's composure and air of contentment, were the next to join the sangha of Shakyamuni, along with all the other 250 disciples of the nihilist. That is the reason why, especially in Chinese depictions of Buddha, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana are depicted as figures larger than the other members of the group.
In Tibetan tangkas of the 16 arhats, there also appear other figures such as two attendants,
the plump Hvashang, surrounded by playful children and the
above-mentioned Dharmatala or -tara, seated upright
who may also be the one accompanied by a tiger. That makes
the "18 arhats."
In compositions featuring the arhats, there are generally a total of 23 figures with Amitabha, but 24 if we include Buddha Shakyamuni.
The information here is mainly from the annotated text version of Waters' 19th-century article. Read the full text of Waters, T. "The Eighteen Lohans of Chinese Buddhist Temples," The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1898. v. 4 (329-347.)
There are various copies to be found on the Internet, almost
all with textual errors -- one which, though it includes the Chinese characters,
does not even correctly cite the author's name!
*The Record: "Ta Alo-han Nan-t'i mi-to loso-shuo fachu-chi" [Pinyin sp.?] trans. Xuanzang