Stories of the Eighteen Arhats

high-definition creative commons photographs of the 18 arahant statues found in a Mahayana temple in Pahang, Malaysia, together with their traditional Chinese stories.

The stories below are reproduced with permision from
pages found on Buddhanet
with a number of alterations to remove mistakes, impossible etymologies and spelling errors.

The photographs below are of statues in the Pahang Buddhist Association Temple in Kuantan, Malaysia.
I am very grateful to Master TsanZheng for helping with the identification of the Arhats.

 


1. Pindola (Deer Sitting)

Sitting dignified on a deer,
As if in deep thought.
With perfect composure,
Contented with being above worldly pursuits.

Pindola the Bharadvaja, from a high caste Brahmin family, was formerly a powerful government official in an Indian kingdom, highly trusted by the king. One day he suddenly decided to become a Buddhist monk and, not wanting to hear any entreaties from the king, he left to join a monastery deep in the mountains.

One day, he appeared in front of the palace, riding a deer. Recognizing him, the royal guards immediately reported to the king who came out to receive him. The king told him that he could have the position back if he wanted. Bharadvaja declined and said that he came back to ask the king to join him. After a long conversation, using various metaphors to explain the sins of the flesh and desires, he finally convinced the king, who abdicated in favour of his son and followed Bharadvaja to become a monk.

1. Pindola (Deer Sitting)

 


 

2. Kanaka the Vatsa (Happy)

Decimating the demons,
The universe now cleared.
Hands raised for jubilation,
He is wild with joy.

Kanaka the Vatsa was a well-known public speaker and debater of the Buddhist doctrines. When asked what is happiness, he would answer that it is experienced through the five senses. When asked what is bliss, he would reply that bliss is joy coming not from the five senses but from deep within, like feeling Buddha in his heart. He often wore a smiling countenance during debates and was famous for his preachings in happiness, therefore he is called the Happy Arhat.

2. Kanaka the Vatsa (Happy)

 


 

3. Kanaka the Bharadvaja (Raised Alms Bowl)

In majestic grandeur,
Joy descends from heaven.
Raised the bowl to receive happiness,
Glowing with jubilance and exultation.

Kanaka the Bharadvaja was a Buddhist mendicant monk who used to ask for alms by raising his bowl. After he had attained enlightenment, he was called the Raised Bowl Arhat. The word alms bowl was borrowed from Sanskrit by taking the first of the three syllables of the original word, because there was no such word in Chinese. In the very beginning, the bowl was made of metal. Nowadays, however, the bowl is sometimes found to be made of finely polished coconut shell halves or red beech wood. Its use, that of holding alms food, remains unchanged.

3. Kanaka the Bharadvaja (Raised Alms Bowl)

 


 

4. Nandimitra (Raised Pagoda)

A seven-storey pagoda,
Miraculous power of the Buddha.
Forceful without being angry,
With preeminent Buddhist might.

According to legend, this Arhat Nandimitra, the sweet one, was the last disciple of the Buddha. In memory of his dear beloved master, Nandimitra often carried a specially made pagoda with him, signifying that Buddha was always there, forever and ever.

Before the introduction of Buddhism to China, there was no pagoda in the country. The Chinese had to create a new character, from the first syllable of the original Sanskrit word, to call this unique architectural structure.

In Buddhism, the pagoda is a container for the Buddha's bones, and therefore, symbolizes the faith.

4. Nandimitra (Raised Pagoda)

 


 

5. Nakula (Meditating)

Quietly cultivating the mind,
A countenance calm and composed.
Serene and dignified,
To enter the Western Paradise.

According to tradition, this Arhat, Nakula or Pakula, was originally a warrior with immense strength. He gave up the life of fighting and killing to become a monk, finally attaining enlightenment through constant meditation. However, due to his former profession, he still exuded much physical strength even during meditation. In mythology, this Arhat's sphere of influence extended through all of India, and was considered one of Buddha's favourite disciples. Occasionally, he is portrayed as a teacher, holding a string of Buddhist rosary with a small boy beside him.

5. Nakula (Meditating)

 


 

6. Bodhidruma (Overseas)

Bearing the sutras,
Sailing east to spread the word.
Climbing mountains and fording streams,
For the deliverance of humanity.

Bodhidruma in Sanskrit is the name of a tree in India, the bodhi which has became famous and is known as the tree of wisdom because Sakyamuni became enlightened in its shade. This Arhat was born under such a tree and was given the name of Bodhidruma (he is better known now as Bodhidharma). Legend has it that Bodhidruma was responsible for spreading Buddhism to the East Indies. From India he sailed across the ocean to land on the island of Java, hence the name "Overseas."

6. Bodhidruma (Overseas)

 


 

7. Kalika (Elephant-Riding)

Riding an elephant with a dignified air,
Chanting aloud the sutras.
With a heart for humanity,
Eyes scanning the four corners of the universe.

The elephant, for its immense strength and power, endurance and perseverance, symbolizes the Buddhist might. Kalika the Arhat was an elephant trainer turned Buddhist monk who had earned sufficient merits to attain enlightenment. In memory of his former profession, he is often portrayed with an elephant.

7. Kalika (Elephant-Riding)

 


 

8. Vajraputra (Laughing Lion)

Playful and free of inhibitions,
The lion cub leaps with joy.
Easily alternating tension with relaxation,
Rejoicing with all living things.

Vajraputra literally means "son of the thunderbolt." He was a lion hunter before he was converted to Buddhism. After he had attained enlightenment, a little lion came playfully to his side. The animal seemed to be grateful to him for giving up the life of killing lions, thus sparing its parents and brothers. Since then, Vajraputra and the little lion have become inseparable.

The lion, with its earth-shaking roar, symbolizes the invincible might of Buddhism. Therefore, it is very common to find a pair of lions standing guard at the front gate of a Buddhist temple or monastery in China

8. Vajraputra (Laughing Lion)

 


 

9. Gobaka (Open Heart)

Open the heart and there is Buddha,
Each displaying his prowess.
The two should not compete,
For Buddha's power is boundless.

Gobaka was the prince of a minor kingdom in India. When he was made crown prince, his younger brother started a rebellion. But Gobaka assured his brother that he wanted to refuse the kingdom and become a monk because he only had Buddha in his heart. As proof, he exposed his chest and there indeed was a Buddha in his heart. The younger brother then believed him and stopped the rebellion. Gobaka became a monk.

It is believed that Gobaka was the monk Shan Wu Wei, who arrived at Changan (today's Xi'an) during the Tang Dynasty in 716 A.D., he was weak physically but strong of spirit.

9. Gobaka (Open Heart)

 


 

10. Panthaka (Raised Hand)

Easy and comfortable,
Yawning and stretching.
In a state of omniscience,
Contented with his own lot.

According to legend, Pantha the Elder was the prince of a small Indian kingdom called Kintota. When he became a monk, he liked to meditate in the half-lotus style. Upon waking up, he would raise his hands and let out a deep breath, hence the name Raised Hand. He was the elder brother of the Culapanthaka, the Doorman. The two brothers were both born while the mother was travelling, and were given a Sanskrit name which means "on the road."

10. Panthaka (Raised Hand)

 


 

11. Rahula Thera (Thinking)

Pondering and meditating,
Understanding it all.
Above this world and free from conventions,
Compassion conveyed up to the Ninth Heaven

In ancient India, it was believed that eclipses were caused by demon Rahu coming between the earth and the moon or the sun; blocking out the light. This Arhat was born during a lunar eclipse and was given the name Rahula, a diminutive of the demon that caused this phenomenon.

Rahula was one of the Buddha's 10 favourite disciples, and was well-known for his meditative power. It is believed that he could become omnipotent and omniscient during meditation. When deep in thought, he was ruminating wisdom and action.

11. Rahula Thera (Thinking)

 


 

12. Nagasena (Scratched Ear)

Leisurely and contented,
Happy and knowledgeable.
Full of wit and humour,
Exuberant with interest.

The name Nagasena means "an army of dragons" and symbolizes strong supernatural power. Nagasena was an eloquent speaker and debater. He was famous all over India for his preachings on the "hear no evil" maxim. The senses of hearing is one of the six sources through which mankind become aware of the world. Therefore a practitioner of Buddhism should avoid listening to decadent sounds and in particular other people's secrets. Thus he is often portrayed as scratching his ear, a gesture symbolizing the purification of the sense of hearing in the search for peace and quiet.

12. Nagasena (Scratched Ear)

 


 

13. Angida (Calico Bag)

Buddha of infinite life,
Valuable bag containing
secrets of heaven and earth.
Happy and contented,
Cheerful and joyful is he.

According to legend, Angida was an Indian snake-catcher whose aim was to prevent the snakes from biting passers-by. After the snakes were caught, he would remove the venomous fangs and then release them in the mountains. It was due to this kindness of heart that Angida was able to attain enlightenment. He carried a bag to put the snakes in.

He is supposed to have appeared in Fenghua in Zhejiang Province in 907 A.D. as a mendicant monk carrying a bag. He was seen for the second time in China in 917 A.D., preaching on a rock next to the Yuelin Temple.

13. Angida (Calico Bag)

 


 

14. Vanavasa (Plantain)

Carefree and leisurely,
Disdainfully regards the Great Void.
With celestial airs and religious spirit,
Transcending this mortal world.

According to legend, he was born during a heavy downpour, and the plantain trees in his back garden were rustling noisily. Vanavasa means "Forest-Dweller" in Sanskrit.

Later on he became a Buddhist monk, finally attaining enlightenment. Because he liked to meditate under a plantain tree, he is called the Plantain Arhat.

In mythology, he is supposed to have been stationed on the Ko-Chu mountain with 1,400 lesser Arhats. He is sometime shown meditating in a cave with eyes closed and hands folded over his knee

14. Vanavasa (Plantain)

 


 

15. Asita (Long Eyebrow)

Compassionate elder,
A monk who has attained enlightenment.
Perceptive of the infinite universe,
With tacit understanding.

According to legend, Asita was born with two long white eyebrows. The story was that in his previous life he was a monk who, though having tried very hard yet could not attain enlightenment even at a ripe old age, and had only two long white eyebrows left. After his death he reincarnated as a human being again.

After he was born, his father was told that Shakyamuni Buddha also has two long eyebrows, therefore his son had the look of the Buddha in him. As a result, Asita was sent away to a monastery to become a monk, eventually attaining enlightenment.

15. Asita (Long Eyebrow)

 


 

16. Culapanthaka (Doorman)

Powerful, husky and tough,
Watching with careful alertness.
With the Buddhist staff in hand.
Valiantly annihilates the evil.

According to legend, this Arhat, also known as Pantha the Younger, was one of Buddha's favourite disciples. When he went alms-begging he would bang on people's doors. One time he did that, the old and rotten door fell apart, and he had to apologize to the owner of the house. So Buddha gave him a tin staff and told him, "When you go alms-begging, you don't have to bang on people's doors any more. Just tap this staff. If the people inside want to give you alms, they will come out." The tin staff had several rings on it and made a light noise when tapped. The tin staff has become the symbol of this Arhat.

16. Culapanthaka (Doorman)

 


 

17. Nantimitolo (Taming Dragon)

In the hands are the spiritual pearl and the holy bowl,
Endowed with power that knows no bounds.
Full of valour, vigour and awe-inspiring dignity,
To succeed in vanquishing the ferocious dragon.

He is called the Taming Dragon Arhat for a brave act he performed. In ancient India, the people of a small kingdom, after being incited by a demon, went on a rampage against the Buddhists and monasteries, stealing the Buddhist sutras. The king of the underseas flooded the kingdom and rescued the sutras, which he put in his palace. Nantimitolo subdued the dragon guard and restored the sutras back to earth. Hence he is called the Taming Dragon Arhat.

17. Nantimitolo (Taming Dragon)

 


 

18. Pindola (Taming Tiger)

Precious ring with magical powers,
Infinitely resourceful.
Vigorous and powerful,
Subduing a ferocious tiger.

Pindola was a Brahmin and a general. Because he was devoted to Buddhism, which forbids killing, he was ordered by the king to become a monk.

He joined a monastery in the mountains where he could hear a tiger howling every day. He said that the tiger was probably hungry and should be fed some vegetarian food. Otherwise the tiger might become a man-eater.

So Pindola collected food from the monks and put it in a bucket which he left outside the monastery. The tiger did come for the food every night. After a period of time, the tiger was tamed. Thus Pindola was referred to as the Taming Tiger Arhat.

18. Pindola (Taming Tiger)

 


 

Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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