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Rooted in the Past, Abiding in the Present,

Continuing in the Future:

The Sixteen Arhats’ Worship in Sōtō Zen Buddhism

Lecture delivered by Rev. Aigo Castro (Centro Zen Abhirati, Valencia, Spain), for
the International Seminary at Fudenji (3rd Edition) (Salsomaggiore Terme, Italy),
from 11th to 16th September 2018

I.- Worship of Arhats in Indian Mainstream Buddhism

1.- The Arhat Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja

-Main features:
-Tendency to gluttony.
-Fondness in showing off his supernatural powers (i.e., flying and
carrying through air huge objects).
-First disciple in proclaiming the ‘Lion’s roar’ (i.e., utterances
endowed with incontrovertible veracity, boundless self-confidence
and ability to inspire others to urgency in their Dharma practice).
-Piṇḍola is described as an elder several hundred years old, with long
white hair and eyebrows that he had to hold back in order to see.

(a).- In the Vinayas: After showing his supernatural powers in public,

Piṇḍola is reprimanded by the Buddha.
-In the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya, Piṇḍola is sent to exile by the Buddha out of
the limits of Jambudvīpa. Piṇḍola took this opportunity to expand the
Dharma among bordering populations of Godanīya (west of Mt. Sumeru).

(b).- Aśokāvadāna: Again, after showing his supernatural powers in the

Sumāghadā’s banquet and creating some turmoil, Piṇḍola received this
instruction from the Buddha: “You must not enter Nirvana so long as my
Dharma abides in the world”.

(c).- Zá Ahánjīng, 23 (Ekottara Āgama): Piṇḍola received this instruction

from the Buddha: “You must remain in the world without attaining
Nirvana; you would protect and uphold my Right Dharma, and you would
prevent the Dharma from being destroyed”.

(d).- Sumāghadāvadāna: Piṇḍola received this instruction from the

Buddha: “You must remain here until the Buddha Maitreya would appear
on this world”.

2.- The Four Arhats Protectors of Dharma

(a).- Zá Ahánjīng (Ekottara Āgama): The Buddha is entrusting to the four

Arhats Mahākāśyapa, Kuṇḍopadhānīya, Piṇḍola, and Rāhula the
dissemination of the Dharma, therefore they should remain on this world
without entering into final Nirvana until the extinction of Dharma.

(b).- Śāriputraparipṛcchā: The same group of four Arhats would remain in

the world until the descent of Maitreya Buddha.

-The notion of four Arhats protecting and spreading the Dharma, is related
to the concept of “Sangha of the four quarters” (cāturdiśa-saṃgha), which
in the Pāli Vinaya is defined as: “the order of the four quarters, those who
have come and those yet to come”.

-The “Sangha of the four quarters” is holding two dimensions:

a.- Infinite Temporal Dimension: It includes all past, present, and

future monastics.

b.- Unlimited Spatial Dimension: It includes all directions of the

three worlds.

II.- Worship of the Sixteen Arhats in Indian Mahayana Buddhism

1.- The Sixteen Arhats Protectors of Dharma

(a).- Mahāyānāvatāra-śāstra: This text is justifying the orthodoxy of

Mahayana through a reference to the “great Sixteen Śrāvaka as Piṇḍola,
Rāhula, and so on, which are spread over different continents ... All of
them, in the Buddha’s presence, received the duty of preserving the
Dharma and prolonging its existence throughout the world”.

(b).-The Record of the Duration of the Dharma Spoken by the Great Arhat
Nandimitra (Nandimitrāvadāna):

-Before entering into his Final Nirvana, the Buddha entrusted the Dharma
to the Sixteen Arhats and their retinues, bidding them to protect the
Dharma and preventing it to be destroyed. In order to do so, because their
perfect accomplishment of the six supernatural powers, the sixteen Arhats
are able to prolong the length of their lifespans.

-According to Nandimitra, the Sixteen Arhats are endowed with the
following Dharma accomplishments:

-The three knowledges (tri-vidyā): (1) the ability to remember one’s

own former lives in all their detail, due to direct insight into the inexorable
connection between action and its fruition, viz., karmic cause and effect;
(2) insight into the future rebirth destinies of all other beings; a by-product
of the “divine eye”; (3) knowledge of the extinction of the contaminants,
which ensures complete liberation from the cycle of rebirth (i.e., extinction
of (1) the contaminant of sensuality; (2) the contaminant of continuing
existence; (3) the contaminant of ignorance; and (4) the contaminant of

-The six super-knowledges, or supernatural powers (abhijñā): (1)

various psychical and magical powers, such as the ability to pass through
walls, sometimes also known as “unimpeded bodily action”; (2)
clairvoyance, lit. “divine eye”, the ability to see from afar and to see how
beings fare in accordance with their deeds; (3) clairaudience, lit. “divine
ear”, the ability to hear from afar; (4) the ability to remember one’s own
former lives; (5) “knowledge of others’ states of mind”, e.g., telepathy; and
(6) the knowledge of the extinction of the contaminants.

-The eight deliverances (vimokṣa), being eight grades of liberation

associated with the attainment of meditative absorption: (1) the perception
of material form while remaining in the subtle-materiality realm; (2) the
perception of external material forms while not perceiving one’s own form;
(3) the development of confidence through contemplating the beautiful; (4)
passing beyond the material plane with the idea of “limitless space,” one
attains the plane of limitless space, the first level of the immaterial realm;
(5) passing beyond the plane of limitless space with the idea of “limitless
consciousness,” one attains the plane of limitless consciousness; (6)
passing beyond the plane of limitless consciousness with the idea “there is
nothing,” one attains the plane of nothingness; (7) passing beyond the plane
of nothingness one attains the plane of neither perception nor non-
perception; and (8) passing beyond the plane of neither perception nor non-
perception one attains the cessation of consciousness.

-They are well versed in all teachings of the tripiṭaka, and to the
twelve categories of canonical texts.

-They are well versed in the five scientific disciplines, and the four

-The Buddha commanded the Sixteen Arhats to create a “field of merit”
(puṇya-kṣetra) in order to allow their believers and benefactors (dānapati)
obtaining great rewards.

-For the first time, the name, residence, and disciples’ number of the
sixteen Arhats are established.

-In every occasion an assembly of monastics is organized in order to

provide them with the four requisites (food and drink, clothes, chairs and
beds, and medicines), the Sixteen Arhats would “appear in a variety of
forms and conceal their hidden holy appearances. With the semblance of
ordinary mortals, they secretly receive offerings, causing all almsgivers to
attain superior rewards”.

-Along the early canonical corpus of scriptures gathered by the Listeners

(Śrāvaka-piṭaka), it is enumerated a list of Mahayana scriptures belonging
to the Bodhisattvas (Bodhisattva-piṭaka).

-The sixteen Arhats’ residences display a protective area covering all points
of space:

-West of Mt. Sumeru (Godanīya): Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja

-East of Mt. Sumeru (Pūrvavideha): Kanaka Bhāradvāja

-North of Mt. Sumeru (Uttarakuru): Subinda

-South of Mt. Sumeru (Jambudvīpa): Nakula

-Center (Kaśmīra): Kanakavatsa

III.- Worship of the Arhats in Chinese Buddhism

1.- Early Worship of Arhat Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja

(a).-After getting a dream of a “white-haired foreign monk, with long,

flowing eyebrow”, which was identified later as Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja by his
disciple Lushan Huiyuan (334-416), the Chinese monk Dao’an (312-385),
established the worship of Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja in China.

(b).- The monk Huijian translated in 457 The Method of Inviting Piṇḍola
(Qing bintoulu fa; 請賓頭盧法; T 1689), in which it is described how to
ritually bathe and feed Piṇḍola in order to get his blessing.

2.- The Worship of the Sixteen Arhats in Chinese Buddhism

(a).- During the Liang Dynasty (502-557), Zhang Sengyao (502-549) was
the first Chinese artist to paint the Sixteen Arhats.

(b).- In May 17th, of year 652, Xuanzang translated the Nandimitrāvadāna

as Record of the Duration of the Dharma Spoken by the Great Arhat
Nadimitra (Da aluohan nantimiduoluo suoshuo fazhuji; 大阿羅漢難提蜜
多羅所説法住記; T 2030).

(c).- The Eulogy of Inviting Arhats (Qing Luohan zanwen; 請羅漢讚文) by

the high-ranking official Huang Shang (1044-1130), is the earliest extant
extra-canonical liturgical text dealing with the rite of Arhat invitation in
China. There, it is declared that “because the Arhats are compassionate and
sympathetic”, they are able to manifest themselves to the devotee in
response of his/her “utmost sincere heart”.

3.-Worship of the Sixteen Arhats in Chan Buddhism

(a).-The Sixteen Arhats are getting shape: the visionary paintings of Chan
master Guanxiu (832-912):

-Chan Master Guanxiu said: “Whenever I paint a Venerable One, I always

pray to receive a vision of his Arhat appearance in a dream.” (Zanning
(920–1001), (ed.) Song gaoseng zhuan).

01.- Name: Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja

Retinue: 1,000 Arhats
Residence: Godanīya, West of Mt. Sumeru
Features: See above.

02.- Name: Kanakavatsa

Retinue: 500 Arhats
Residence: Kaśmīra
Features: “Arhat who knows all the wholesome and
unwholesome dharmas”, or “Happiness and Joy Arhat”.

03.- Name: Kanaka Bhāradvāja

Retinue: 600 Arhats
Residence: Pūrvavideha, East of Mt. Sumeru
Features: “Raising his Bowl Arhat”.

04.- Name: Subinda
Retinue: 700 Arhats
Residence: Uttarakuru, North of Mt. Sumeru
Features: “Pagoda-Holding Arhat.”

05.- Name: Nakula

Retinue: 800 Arhats
Residence: Jambudvīpa, South of Mt. Sumeru
Features: “Quietly Sitting Arhat”.

06.- Name: Bhadra

Retinue: 900 Arhats
Residence: Tāmradvīpa
Features: His mother gave birth to him
under the bhadra (auspicious) tree, hence his name.

07.- Name: Kālika

Retinue: 1,000 Arhats
Residence: Siṃhatā
Features: “Elephant-Riding Arhat”.

08.- Name: Vajraputra

Retinue: 1,100 Arhats
Residence: Poraṇa
Features: “Laughing Lions Arhat.”

09.- Name: Jīvaka

Retinue: 900 Arhats (1,200 KS)
Residence: Mt. Gandhamādana
Features: “Heart-Exposing Arhat”.

10.- Name: Panthaka

Retinue: 1,300 Arhats
Residence: Trayastriṃśā Heaven
Features: “Arhat who Reaches Out His Hands”.

11.- Name: Rāhula

Retinue: 1,100 Arhats
Residence: Priyaṇgu
Features: He was the only Buddha’s son.

12.- Name: Nāgasena
Retinue: 1,200 Arhats
Residence: Pāṇḍava (or Potalaka?)
Features: “Ear-Picking Arhat”.

13.- Name: Aṅgaja

Retinue: 1,300 Arhats (900 KS)
Residence: Mt. Vipulaparśva
Features: “Cloth-Bag Arhat”.

14.- Name: Vanavāsin

Retinue: 1,400 Arhats (900 KS)
Residence: Mt. Vāsa (or Vatsa?)
Features: “Plantain Arhat”.

15.- Name: Ajita

Retinue: 1,500 Arhats
Residence: Mt. Gṛdhrakūṭa
Features: “Long-eyebrowed Arhat”.

16.- Name: Cūḍapanthaka

Retinue: 1,600 Arhats
Residence: Mt. Nemindhara
Features: “Arhat of mind-made bodies”.

(b).- In the Rules of Purity for the Chan Monastery (Chanyuan qinggui 禪
苑清規; written by the Chan monk Changlu Zongze (?-1107?), which is
the earliest Chan monastic code in existence, it is mentioned the duty of the
“Director of the Arhat Hall” (luohan tangzhu). This implies the
assimilation of a full-fledged ritual of Arhats invitation within institutional
Chinese Chan since its earliest organization.

IV.- Worship of the Sixteen Arhats in Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhism

(a).- Worship of the Sixteen Arhats by Myōan Eisai (1141–1215):

-In his Treatise on Letting Zen Flourish to Protect the State

(Kōzengokokuron), Eisai said:

-“Monthly activities through the year: In January, an assembly for praising

the Arhats” (p. 172).

-“In Mount Tiantai at times live Arhats appear, whose traces also emit
light” (p. 177).

(b).-Worship of the Sixteen Arhats by Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253):

-According to Sōtō Zen traditional accounts, during his visit to Mt. Tiantai
(China), Dōgen saw the five hundred Arhats located in their residence near
the “Rock Bridge”, at Mt. Tiantai.

-According to Menzan’s Teiho Kenzeiki, the old man that Dōgen met in
front of the Arhat Hall on Mt. Jing and who advised him to visit Rujing on
Mt. Tiantong was actually an Arhat.

-Dōgen brought back from China an image of the Sixteen Arhats attributed
to Li Longmin (d. 1106).

-In 1249, Dōgen wrote A Record on the Sixteen Arhats’ Manifestation of

Their Auspicious Signs (Jūroku rakan genzuiki), in which it is described a
vision Dōgen had of the Sixteen Arhats while he was meditating in his cell.
He commented upon the rarity of this event:

“As for the other examples of the appearance of auspicious signs, apart
from [the case of] the “Rock Bridge” of Mt. Tiantai [in the province] of
Taizhou, in the great kingdom of the Song, nowhere else to my knowledge
has there been one to compare with this one. But on this mountain
[Kichijōsan, the location of Eihei-ji] many apparitions have already
happened. This is truly a very auspicious sign showing that, in their deep
compassion, [the Arhats] are protecting the men and the Dharma of this
mountain. This is why it appeared to me”.

-Likewise, in 1249 Dōgen wrote A Text on the Alms Offering Rite for
Arhats (Rakan kuyō shikibun), in which it is described a rite to invite the
Sixteen Arhats following a model established by Eisai. In one of those rites
conducted by Dōgen, rays of light shown out from the images and the
Arhats themselves magically appeared before the worshipers as heavenly
flowers rained down.

-According to Sōtō Zen traditional accounts, the Sixteen Arhats themselves

appeared on the branches of an old pine tree in front of Eihei-ji (this tree is
known as the “Arhat pine tree” (Rakanshō) and still exists today).

(c).-Worship of the Sixteen Arhats by Keizan Jōkin (1268-1325):

-In 1313, Keizan had a vision of the eighth Arhat Vajraputra, who
predicted him with every success regarding his Dharma activities on behalf
of the present and future of Yōkō-ji.

-In 1319, Keizan conducted the first ritual for Arhats at Yōkō-ji: “First
performed service for Arhats. Should be performed every 25th day of each
moon. That is what the venerable Arhats expect”.

-In his Monastic Regulations (Keizan shingi) writeen in 1324, Keizan

included the detailed Alms-Offering Rite for Arhats (Rakan kuyō shiki). Its
main features are:

-The Sixteen Arhats are considered as accomplished individuals

“who anonymously practice the normative ideals of a Bodhisattva,
[but] externally assume the form of a Śrāvaka. [Similarly, even]
within an inch of stepping forward, they can transform the
phenomenal world into the Dharma world, and within a thought
moment, they can respond to patron donors to become their
meritorious field [for the latter’s cultivation and moral and spiritual

-Besides the sixteen Arhats, the five hundred Arhats residing in Mt.
Tiantai (China), the Arhats Mahākāśypa and Kundopadhuniya, and
the physical remains of Śākyamuni Buddha, are also worshiped.

-The Rakan kuyō shiki develops five ways of praising the Arhats’s
-To explain the names of their residences.
-To explain the benefit of promoting the Buddha-Dharma.
-To explain the benefit of their being the field of merit.
-To explain the benefit of preventing disasters.
-To make an offering for the sacred ashes of the Buddha.

(d).- The Sixteen Arhats in Late Medieval Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhism:

-In 1754, Menzan Zuihō (1683-1769) authored the Chronicle of

Supernatural Responses from the Arhats (Rakan ōken den), containing
more than one hundred legends about the Arhats in China and Japan.

(e).- The Sixteen Arhats in Contemporary Sōtō Zen Buddhism:

-The morning Sutra chanting performed every day includes a Sutra

chanting for Arhats (ōgu fugin), in which they are asked to use their
supernatural powers to liberate all living beings; to support the monastic
community; and to prevent disasters.

-At the Sōtō Zen monasteries there is a monthly offering to the Arhats
(rakan kuyō), and an Arhats liturgy (rakan kōshiki) that is held semi-
annually. Both services are performed in a specific area dedicated to them:
the Arhats Hall (rakandō).


1.-The Sixteen Arhats are embodying an uncommon spiritual force which

enables monastics and lay people alike, getting in touch with the freshness
and purity of the original time of the Right Dharma and hence, obtaining
their blessings, protection and rewards in any moment, in any place, and
regardless any adverse circumstances.

2.-The Sixteen Arhats are functioning as privileged mediators between the

supramundane and mundane levels of reality, being endowed with a
compassionate motivation which is ready to become manifested to the
sincere request of the devotee.

3.-The Sixteen Arhats establish a necessary link between the early

teachings of the Listeners’ Vehicle and the later ones of the Bodhisattvas,
therefore, according to this understanding, the continuity of the Buddha’s
dispensation is ensured and the orthodoxy of the Mahayana is legitimated.

4.-The worship of the Sixteen Arhats goes beyond the limits of sectarian
affiliations to present itself as an universal paradigm of Dharma assimilated
for all Mahayana traditions of India, Central Asia, Tibet, and East Asia.