The sixteen arhats (Japanese: rakan) were disciples of Shaka (Sanskrit: Shakyamuni), the historical Buddha. At his request they remained in the world after attaining nirvana in order to help others. Paintings of the arhats, often in sets of sixteen hanging scrolls, became popular in China during the Five Dynasties (907-60) and Song dynasty (960-1279). Many of these were imported to Japan during the Heian and Kamakura periods (together 794-1333), where they were revered and copied.
The Japanese artists took up the Chinese practice of a combination of painting styles. Here, the figure and lion are expressed in an older line-and-colour technique, with sweeping outlines for the arhat's robe and some fine detailed work in the lion's face and mane. The background is in the newer ink-painting style using a relatively dry brush. Altogether the effect is more informal than representations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, emphasizing the humanity of the arhats so as to appeal to the popular imagination. In general, arhats are shown with Indian-looking features and the wasted limbs of aesthetes.
The artist is unknown, though this painting is similar in style to sets of arhats by the suiboku monk-painter Ryōzen who was active in Kyoto from about 1348 to 1355. Almost all his paintings are of Buddhist subjects.