Arhats (in Chinese, lohans) were the original disciples of the Buddha, enlightened beings of exceptional wisdom, endowed with supernatural powers. One of their primary roles is to serve as guardians and advocates of the Buddhist Law (dharma). Worship of a group of sixteen arhats was set forth in an Indian sutra that was translated into Chinese in the mid-seventh century. By the end of the tenth century, two additional arhats were added, one paired with a tiger and the other one with a dragon. The dragon, regarded as a divine animal in China long before the advent of Buddhism, personified potentially fearsome natural phenomena associated with water, thunder, and rain.
In this dramatic composition, a seated arhat, accompanied by a guardian king, a monk, and a child, confronts a dragon as it emerges from a body of water. The figures are rendered in a fine, linear ink technique, while the landscape setting is painted with bolder, more expressive brushwork. The turbulent water, fluttering robes, and wide-eyed expressions of the figures imbue the scene with considerable movement and tension. The arhat, depicted with an intense and slightly malevolent expression, appears to be subduing the force of the dragon with his gaze, drawing the beast into his magic alms bowl, which sits on a rock between them. The dragon’s act of submission to the arhat glorifies the supernatural power of the Buddhist saint.