Rakan (Skt. arhat), an abbreviation of Arakan, refers to sages and disciples of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. Having cast off all worldly desires and attained the highest level of ascetic practice, they are considered worthy of devotion. The Sixteen Arhats, enlightened disciples of Sakyamuni, are said to have remained in this world long after the extinction (Skt. parinirvana) of their master in order to protect Buddhist teachings and to save all sentient beings.
These paintings, formerly in Shôjuraigô-ji Temple in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, are the oldest existing set of the Sixteen Arhats. Unlike the bizarre appearance of many arhat representations, they are here portrayed with gentle countenance, derived from early Buddhist iconography of the Tang dynasty (618-c. 907). Arhats, worshipers, divine beings, demons, and animals are arranged in diverse compositions and painted with a multitude of colors. In the upper part of each painting is a square area that notes the name and abode of each arhat. The depiction of the birds and flowers outlined in silver paint as well as the superb calligraphic style point to the refined taste of Heian nobility. Hence it is possible to deduce that the works stem from the latter half of the eleventh century.