18 Lohans

The 18 Lohans. Picture provided by Sifu Leonard


It is said that from the 500 Arahants or Lohans, Bodhidharma chose to honor 18 of them that were most appreciated by the Chinese to overcome cultural differences when spreading Buddhism to China. Also most Chi Kung and Kung Fu sets are based on the “magic number” of 18 or multiples of it due to Bodhidharma's choice.

Can you please tell us more about these 18 Lohans?

Are there any records how the Shaolin monks practiced the 18 Lohan Hands in the past? (i.e. for how long; how many repetitions; all exercises at once or separately; did they develop chi flow similar to ours; etc.)

Sifu Leonard Lackinger


An Arahant, or Lohan in Chinese, is one who has attained Enlightenment. The term "Arahant" is often used in Hinayana Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, one who has attained Enlightenment is called a Buddha. The term "Lohan" is often used in Chinese Buddhism to denote a disciple who learned directly from the Buddha.

I am not sure whether it was Bodhidharma who introduced the 18 Lohans into China, but the 18 Lohans are certainly very popular in Chinese Buddhism, and they are frequently worshipped in Chinese Buddhist temples.

I don't think these 18 Lohans were selected to differentiate between Indian and Chinese culture. In fact both their names and the appearance they are normally depicted are Indian. Their Sanskrit names are transliterated into Chinese characters.

For example, the first Lohan is Pindola Bharadvaja, and is called Pin-tu-lo-Po-lo-to-she in Chinese. It is worthy of note that "Pin-tu-lo-Po-lo-to-she" is the Chinese pronunciation in classical times. The written Chinese characters are the same, but because the sounds of the characters have changed over time, the modern pronunciation of the same words in Mandarin is Binduluo Baluoduoshe.

"Pin-tu-lo-Po-lo-to-she" is not a name easy for typical Chinese to remember. Hence the Lohans are often addressed by their attributes. Pin-tu-lo-Po-lo-to-she, or Pindola Bharadvaja in Sanskrit, is usually depicted as riding a dear. Hence, he is often addressed as Dear-Riding Lohan, or Qilu Luohan in Modern Mandarin pronunciation.

The 18 Lohans are listed below with their names in Sanskrit, their Chinese transliterations as pronounced in classical times, their attributes, their modern pronunciation in Mandarin, and a brief description.

The order of the listing is not dependent on their seniority or the level of their spiritual development, but on the order of their appearance before a famous artist. In 891 CE the 18 Lohans appeared before Guan Xiu who painted them. The emperor made copies of the images and distributed them over China.

The 6th Lohan, Po-te-lo or Bhadra, is sometimes confused with Bodhidharma, our First Patriarch. Bodhidharma, who lived more than a thousand years after the Buddha, could not be a Lohan, i.e. his direct disciple. Bodhidharma is regarded as a Bodhisattva, rather than a Lohan.

1. Pindola Bharadvaja - Pin-tu-lo-Po-lo-to-she, Deer-Riding Lohan - Qilu Luohan
Sitting dignified on a dear, he had long eye-brows, was noted for psychic powers, and his voice was like the roar of a lion.

2. Kanaka Vatsa - Ka-no-ka-Fa-tso, Joyful Lohan - Xiqing Luohan
He was very skillful in public speaking and debates. He said that happiness was experienced through the five senses but joy was experienced from within. He sometimes banged cymbals in his joy.

3. Karaka Bharadvaja - Ka-no-ka-Po-li-tou-she, Raised Bow Lohan - Jubo Luohan
A mendicant monk who asked for alms by raising his bowl, he often raised one leg in the air representing royal ease. He symbolized receiving gifts gracefully.

4. Subhinda - Su-pin-te, Lift Pagoda Lohan - Tuoda Luohan
He was the last disciple of the Buddha. He held a pagoda in his hand as a remembrance for the Buddha. The pagoda was then introduced into China.

5. Nakula - No-ku-lo, Meditating Lohan - Jingzuo Luohan
He was a great warrior with tremendous strength who later became a monk. He attained Enlightenment through meditation.

6. Bhadra - Po-te-lo, Oversea Lohan - Guojiang Luohan
His name meant virtuous and sagacious. He spread the Dharma across the seas to the East Indies and Java.

7. Kalika - Ka-li-ka, Elephant-Riding Lohan - Qixiang Luohan
He was an elephant tamer. The elephant symbolizes strength, endurance and perseverance. Kalika represents patience, concentration and diligence.

8. Vajraputra - Fa-she-lo-fuh-to-lo, Laughing Lion Lohan - Xiaoshi Luohan
He advocated that both practice and understanding were necessary to attain wisdom. He was a former lion hunter before becoming a monk. A lion club joined him, grateful that he gave up his former profession.

9. Gobaka - Shu-po-ka, Open Heart Lohan - Kaixin Luohan
Open the heart and see the Buddha. Gobaka was a crown prince. His younger brother started a rebellion but Gobaka assuring his brother that he would denounce the kingdom to become a monk, took of his garment and exposed a Buddha image on his heart.

10. Maha Panthaka - Mo-ha Pan-to-ka, Lifting Hands -Tanshou Luohan
He was a prince but became a monk. After meditation he would raise his hands like Lifting the Sky.

11. Rahula - Lo-hu-lo,. Deep Concentration Lohan - Chensi Luohan
He was the Buddha's son before the Buddha left the palace. Later he sought his father for his inheritance, i.e. to attain Enlightenment. His boyish look reflected his youth compared to the other Lohans.

12. Nagasena - Na-ka-si-na, Ear Cleansing Loahn - Waer Luohan
Nagasena was usually depicted cleansing his ears which symbolized always hearing everything correctly. He had great supernatural powers and was an eloquent speaker and debater. He answered King Milinda's famous questions.



13. Angida - Yin-kie-te, Cloth Bag Lohan - Budai Luohan
Angida was a snake-catcher preventing them from harming people. He took off their fangs, put them into his bag and released them in the mountains, which symbolized exchanging bad for good.

14. Vanavasa - Fa-na-po-ssu, Banana Tree Lohan - Bajiao Luohan
He was born during a heavy rainstorm, thus his name which meant rain. He liked to meditate under a banana tree.

15. Ajita - A-shih-to, Long Eyebrow Lohan - Changmei Luohan
He was born with two long eyebrows. In his previous life he was a monk who failed to attain Enlightenment even cultivating to old age with only two eyebrows left. He attained Enlightenment in this life.

16. Chota-Panthaka - Chu-ta-Pan-to-ka, Door Watching Lohan - Kanmen Luohan
He was so slow-witted that he could not remember a single line of the Buddha's teaching. The Buddha taught him to sweep the floor, and each time he swept he recited the word "Sweep". In this way he focused his mind and attained Enlightenment.

17. Nantimitolo - Nam-ti-mi-to-lo, Subduing Dragon Lohan - Xianglong Luohan
People stole Buddhist sutras. The Dragon King flooded the area and restored the sutras in his palace. Nantimitolo, which means Happy Friend, subdued the dragon guard and restored the sutras to the world.

18. Pindola - Pin-tu-lo, Taming Tiger Lohan - Fuhu Luohan
Pindola was a Brahmin and a general who later became a monk. He heard a tiger howling every day. He gathered vegetarian food from the temple and fed the tiger.

Although the 18 Lohan Hands are in honour of the 18 Lohans, it does not mean that each hand or technique is derived from each of the 18 Lohans. However, the first pattern of the 18 Lohan Hands, Lifting the Sky, was likely to derive from Maha Panthaka, or Mo-ha Pan-to-ka in Chinese, who frequently lifted his hands after completing his meditation.

Yes, many Shaolin chi kung and kungfu sets are based on the number 18 in honour of the 18 Lohans. In our school, for example, we have the 18 Lohan Hands, 18-Lohan Art, 18 Shaolin Chi Kung Techniques, and 18 Jewels.

In Shaolin Kungfu, many sets are based on 18 or multiples of it. For example, Four Gates, Tiger-Crane, Dragon-Tiger, and Lohan Asks the Way have 36 patterns. Flower Set, Iron Wire and Dragon Strength have 72 patterns. Triple Stretch and Essence of Shaolin have 108 patterns.

Although there were pictures showing the forms of the 18 Lohan Hands practiced by the Shaolin monks in the past, there were no detailed records of their evolution through time. Because of its long history, there are a few different versions of the 18 Lohan Hands. In some versions, the 18 Lohan Hands were practiced like exercises in Sinew Metamorphosis. In other versions they were practiced while sitting in a lotus position.

There was no definite record of for how long and for how many repetitions the 18 Lohan Hands were performed. This was probably because the time taken and the number of repetitions depended on various factors like the objectives of the training sessions and the developmental stages of the monks.

Nevertheless, from various records I have the impression that the Shaolin monks in the past practiced all the 18 Lohan Hands as a set instead of individual patterns as we usually do in our school. I also believe that the monks took a longer time to practice the 18 Lohan Hands, perhaps an hour per session, not just 15 minutes a session as recommended in our school.

As far as I can gather from classical records as well as from genuine Shaolin lineages practicing the 18 Lohan Hands, the Shaolin monks in the past as well as modern practitioners of genuine lineages did not develop chi flow similar to ours. They merely performed the patterns, and any chi flow, which was slight compared to us, was during the performance of the patterns themselves, not after having performed the patterns. Sometimes practitioners might sway for a few seconds, poetically known as "Flowing Breeze Swaying Willows", after performing the whole set of 18 Lohan Hands. This was also how I learned and practiced the 18 Lohan Hands from my sifu, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam.

The vigorous chi flow movements commonly seen in our school was developed in my long years of teaching. When I first taught chi kung to the public in the 1970s, I taught the 18 Lohan Hands in a package course of 6 months. Many kungfu and chi kung masters laughed at me, commenting how I could teach chi kung in six months. In their concept, chi kung training took years. Some were angry at me for teaching non-Chinese.

Initially I taught the 18 Lohan Hands the way I learned from my sifu, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, which was performing the patterns with focus on perfect form and correct breathing, and which was also the way chi kung was taught by genuine Shaolin masters. It took my early students about 4 to 6 months to have some visible chi flow movements. This was quite remarkable as I myself took more than a year to have similar results, and I was regarded as an exemplary student.

By the 1980s, chi flow movements had become more vigorous, but still they were nothing compared to what our students now experience. The increase of chi flow movements in both frequency and intensity was due much to my practice and study of a different genre of chi kung called Five-Animal Play, later more commonly known as Self-Manifested Chi Movement. By then the six-month course of 18 Lohan Hands had been reduced to three months, and when I traveled to teach in Australia the course was further reduced to 10 days, and then to 3 days.

When I first taught in Europe in the 1990s, I taught selection from the 18 Lohan Hands in 8 hours. Students could attain vigorous chi flow by the end of the course. Our teaching methodology continued to improve amazingly, and now we can achieve better results in just 4 hours.

It may sound presumptuous but I honestly believe that we may now be more cost-effective in the training of 18 Lohan Hands than even the Shaolin monks themselves in the past. Certainly a typical Shaolin Wahnam student now can practice the 18 Lohan Hands more effectively than I did even when I was known as an exemplary student. At that time I just practiced the 18 Lohan Hands, and over time, like a year or two, experienced some chi flow. I believe this also applied to what Shaolin monks in the past did. I did not differentiate between techniques and skills.

But now our Shaolin Wahnam students can use a same technique from the 18 Lohan Hands to operate different skills. Not only they can generate an energy flow, but also develop internal force, massage internal organs, cleanse their nerves and even expand into the Cosmos -- in just one day! It is simply mind-blowing.

18 Lohan Hands

18 Lohan Hands. Picture provided by Sifu Leonard


The questions and answers are reproduced from the thread 18 Lohan Hands: 10 Questions to Grandmaster Wong in the Shaolin Wahnam Discussion Forum.