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Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha ‘of our times’. He was born into the noble Indian clan of the Shakyas. Shakyamuni literally means “sage of the Shakyas”.
As the founding master of Buddhism and the earliest expounder of the Dharma (the Good Law) the Buddha Shakyamuni Gautama is venerated above all by those who profess his teaching. He is venerated by all Buddhist sects, except the Shin-Jodo Shinshu sect that is exclusively devoted to one of Shakyamuni’s forms, Amidha Buddha.
Guatama, however, is never really considered as a deity. He is, instead, regarded as the most perfect of holy men, as an ideal of perfect Buddhist virtues. Statues of this period of his life are uncommon. At first it seems followers were reluctant to try and depict the Buddha in human form. Instead they revered things associated with him such as reliquary towers or stupas; the Bo tree under which he attained enlightenment; the Dharma Wheel (Dharmacakra) associated with his teaching; and his footprint engraved in stone. Indian Buddhists generally preferred to represent his aspect as a Bodhisattva. Images, though, began to appear around the First Century and by the Gupta Period (4th ~ 6th Centuries) the image of the Buddha became firmly fixed. The lines are serene, the face full and the ear lobes are extended. The robe covers either one or both shoulders and he is represented upright, feet slightly apart, in a frontal posture with hands in Abhaya and Varada mudras; or seated in Padmasana, with the soles of the feet visible, or making the gesture of turning the Dharmacakra. In Tibet, China, Korea and Japan these are very similar in style to those of India.
It appears that the introduction to Japan of the first image representing the historical Buddha took place in 538 A.D., when a bronze statue was sent to the Yamato Court in Asuka by the King of Kudara in Korea. In Japan, the Buddha is not always venerated alone but in a group with other personages, Amidha Buddha and Miroku (Maitreya), the future Buddha. The three together remind the faithful that the Law exists both for humans here on Earth and for those of the world beyond, and that it will continue to be so in the future.
The Buddha is honoured on many occasions, including the anniversary of his birth (Kanbutsu-e in Japan) on 8th April. The Japanese accord to him a lucky or unlucky influence on particular days of the calendar.
Bhaishajyaguru – The Medicine Buddha
Apart from the historical Buddha, two other forms of Buddha, Amitabha and Yakushi Nyorai, enjoyed great popularity in Japan.
Yakushi Nyorai is invoked to obtain something. He is the master of remedies, the ‘sage and knowing doctor of the sufferings of this world’. In Japan, his cult found great favour until the 12th Century. However, to this day Yakushi is still venerated by many Japanese, finding a popularity that extends beyond the dogma of the various sects. The Japanese sometimes grant him such importance that he can be found placed at the centre of the Buddhist pantheon in the place of Dainichi Nyorai.
Like every Jina (see below), he has a territory for preaching. This area, which is in the east on the side of the rising sun, predestined him to become an essentially Japanese Buddha. Perhaps because of this, Yakushi was one of the first deities to be venerated in Japan. The famous temple Horyu-ji in Nara was built in 587 AD by Shotoku Taishi to accommodate a large bronze statue of him in order to secure a cure for the emperor, Yomei. In 680 AD, Yakushi-ji was built in Nara on the orders of emperor Tenmu to ensure the recovery of his ailing consort, later to be the empress Jito. Yakushi is the major object of worship at the great Nara temples of Kofuku-ji, Toshodai-ji and also the Tendai temple Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei, near Kyoto.
The attributes of Yakushi include watching over the health of the people; protecting them against epidemics, diseases, dangers to families and pregnant women;
of preserving those on sea voyages from danger, and curing infertility. He is believed to grant longevity and cure eye complaints.
The earliest images of Yakushi are identical with representations of Shakyamuni. Later images show him holding either a sacred jewel or medicine container in his left hand. Yakushi has seven emanation Buddha, which he assumes during functions as a healer, are depicted on an aureole behind his head. These are usually represented above Yakushi.
Suryaprabha & Canraprabhasana
Gakko Bosatsu is one of two acolytes, sometimes represented with Yakushi Nyorai. The other being Nikko Bosatsu. Gakko watches over mortals by night and Nikko by day. The triad are known as the Yakushi Sanzon. Both the Bosatsu stand with their hips gracefully swung to one side, a typical Indian posture. Nikko (sunlight) represents the idea that truth is always clearly apparent, while Gakko (moonlight) suggests that it is sometimes hidden from human eyes.
The five Jinas are also known as the five Tathgatas, or as the five Great Buddhas of Wisdom. Jina means ‘conqueror’ and refers in a religious context to one who has conquered spiritual knowledge and overcome the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Each of the five Jinas is three entities in one: the historical Buddha, his mystical projection, and his acting emanation. The five Jinas also correspond to the five steps on the road to salvation.
In Japan, Dainichi Nyorai is the Great Solar Buddha of light and truth. He is the sun, like the Shinto goddess Amaterasu Omikami. He is the spiritualisation of Gautama Buddha in Buddhist Law and in all matters remains pragmatic. He is attributed the colour white because it is the synthesis of all other colours and symbolises all that is ‘spotless’ (Muku). He is the personification of the Absolute. He is considered first among the Jinas, the other four are considered as manifestations of him. He is also considered the unifier of the two parts of the world, the two mandalas.
Dainichi is particularly popular among followers of the esoteric Shingon and Tendai Sects. Esoteric teachings advocate training and discipline to establish contact with the cosmic life and to enable us to attain Buddhahood in the present body. Dainichi represents the cosmic life that surrounds us. Everything in the cosmos is a manifestation of Dainichi.
In appearance Dainichi looks like a Bosatsu. His elaborately arranged hair is surmounted by a crown and he wears richly jewelled ornaments. He sometimes holds the Wisdom mudra with hands held up to the chest and the fingers of one hand wrapped around one finger of the other hand.
Amida Nyorai is the fourth Jina. His preaching territory is set in the west and symbolises the setting sun as well as life in the beyond. His western paradise is the Pure Land (Japanese: Gokuraku Jodo), the paradise in which all mortals are reborn. Here souls, rid of all impurities and pure of all desire, go to the call of Amidha. In the beyond he welcomes and consoles; out of compassion he delivers creatures from their suffering and welcomes them to his Pure Land.
Like other Jinas, Amidha is also a personification of one of the episodes of the life of the historical Buddha. Amidha undertook to save all beings, irrespective of who they were. This role of saviour together with the simplicity of the Pure Land sects doctrine earned him great popularity in Tibet, China and Japan. In Japan, the Jodo-Shu (Pure Land) sect made him its principal deity and Jodo-Shinshu (True Pure Land) sect its only deity. Shinran (1173 ~ 1212), the founder of Jodo-Shinsu, said that Amitabha had already bestowed salvation on us. All we need to do is invoke his name in gratitude.
The appeal to the masses of a simple doctrine founded on faith led to a growing popularity of the Amidha cults and transformed Japanese Buddhism by disseminating fragments of doctrine to all people. More than in other countries this profoundly altered the attitudes of the people. Before the 9th Century, Buddhist deities had been seen as foreign, aristocratic entities, whom it was wise to avoid offending and who were worthy of reverence. However, direct relations were difficult as they were separated by a mass of religious text written in Chinese and by priests who were not concerned to make the texts more accessible.
Early Buddhism had associated its deities with the indigenous shinto kami of Japan. Amidha was identified with the most important kami, Amaterasu Omikami. Amaterasu is considered to be the ancestor of the imperial family and is venerated at Ise Jingu shrine. Amidha was also identified with Hachiman, a kami of war and a kami at Mt. Hiei, near Kyoto. Many temples were built to Amidha throughout Japan and, as symbols on earth of Pure Land (Gokuraku) were richly decorated. Sumptuous festivals were celebrated in the hope of equalling the enchantment in peoples’ minds of the Pure Land. These temples became the centre of social life.
The worship of Amitabha is still widespread to this day in Japan although it has largely disappeared in other countries. The recitation of his name, ‘Nembutsu, Namu Amidha Butsu’ (Homage to Amidha Buddha) is perfomed by adherents of the Jodo-Shu, Jodo-Shinshu and, sometimes, by the Tendai sects. However, it is little used by Zen sects and rejected by the Nichiren sect.
Amidha is usually represented in meditation in the full lotus position with both legs crossed. His hands form meditation mudras. In very old representations Amitabha hands are in a preaching mudra. Amitabha can also be found with his acolytes, the Bodisattvas Kannon and Seishi Bosatsu (Mahasthamaprata).
The Vidyarajas, or Mantra Kings, are five fierce looking guardians that remove all obstacles to enlightenment. They startle and threaten the recalcitrant and stubborn. They possess the knowledge and spiritual force contained in mantras. According to esoteric teachings, since they eliminate all the obstructions within and around us, the Mantra Kings and the mantras associated with them are effective in accomplishing the attainment of Buddhahood in the present lifetime.
In appearance the Mantra Kings are nearly always ferocious. Their flamelike hair, glaring eyes, bared fangs and the weapons they carry inspire dread. Through these attributes they are able to defeat selfishness and weakness. Initially considered as esoteric deities, they were popularised from the 13th Century. Fudo Myo-o is the central figure of the Mantra Kings.
Mainly represented in Japan, Fudo is the chief of the five Vidyarajas (Japanaese Myo-o), the Kings of mystic or magical knowledge symbolising the power and victory of the five Jinas over the passions and desires. Fudo’s wrathful, irritated expression ‘demonstrates the wrath of the great compassion which brings to beings the succour of the Good Law’. He has the power to crush all obstacles and all troubles. He is shown either seated or standing. Generally, he holds a sword to combat the ‘three poisons’ of greed, anger and ignorance. He also holds a lasso to catch and bind the evil forces and prevent them from doing harm. His hair hangs down in a plait on his left shoulder. His brow is furrowed, his left eye is half open, and his right eye stares. Two fangs protrude, one up and one down, from his mouth. A portly figure he appears in front of an aureole of flames.
From the late 8th Century Fudo Myo-o became much more popular in Japan than he had ever been in either India or China. His cult was introduced from China
into Japan by Kukai (Kobo-Daishi), the founder of the Shingon Sect. His image is sometimes seen on ema, votive tablets, in Shinto shrines for protection against calamities. In Japan, he belongs equally to Buddhism and to the syncretism underlying many aspects of Shinto and Buddhism, the distinction is often blurred in the eyes of followers.
Acolytes of Fudo Myo-o
Myo-o is sometimes accompanied by eight child acolytes of which 2, Seitaka and Kongara are usually close to him. Although Fudo can be represented with two, eight, 36 or 48 acolytes, he is usually represented with two, Seitaka and Kongara.
Always placed on the left of Fudo, he holds a sword and a rope.
Seitaka Doji is usually placed on the right of Fudo. His arms are crossed over his breast, or he holds a staff in the right hand and a triple vajra in the left.
Second in hierarchy after the Buddhas are the Bodhisattvas, beings (sattva) seeking wisdom (bodhi). At early stages of Buddhist development, the title Bodhisattva was applied to figures like Manjushuri and Samantabhadra. Later, it was given to humans who made special contributions to buddhism, such as the 2nd ~ 3rd Century philosopher, Nagaruna; Asanga who lived 320 ~ 390 A.D.; and the 5th Century scholar and philosopher, Vasubandhu. In Japan, the imperial court sometimes gave the title to worthy personages such as Gyoki (668 ~ 749), Eison (1200 ~ 90), Ninsho (1217 ~ 1303) and Ryokan (1757 ~ 1831).
In Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism, many Bodhisattvas are considered emanations of certain Buddhas. For instance, the Buddha Amitabha is both compassionate and wise. Avalokiteshvara represents compassion; and another Bodhisattva, Mahasthamprata, represents wisdom. These three were originally worshipped as a triad. Later, Avalokiteshvara singularly became popular and worshipped widely in many different forms.
Among the Bodhisattvas, Kannon has the largest number of forms and is the most venerated and popular Buddhist deity. This is probably because it is said that anyone calling on the name of Kannon will be saved from calamity, fear, theft and execution. His sex, originally masculine, is sometimes considered feminine. In China and Japan, Kannon has an ambiguous appearance. This perhaps stems from the conception of Kannon as ‘the mother of the human race’.
Kannon is known from the very early development of the Mahayana doctrines and, until Buddhism disappeared from India, enjoyed great favour there. His cult passed from India to South-East Asia through Nepal, Tibet and China, from where it passed on to Korea and Japan. Today, in Japan, there are more images of Kannon than of all the other deities in Japan. Kannon is the most popular deity in Tibet, under whose realm of protection the Tibetan region falls.
Senju Kannon is the deity of pure bounty, omniscient and omnipotent. His thousand arms symbolise his ability to save all people from suffering. He fulfils all wishes, grants longevity, removes transgressions and cures illnesses. In reality, the image is usually given 16, 40 or 42 arms, which are normally arranged in a fan around the body.
Monju Bosatsu is, along with Fugen Bosatsu (Samanthabhadra), an acolyte of Shakyamuni. The three as a group are known as Shaka Sanzon, the three venerables of Shakyamuni, in Japan. Monju is the Bhodisattva of wisdom and one of four Bodhisattvas associated with Dainichi Nyorai (Vairocana). He symbolises the universal wisdom of Vairocana. Also, he is the supreme wisdom Prajnaparamita, in Japanese Chimyo-e.
Monju’s cult and images were introduced into Japan in 8th Century AD by Chinese monks who learned that Monju was reincarnated in the person of the Japanese monk Gyoki. The great monk, Saicho (767 ~ 822 AD) brought an image of a juvenile Monju from China and installed it at Enryku-ji temple on Mt. Hiei.
During the Heian Period (794 ~ 1192 AD), an effigy of Monju in monk’s robes was often placed in houses as a reminder of the wisdom and discipline which should be observed for the maintenance of the home. Later he was confused in the popular mind with Tenjin-sama, the Shinto deification of prime minister, Sugawara no Michizane. After the 12th Century AD, he was particularly venerated by the esoteric sects, especially Shingon.
His popularity has subsequently waned and now few temples are devoted to him. One of these is Kunisaki’s Monjusen-ji. Students believe that his worship can give them a gift for fine penmanship and guarantee success in examinations. A saying in Japanese relates that if three people put their heads together they could come up with something as wise as Monju might devise.
Monju is nearly always represented as eternally young, and seated. He holds the scroll of knowledge in the left hand and in the right, the vertical sword of wisdom which cuts through all ignorance and liberates the spirit from darkness.
Misshaku Kongo (Garbhvira) on the left and Kongo Rikishi (Vajravira) on the right are the two Nio; not only guardians but also, in esoteric doctrines, two aspects of the unique reality of Dainichi Nyorai. Other texts describe them as one, Vajrapani the Thunderbolt Holder. They symbolise a sort of alpha and omega of all things and are usually represented as Dvarapala, gate guardians, who wear only a sarong or, more rarely, are dressed as warriors in armour. At first they were thought to protect Shakyamuni only; over time they gradually became protectors of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and the Buddhist Law.
The Nio are placed on either side of the main gates of monasteries and temples to banish evil spirits and thieves, and to protect children. They are not truly worshipped, although they are considered granters of wishes. Zuishin, who are representations of ancient military ministers, are similar figures found as guardians at shinto shrines.
Nioo are presented as powerfully muscled giants, half naked, heads shaved and with a menacing expression. They stand upright with legs apart and are armed with vajra weapons. The mouth of one is tightly closed (hum) and the other wide open (ah), signifying death and birth, the end and the beginning. The two thus represent everything, the alpha and omega. In Japan, the gates which they guard are often called Ni-o mon.
Misshaku symbolises the power of the exoteric, the outward forms that religion takes; the institutional aspects of faith and religion, such as rituals, moral precepts, and institutions. His mouth is open and his body red. He always faces east. His attitude is dynamic with his right hand lowered and fingers outspread. The clenched left hand holds a long staff.
Kongo symbolises the latent power of esotericism, the inward forms of faith and religion; transcendence, mystic experience, and internal realisations of the Divine. His mouth is closed and body green. His left hand is lowered, closed, and his right hand holds a staff. He is thought to be one of the forms of Fudo Myo-o.
As Buddhism spread it incorporated local deities as guardians. Japan was no different and according to the Honji Suijaku, a 9th Century theory that held sway until the late 19th Century, Shinto kami are emanations of buddhas, bodhisattvas or devas who mingle with us to lead us to the Buddhist path. This posed no conflict to Shintoism since its deities are not considered absolute, like the Judeo-Christian god. The idea was that to make salvation easier to effect, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas assumed the forms of gods with whom the Japanese were already comfortable.
A result of this was the amalgamation of shrines and temples. The Shinto deity, kami, is considered a temporary manifestation of a Buddha and known as a Gongen. However, after the Meiji Restoration in 1869, Shinto, in which the Emperor plays a central role, was afforded pre-eminence on a national scale. The amalgamation with Buddhism was dissolved by Government decree and temples and shrines were forced apart.
Originally the tutelary deity of the Usa clan of north Kyushu, Hachiman later became the Yamato court guardian of the western region. From the 8th Century AD, warriors revered him as a patron and shrines were built to him throughout Japan. Hachiman is believed to provide domestic safety, to guard royal dwellings and to be the deity of martial virtue. The amalgamation of Shintoism and Buddhism resulted in his depiction wearing priestly robes. Generally he is seated with his feet hidden by a robe, tonsured and carrying a monk’s staff with metal rings and prayer beads. Other representations show him clothed as a noble warrior, and armed with bow and arrows. Hachiman was enthroned as a god protector with the title ‘great Bodhisattva’ at Todai-ji, Nara.
Usa Jingu, near Kunisaki, is the head shrine for Hachiman. Other major sanctuaries include Tsurugaoka in Kamakura and Otoko-yama in Kyoto. Hachiman is the second most common shrine in Japan after Inari, which is dedicated to harvests and headed by the shrine at Fushimi, south of Kyoto.
Shomen Kongo is represented standing with serpents writhing around his body and lying coiled on his head. His hair is bristling, fangs protrude from his mouth, he has a third eye and wears a furious expression. The deity has six arms. He is thought to punish malice and wage war on the demons of sickness.
Shomen Kongo is the principal deity of the Koshin cult, created in Japan at the end of the middle ages on the basis of Taoist concepts. He is often represented with the Sanen, three monkeys that ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’. Sanen became popular in the Edo Period. Sanen is a famous motif of the Toshogu Shrine at Nikko. This shrine is the mausoleum of the great shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and it is also dedicated to Tokugawa’s Shinto deity incarnation, Toshogu Gongen.
Taoist superstition held that if a person slept on the night before a Koshin day, the three worms which dwell in everyone would crawl out and fly upwards to report that person’s misdeeds to the Emperor of Heaven. To prevent this, believers drank and caroused throughout the Koshin night, without sleeping. Koshin days occur six times yearly and Koshin years occur in the 57th year of the sixty year cycle, a Chinese Zodiac system. Koshin-to, usually round stones, are placed at passes, crossroads and entrances to villages and towns to ward off plague and attack.
Punisher of evildoers
Zao Gongen is a syncretic deity conceived following a vision seen by En no Gyoja on Mt. Yoshino. This deity is said to be an emanation of Maitreya Bodhisattva. Coloured blackish-blue, he has one face with three eyes and two arms. He wears a three pointed crown and carries a three pronged vajra weapon in his right hand and a sword held at hip level in his left. The face is enveloped in flames intended to consume the desires of the followers who seek its protection. This might be a temporary incarnation of the historical Buddha.
Saicho (767 ~ 822AD ) was born in Omi, present day Shiga Prefecture, and became a Buddhist monk at the age of 12. He was impressed by the Tientai (Tendai) teachings and went for a year to China to study them, Zen, the Vinaya Sect and esoteric buddhism.
Saicho returned to Japan in 806 AD, he received permission from the emperor Kammu to found the Tendai Sect and to expound the Lotus Sutra doctrine of one single vehicle for the salvation of all. Saicho insisted that all people are endowed with Buddha nature and are, therefore, capable of attaining enlightenment, a Mahayana precept.
Kukai (774 ~ 835), also known as Kobo Daishi, was born in modern day Kagawa Prefecture. He studied Chinese in Kyoto and Nara but at the age of 18, he abandoned his studies and renounced the world. Kukai wandered the mountains of Shikoku. Ordained a priest at Todai-ji in Nara, he found the teachings there incomprehensible so he travelled to China to study esoteric Buddhism. After two years he returned and founded the Shingon Sect at Kanzeon-ji temple in modern-day Fukuoka. He was later made abbot at Todai-ji and enjoyed the patronage of the emperor, who granted him the monastery at Mt. Koya and To-ji temple in Kyoto. Kukai revealed himself to be a form of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana) during a discussion of doctrine of Shingon with chiefs of other sects. A great calligrapher, the creation of the Kana syllabary used in Japanese writing is attributed to him.
At a glance
Buddhas, Shinto gods and ancient sect leaders of Kunisaki and Japan.