posted January 22, 2014

After Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 6th century, Buddhism took deep root in Japanese people’s life and culture. Especially in ancient and medieval times, Buddhism flourished and had a great influence on Japanese culture. During these times, a huge number of Buddhist buildings and statues were made, and 300,000 Buddhist statues still remain today. Among them, there are excellent masterpieces, which are designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties of Japan. Japanese Buddhist gods are traditionally classified into four main categories: the Buddha or Nyorai category, the Bodhisattva or Bosatsu category, the Wisdom Kings or Myo-o category, and the Heavenly Deities or Tenbu category. Most of them originated in India, where Buddhism was born around 500B.C.

 

[Nyorai / Buddhas]

Nyorai or Buddhas rank the highest followed by Bodhisattva, Wisdom Kings and Heavenly Deities. It is said that they have already reached the ideal state of enlightenment after the rigorous mental and physical training. They are represented as figures of priests in simple costumes, and usually they do not wear any ornaments or decorations. They show characteristic Buddhist hand gestures. It is said Buddhas represent Gautama Buddha after he reached enlightenment and are depicted as men, but basically Buddhas have no sex.

 

 

Amida Nyorai, also known as Amitabha or Amida Buddha

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Great Buddha of Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura
National Treasure

Amida Nyorai are the principal Buddha of Jodo Buddhism or Pure Land Buddhism.

This sect of Buddhism emphasizes salvation through faith in Amida Nyorai by chanting “Namu Amida Butsu,” which means devotion to Amida Nyorai.

In the Buddhist teachings, it is said that Amida Nyorai live in “Gokuraku Jodo (Western Pure Land, or Western Paradise)” and come to this world when people die, guiding them to Gokuraku Jodo.

The picture above is Great Buddha of Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura. This Amida Nyorai forms a circle by the thumb and the forefinger. This hand gesture represents meditation.

 

Kotokuin Temple website: click here

 

 

Dainichi Nyorai, also known as Cosmic Buddha or Great Sun Buddha

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Dainichi Nyorai of Enjo-ji Temple in Nara the work of Unkei, National Treasure

Dainichi Nyorai are the center Buddha of Esoteric Buddhism, or Mikkyo.

According to Mikkyo teachings, Dainichi Nyorai exist in the center of the universe and illuminate everything by casting great divine light.

Mikkyo means secret teachings. In this sect of Buddhism, teachings are secret from outsiders and difficult to understand. Until today, the teachings have been passed down from Buddhist masters to disciples through Mikkyo practices without using textbooks.

 

 

 

 

 

Yakushi Nyorai, also known as the Buddha of Healing and Medicine

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Yakushi Nyorai and two attendants of Yakushiji Temple in Nara / National Treasure

 

“Yaku” means medicine and “shi” means master.

Yakushi Nyorai generally have a medicine pot in the left hand, and the mudra position of the right hand means “No Fear.”

It is believed that Yakushi Nyorai save people from their diseases and sufferings by the medicine  and divine light.

 

 

Yakushiji Temple website: click here

 

 

 

 

 

Shaka Nyorai, also known as Shaka Buddha

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Shaka Triad (Shaka Nyorai and two attendants) of Horyuji Temple in Nara
National Treasure

 

Shaka Nyorai are said to be an image of Shakyamuni or Gotama Siddhattha, who was the founder of Buddhism.

In Japan, Shaka Nyorai are venerated widely among most Buddhist sects, except for the Jodo Buddhism, which worships Amida Nyorai, and Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism, which worships Dainichi Nyorai.

The mudra position of Shaka Nyorai’s right hand means “No Fear,” and the left hand is in Blessing mudra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Bosatsu / Bodhisattvas]

Bosatsu serve as attendants to Buddhas and they are still practicing to become real Buddhas. Bosatsu are dedicated to saving mankind before they reach enlightenment. It is said they refrain from becoming Buddhas in order to stay in this world and save human beings.

The statues of Bosatsu wear costumes of kings and court nobles in ancient India because Bosatsu represent Gautama Buddha before he reached enlightenment. There are many kinds of  Bosatsu.

 

Kannon, also known as Kannon Bodhisattvas or Kannon Bosatsu

Kannon are often described as the Goddess of mercy but have no sex.

Kannon represent compassion, mercy and love. It is said that Kannon incarnate themselves in 33 different forms to save mankind.

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Thousand-armed Kannon of Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto / National Treasure: photo by Bamse

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Eleven-headed Kannon of Shorinji Temple in Nara
National Treasure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sanjusangendo Temple website: click here

 

This thousand-armed Kannon has 42 hands, and each of the 40 hands of them is said to change into 25 different forms.

The eleven faces of Eleven-headed Kannon represent human feelings: there are three merciful faces at the front, three angry faces on the left side, three fanged faces on the right side, one open-mouthed laughing face behind, and an enlightened face on the top.

 

Miroku, also known as Miroku Bodhisattvas or Miroku Bosatsu

Miroku are given an unquestioning promise that they will become Buddhas in the future and come down to this world in order to save people. Generally, they wear a coronet on the head.

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Miroku Bosatsu of Koryuji Temple in Kyoto
National Treasure

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Miroku Bosatsu of Chuguji Temple in Nara
National Treasure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chuguji Temple website: click here

 

Jizo, also known as Jizo Bodhisattvas or Jizo Bosatsu

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Jizo Bosatsu of Rokuharamitsuji Temple in Kyoto
Important Cultural Property

 

Jizo are guardian gods of unborn babies, deceased children, expectant mothers, travelers and pilgrims, and are very popular among common people.

Jizo are the only bodhisattvas portrayed as monks and are dressed in a monk’s simple robe.

People pray to Jizo for easy birth and cure of diseases, and often put red bibs or hats on Jizo thinking about their unborn babies and deceased children.

Jizo statues are often seen along roads and streets.

These statues were placed by people who hoped for Jizo’s protection during their trips or pilgrims.

 

 

Rokuharamitsuji Temple website: click here

 

 

 

 

[Myo-o / Wisdom Kings]

Myo-o are embodiment of the anger of Dainich Nyorai, the center Buddha of Esoteric Buddhism.

Myo-o punish people who don’t follow the teachings of Nyorai.

They have ferocious and menacing images, and their threatening postures and facial expressions are designed to subdue evil spirits and convert nonbelievers.

They are often depicted engulfed in flames and carry vicious weapons to protect believers and subdue evil.

 

Fudo Myo-o

“Fudo” literally means immovable, and the name, Fudo Myo-o, suggests that the faith they have is unchangeable. Fudo Myo-o are in the center of the Myo-o category. They carry a sword in the right hand to subdue evil spirits and hold rope in the left hand to catch and bind up demons.

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Fudo Myo-o (Yellow Fudo) of Manshuin Temple in Kyoto
National Treasure

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Fudo Myo-o (Blue Fudo) of Shorenin Temple in Kyoto
National Treasure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 [Tenbu / Heavenly Deities]

Tenbu are guardian gods of Hindu origins. That is, they are Hindu demi-gods (Deva) incorporated into Buddhism.

Tenbu are protectors of Buddhist Law and consist of a large group of gods including divine beings and supernatural creatures like the Dragon, the bird-man Karura (divine creature with human body and birdlike head) and Celestial Nymphs.

Like Myo-o, Tenbu guard Nyorai and Bosatsu, and the Buddhist community.

Tenbu literally mean “Group of Celestial Beings.”

 

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Asura of Kofukuji Temple in Nara
National Treasure

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Shu Kongo Shin (Guardian God) of Todaiji Temple in Nara / National Treasure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Agyo Kongo Rikishi (Nio Guardian) of Todaiji Temple in Nara
National Treasure : photo by Chris73/Wikimedia Commons