Temples Of Japan

Dieties of Japanese Buddhism

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When you walk into a Japanese Buddhist temple, you will see many different figures of worship.  Mahayana Buddhism, which is the root of the Japanese Buddhism, teaches that one should not only enlighten themselves but also help the suffering.  Because of this concept in Mahayana Buddhism, over the centuries there were many deities came to existence in addition to the original Sakyamuni Buddha or Gautama Buddha. 

During my visits to these temples I was inundated with many names and statues of worship, so I decided to categorize these Deities of Japanese Buddhism for the benefit of the readers of my website.  After you read this page, next time visit a Buddhist temple, you will be able to recognize various figures of worship with ease.

The Deities of Japanese Buddhism are categorized as follows:

1) Buddhas:  In Japanese language they are called as Nyorai, Tathagata (this is the Sanskrit name but used in Japanese) and Butsu.  Mahayana Buddhism worships many Buddhas, other than the original Gautama Buddha (Sakyamuni Buddha). 

Sakyamuni Buddha (Shaka Nyorai) at
Kawasaki Daishi Temple

Each temple associated with a particular Buddhist sect, worships a specific Buddha as their "Principle Buddha of Worship" (in Japanese "Honzon").  As such, the Tendai Sect worships Yakushi Nyorai, Shingon sect worships Dainichi Nyorai, Jodo/Jodo Shin sects worship Amida Nyorai and the Zen and Nichiren sects go back to the basics and worship the Sakyamuni Buddha (or Shaka Nyorai). 

Usually the Buddha statues in these temples are seen without any ornaments or jewellery signifying the fact that Buddhas have renounced all the earthly desires and possessions.  In addition to the Principle Object of Worship these Temples have other Buddhas present in the sub temples (halls) in the precincts. 

2) Bodhisattvas: The Japanese term for Bodhisattava is Bosatsu.  Bodhisattvas are deities that have achieved enlightenment through rigorous religious practice but have postponed their own Nirvana to help others who are suffering and struggling to reach perfection.  In other words they have almost reached Buddha-hood and in some cases they are interchangeably used with Buddhas (Nyorai).  In Mahayana Buddhism there are numerous Bosatsus created due to the flexibility of it's teachings. 

There are four types of Bosatsus that became very popular and important in Japanese Buddhism.  They are:

Senju Kannon Bosatsu
Monju Bosatsu

Roku Jizo Bosatsu

a) Kannon Bosatsu (in Sanskrit known as Avalokiteshwara):  This is by far the most popular and well known Bosatsu and is known as the "Bodhisattva of Mercy".  Kannon Bosatsu is usually a man but can also take the form of a women, thus sometimes referred to as the "Goddess of Mercy".  In popular Japanese folklore there are thirty three forms or reincarnations of Kannon Bosatsu.  The popular Kannon pilgrimages Bando, Saikoku and Chichibu are created around these thirty three forms of Kannon Bosatsu.

b) Jizo Bosatsu (in Sanskrit known as Kshitigarbha): Jizo Bosatsu is the second most popular Bosatsu with Japanese Buddhists and is regarded as a protector of children.  Jizo Bosatsu also protects his followers from deviating from the six paths of wisdom.  That is why you will see in many temples, six statues of Jizo Bosatsus, popularly known as "Roku Jizos".  Most of the time these Jizo Bosatsu statues are covered with interesting hats and dresses to make them attractive to the children.  Almost every temple has a worship place for Jizo Bosatsu. 

c) Miroku Bosatsu (in Sanskrit known as Maitreya): This Bosatsu is also called as considered a Buddha.  Miroku Bosatsu or Miroku Nyorai is called the "Future Buddha" and at present is living in "Tushita" heaven waiting for his time to appear among us.  This Buddha is important for Japanese Buddhists who believe in the reincarnation of Buddha.

d) Monju Bosatsu (in Sanskrit known as Manjusri):  Usually Monju Bosatsu seen with another key deity called Fugen Bosatsu.  Together, they are responsible for the creation and destruction of this world.

As mentioned above it can be confusing some times between Bosatsu and Buddha as they are used interchangeably.  For example; the Bosatsu of Health, Yakushi Bosatsu is also called as Yakushi Nyorai.  Yakushi Nyorai is the principle object of worship for Tendai sect.  Similarly Miroku Bosatsu is also called as Miroku Nyorai. 

Over the years the some of the Shinto Gods (like Kami of War, Hachiman) and great Buddhist Monks (like Kobo Daishi Kukai) are deified as Bodhisattvas and are worshiped as such. 

3) Myo-O Deities (in Sanskrit known as Vidyarajas):  They are third in the level of importance and reverence behind Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  They are the kings of magical science and education.  They also act as the envoys of Nyorai and make the followers strictly follow the Nyorai's teachings.  They are said to save their followers through the power of their magical incantations. 

Fudo Myo-O Statue at Naritasan Temple

The most popular Myo-O deity in Japan is Fudo Myo-O (in Sanskrit known as Acalantha, so sometimes he is called as Fudo Myo-O Acalantha).  There are some temples in Japan that are dedicated to worshiping the Fudo Myo-O deity.  Such is the importance of the Myo-O Deities for Japanese Buddhists.

Guardian Deities

4) "Ten" Deities:  The "Ten" deities are the popular Indian (Hindu) gods that were imported to Japanese Buddhism.  These deities primarily act as the protecting gods or guardian deities.  The "Nio Ten" deities are the muscular guardian deities (also called as Deva Kings) usually seen in the Temple Gates.  These guardian deities are also usually situated close to Nyorai or Bosatsu, protecting them.  The Shitenno or the four guardian gods are usually seen at the four corners of the altar or the worship hall in a temple.  Bishamon Ten, is a guardian deity and a symbol of victory and wealth.  Sometimes Shinto Kami gods are also presented as Ten deities, such as Daikoku-Ten deity, who is the guardian deity of agriculture.

5) Arhats: The Arhats (also called Rakan) are notable disciples of Buddha who are following the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas closely and are in training in Buddhist principles to reach Nirvana.  They are presented in various numbers (sometimes hundreds) to represent the fellowship of Buddhism at temples.  They are presented as statues or paintings.

6) Notable figures or Monks of Buddhism:  In addition all the above mentioned deities, various Buddhist Monks are deified and worshiped at these temples.  One of the most venerated deities at these temples is the Buddhist Monk Kobo Daishi Kukai.  See my section on Buddhist Monks to know more about notable Monks of Japanese Buddhism.  

All Buddhist temples in Japan follow a similar setting, as with the Shrines.  Although the architecture of these settings had changed with changing periods in Japanese history, the artifacts that constitute these settings have remained the same.  In the next page, I will describe this aspect of Buddhist Temples.

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