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The Different Japanese Buddhas
Therevada or Mahayana?
In Buddhism, there are many different schools of thought. Those who practice Therevada Buddhism believe that only those leading a monastic life can ever hope to attain enlightenment. Those who practice Mahayana, however, believe that enlightenment is possible for all sentient beings, and pay homage to myriad Buddhas. These are the Buddhas that I will be focusing on in this article, and even more specifically, I will be talking about the Buddhas from Japanese schools of thought.
Shaka, the Historical Buddha
I'll start with the founder of Buddhism known as Shaka Nyorai in Japan. In Northern India, present day Nepal, where Buddhism originated, this Buddha is known as Siddhartha or Guatama Buddha. He was born in the sixth century B.C. but Buddhism was late arriving in Japan. It wasn't until the late sixth century A.D. that Buddhism made its way to the Japanese archipelago by way of China and Korea. Shaka, or Shakamuni, which means "Sage of the Shaka Clan" has since been revered in Japan by most Buddhist sects. The Pure Land sect is one exception. They revere Amida Nyorai. The Shingon sect is another exception as they revere Dainichi Nyorai, but they have included Shaka among the 13 Deities, or Jusanbutsu.
Being able to differentiate one Buddha from another can be hard. Here are some traits specific to Shaka that might help make it easier.
- Shaka Buddha almost always is depicted wearing a simple monk's robe.
- He's usually standing or sitting in a lotus flower.
- Common mudra, or hand gestures, for this Buddha is "Fear Not" (right hand held up), and "Blessing Mudra" (left hand pointed down).
Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light and Life
This is perhaps the most popular of all Buddhas in Japan and certainly, the most revered in the Pure Land sect which is the most widespread sect in Japan. Amida Nyorai is described in the Amitabha Sutra, the Sutra of Infinite Life, among other Mahayana texts. Before becoming a Buddha, Amida was a bodhisattva known as Hozo. Hozo pledged that upon attaining Buddhahood he would create the Pure Land, which is the Eastern version of life after death in Christianity. All one needs to do to enter into the Pure Land upon death is to have at least once in your life recited, "Namu Amida Butsu," which is basically, "All hail Amida Buddha."
Since Amida has become a mode to salvation for everyone, he is usually depicted in paintings called raigo riding on a cloud with a fleet of bodhisattvas following him as he greets you upon entering the Pure Land. He is perhaps the easiest to identify, at least in paintings. In statues it is a bit harder since he bears all the common traits of every Buddha, the long ears, the bump on his head, and the monk's robe. You can see in the picture below, that he looks like any other Buddha.
Yakushi, Buddha of Medicine and Healing
Yakushi Nyorai, along with Shaka, was among the first Buddhas to arrive in Japan in the late sixth century A.D. You can imagine his quick popularity as this was a deity that could heal sickness and disease. even today he is one of the most loved Buddhas and among the 88 temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, 23 are dedicated to him. he even has his own temple, Yakushi-ji, erected in the eighth century by Emperor Temmu. This is one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara and the headquarters of the Hosso Buddhist sect.
Usually, Yakushi Nyorai is depicted sitting with a jeweled medicine jar in his left hand, but he is often confused with Shaka Nyorai when he is depicted without it. That's because his mudra are similar to Shaka Nyorai's. A clue to help identify him is that his right hand is slightly curled, which is a gesture for granting wishes.
Dainichi, the Great Sun Buddha
Dainichi Nyorai, or the Cosmic Buddha, is the central Buddha of the Esoteric Buddhist sects in Japan. Ever since the Heian period (794-1192 A.D.) Esoteric sects like the Shingon sect, have worshiped Dainichi Nyorai as the Central Buddha of the Universe. In this sect and among other esoteric sects, Dainichi replaces Shaka as the main Buddha. He is also often identified with Birushana Nyorai, which is another manifestation of the same deity.
Dainichi, also known as Daibutsu, or the Great Buddha, unlike other depictions of Buddhas, is usually depicted under the guise of a bodhisattva and greatly adorned, wearing a crown and jewels. He is often seen with the preaching hands mudra or the Mudra of Six Elements.
As I said before he is often identified with Birushana Nyorai. Todai-ji is home to one of the most famous examples of Dainichi Buddha, but the Buddha there is actually Birushana, not Dainichi. This is probably because Birushana means coming from the sun, and Dainichi means the great sun. To the right is a modern interpretation of Dainichi Nyorai, and below is the Buddha at Todai-ji, which is actually Birushana, but goes by Dainichi, as well.
Miroku, Buddha of the Future
Miroku Nyorai, also known as the Maitreya, or Bodhisattva of the Present. He is the Buddha to come, kind of like the Christian's belief in a second coming, only without all the death and destruction. On the contrary, Miroku Nyorai is supposed to bring salvation to all sentient beings. This is another belief of esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kobo Daishi in the late eighth, early ninth centuries.
Miroku has a more streamlined look. He is quite easily identified because of this. He's usually depicted holding or wearing a stupa in the crown, with his right ankle atop his left knee, and with his right hand touching his cheek. If you notice on the picture to the right, he is thinner, and even looks younger than most Buddhas. Like Amida, he is sometimes seen descending to earth in art called Miroku Raigo-zu.
This concludes this article. I hope it has helped. While I am not a Buddhist, being an atheist allows me to learn about other cultures objectively. I am also not an expert, but I have taken three semesters on Asian Studies now and I only hope to put my knowledge to good use.
Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization. United States. Cengage Learning, 2006.
Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu. University of Hawaii Press, 2000.
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