Japan Temples and Shrines

Buddhist Statues

Nobody can have visited an Asian country without wondering about the many different statues at temples, in parks, along paths etc. Along the Shikoku 88 route, within the main hall of each temple, there is a statue of the main deity, which is considered to be the central religious figure of each site. A deity is a god or godess, a supernatural being, with powers greater than ordinary humans, but who interact with humans to bring humans to new levels of consciousness.

In Japan Buddhist statues fall into four main categories:

  • Nyorai
  • Bodhisattva (pronounced Bosatsu)
  • Myõõ
  • Deva

Nyorai statues

These are enlightened beings called Buddha, and hold the highest position of all statues.

Statues of the various Buddha share common attributes. First, Buddha statues are generally simple, without jewelry or ornamentation. Second, most Buddha statues are depicted with their hair is styled into tight curls, elongated ears (all-hearing), a bump atop the head (all-knowing), and a boss in the forehead (all-seeing). Third, Buddha statues are portrayed with characteristic hand gestures (mudra).

Bodhisattva statues

These beings try to save people while training under Nyorai. They have reached enlightenment in their current existences, but have decided not to enter nirvana, ultimate enlightenment, so that they can help others to more enlightened states. 

Statues of the Bodhisattva are generally ornate and are often shown wearing jewelry and princely clothes. They can wear as many as thirteen ornaments (e.g., crowns, earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets). The Bodhisattva can sometimes be recognized by the objects they carry and the creatures they ride. This is not always the case however, Jizo Bosatsu, for example, is nearly always depicted wearing a simple monk’s robe. Bodhisattva generally share only one of the physical attributes of the Nyorai (Buddha) – the elongated earlobes (all-hearing). Also, the Bosatsu often wear a crown bearing an effigy of their “spiritual father”.

Myõõ statues

In contrast to the saintly images of the Nyorai (Buddha) and Bosatsu (Bodhisattva), images of the Myō-ō are ferocious and menacing, for their threatening postures and facial expressions are designed to subdue evil spirits and convert nonbelievers. They are often depicted with multiple arms and heads, engulfed in flame, and carrying weapons to subdue evil. In the right hand is a sword, used to destroy delusions and evil desires. In the left hand, a rope is used to discipline restless minds.

Among this group of warlike deities, Fudō Myō-ō is the most widely venerated in Japan, and the chief of all the others.

Deva statues

There is a wide variety of Deva celestial beings. They differ in gender and the roles they perform. Many are clad in armour, as one of their functions is to guard the Nyorai and Bodhisattva. They are often to be found in temples, their stern eyes trained on their surroundings. Their are four heavenly kings which are said to protect people from evil that come from all directions – therefore there are four kings looking in each direction – east, west, north and south. In the picture above, the king looks towards the west.

At the entrance to many temples, there are two figures, Kongo-rikishi standing on the left and right of the temple gate, watching those that enter. Below are the two figures from temple 42 in Shikoku.


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