Jp. = Shitennō (Shitenno, Shitennoo)
Literally "Four Heavenly Kings."
Guardians of the Four Directions, Protectors of Buddhist Law, Protectors of Human Kind, Protectors of the Bodhisattva and Buddha. Most often found standing at the corners of alters. All four are depicted as ferocious-looking warriors, sometimes with fiery halo behind them. In Japan and China, they are often standing atop demons (called Jyaki 邪鬼 in Japan) to symbolize their power to repel and defeat evil. They also hold weapons or tools to eliminate evil influences and suppress the enemies of Buddhism.
The four protect the Buddhist realm for Taishakuten (Sanskrit = Indra, God of the Center), serving as his generals to guard the territories inhabited by humans. Originally from Hindu mythology, and later incorporated into Buddhism. In the Lotus Sutra, they vow to protect those who believe in the Dharma (Buddhist teachings). In Japanese artwork, especially in the mandala form, the four typically appear in a set order:
- Jikokuten (East)
- Zōchōten (South)
- Kōmokuten (West)
- Tamonten (North).
All four are described in Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese texts, but their attributes, colors, and names often vary among the nations. All four are depicted as warriors, and usually shown holding weapons, but there is no "hard" rule for the objects in their hands, and variations are common. Nevertheless, the objects they carry are always tools to eliminate evil influences. All four are Deva (a Sanskrit term), celestial beings who occupy the realm just above humans and just below the enlightened Bodhisattva. See Six Realms (outside link) for details.
The Shitennō live halfway down the four sides of Mt. Meru (also known as Mt. Sumeru; Jp. = Shumisen 須弥山), the mythical home of Shakya Nyorai (Historical Buddha). According to Buddhist lore, Mt. Meru is located at the center of the universe, surrounded by eight mountain ranges, and in the ocean between the 7th and 8th there are four continents inhabited by humans. These four continents are protected by the Shitennō, with each leading an army of supernatural creatures to keep the fighting Ashura at bay. On the top of Mt. Sumeru is the heavenly palace of Shakya Nyorai, and the abode of the Trayastrimsha (33 Gods) ruled by Taishakuten, who commands the Shitennō.
Shitennō symbolism and artwork in Japan reflects not only its Hindu origins, but also its association with the four mythical Chinese creatures (outside link) -- the dragon, red bird, tiger, and tortoise. These four creatures, known as the Celestial Emblems of the Chinese Emperor, are also considered the guardians of the four compass directions, and appear prominently in artwork in China. Each has a corresponding season, color, element, and virtue, as do the Shitennō. But in Japan, the four Chinese creatures are mostly supplanted by their Buddhist equivalents (the Shitennō).
Note: In Japan, there are statues of various followers of the Shitennō. These statues of the followers are referred to as the Shitennō Kenzoku 四天王 眷属
The four guardians are (Japanese readings):
- Jikokuten 持國天. Rules over the Gandharvas and Piśācas. Protects the East.
- Zōchōten 增長天. Rules over the Kumbhāṇḍa 鳩槃荼. Protects the South.
- Kōmokuten 廣目天. Rules over the Nāgas 龍 and Pūtanas 富單那. Protects the West.
- Tamonten 多聞天. Rules over the Yakṣas 夜叉 and Rākṣasas. Protects the North.
PHOTO GALLERY OF SHITENNO ARTWORK (CHINA)
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