Manjusri – Origins, Role and Significance

Mañjuśrī crossing the sea. Japan

Mañjuśrī crossing the sea. Japan (Open source:  WikimediaCommons)

Mañjuśrī (Skt: मञ्जुश्री) or Monju in Japanese, is a bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom (Skt. prajñā) in Mahāyāna Buddhism. In Esoteric Buddhism he is also taken as a meditational deity. The Sanskrit name Mañjuśrī can be translated as “Gentle Glory”,”Soft Glory” (Powers 1995), “Wondrous Auspiciousness” (Geibel 2001), and so forth. Mañjuśrī is also known by the fuller Sanskrit name of Mañjuśrīkumārabhūta., literally “Mañjuśrī, Still a Youth” or less literally “Prince Mañjuśrī”. The article below from the Western Buddhist Review focuses on the significance of Manjusri and traces the development of the cult surrounding the Bodhisattva. See also my earlier article “Monju-Manjushri’s teaching of the Lotus Sutra and conversion of the Dragon King’s daughter, and the inhabitants of the Dragon King’s Palace“; Manjushri ( on the legend (with 3 versions) of Manjushri’s connection with Swayambhu Stupa in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal; and Paul M. Harrison’s “Manjusri and the Cult of Celestial Bodhisattvas“. Manjusri is especially associated with Mt Wutai in Sichuan China, being one of the eight Indian bodhisattvas who, according to tradition, have settled in China, and the study of the subject helps illuminate our understanding of Sino-Indian relations in the past(A history of Sino-Indian Relations: 1st c. A.D. to 7th c. A.D. at p. 180 by Yukteshwar Kuma ). The cult in China is traced back to the 4th c. and received Chinese imperial support in the 5th c.


PART 3. THE CULT OF MAÑJU’SRII (Western Buddhist Review)1

THE PRESENT ARTICLE examines the question of whether Mañju’srii gained sufficient popularity for it to be possible to speak of a ‘cult of Mañju’srii’. 2 The second article in the series illustrated his role and importance in Mahaayaana literature as one of the major Bodhisattvas. 3 However, texts are often normative, that is, they tend to portray what their composers would like to be the case, rather than what is the case. Thus the question of what real religious significance Mañju’srii had in the lives of practising Buddhists in the period covered by the composition of the literature in which he features is separate from the question of his importance in that literature. It is not that texts cannot help in the assessment of what the actual religious situation was at a given time or place. It is rather that they cannot be taken at face value. As with any other form of historical evidence their significance has to be assessed. The sources for an attempt at discovering where and when Mañju’srii’s popularity grew in India and Central Asia are, at best, fragmentary. There are the records of the travels of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, in particular those of Hsüan-tsang (journeyed 629-645 CE). There is also evidence from surviving iconographic representations of Mañju’srii and other Bodhisattvas in the form of sculptures and murals. There is more substantial evidence for his significance in China, particularly in the form of documents preserved in the Taish< canon. following the pattern of the geographical spread of Buddhism, I shall consider, in turn, material from india, Central Asia and China.

Manjusri Kumara Bodhisattva sculture belonging to the Pala Dynasty (Open source photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Manjusri Kumara Bodhisattva sculture belonging to the Pala Dynasty (Open source photo: Wikimedia Commons)


IN HIS STUDY The Indian Buddhist Iconography, Benoytosh Bhattacharyya reports that no image of Mañju’srii has been found from Gandhaara or Mathuraa. 4 Lamotte adds that there is no trace of him either at Amaraavatii or Naagaarjunako.n.da. 5Hsüan-tsang mentions only one image of Mañju’srii in the record of his pilgrimage and David Snellgrove comments that in India there is no identifiable image of Mañju’srii, possibly before the sixth century. 6 Evidence such as this leads Paul Williams to state that ‘the iconography of Mañju’srii is a relatively late development’. 7 However, though not inaccurate, such a statement may be misleading. It is true that Mañju’srii’s appearance iconographically is later than his appearance in suutras. Yet the evidence, both from the records of the Chinese pilgrims and from surviving images, indicates that his iconographic depiction is not especially late in relation to that of other Bodhisattvas. Hsüan-tsang notes many images of Maitreya and Avalokite’svara. Taaraa, however, is mentioned by him only twice, and the single reference to Mañju’srii is of a shrine dedicated to him at Mathuraa. 8 Shrines of other Bodhisattvas are referred to without being named. Hsüan-tsang, though a Mahaayaanist of the Yogaacaara school, is particularly interested in sites and legends related to episodes in the life or previous lives of ‘Saakyamuni and in the lives of his major disciples. He records these in detail. Snellgrove suggests that the reason for the lack of reference to images of Mañju’srii and other Bodhisattvas by Hsüan-tsang is that such figures were not fully distinguished iconographically at that time. He argue that commonly accepted iconographic differentiation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is likely to occur much later than the appearance of the suutras that can be seen as reflecting their popularity in particular circles. Such an account of the evidence from Hsüan-tsang’s diaries is supported by the iconographic evidence that does survive. In addition to Gandhaara and Mathuraa, Mañju’srii is unknown at Ajantaa, where work on the caves continued into the seventh century. He is found, however, in Ellora (7th-10th century), along with Taaraa, Avalokite’svara, Maitreya and Sarasvatii (cave 10), as well as in the monastic ruins of Ratnagiri in Orissa (6th-12th century). Snellgrove points to a period of some five hundred years from the beginning of the second century CE where images cannot be firmly classified as either non-Mahaayaanist or Mahaayaanist. Whereas the early cave temples and sculptures at Karla, Bhaja and Bedsa are clearly non-Mahaayaanist and the images from Naalanda and Ratnagiri are Mahaayaanist, the works at Ajantaa (where scenes primarily relate to the former lives of ‘Saakyamuni) and Naasik, which fall into the middle period, cannot be clearly identified one way or the other. Images of Maitreya, as the Buddha-to-be, would be acceptable to both traditions as would those of Avalokite’svara, according to Snellgrove. 9 So, up to and possibly including the end of the sixth century, only the following Buddha and Bodhisattva images are individually distinguished: ‘Saakyamuni, in various poses as either Buddha or Bodhisattva; Diipa.nkara, the Buddha before whom ‘Saakyamuni vowed to become a Buddha; Maitreya; and Avalokite’svara. is still represented as a Identifiable images of Mañju’srii and Taaraa appear towards the end of the period – a period that begins with the appearance of the earliest images and which is probably approximately contemporary with the earliest Perfection of Wisdom sËtras. So Mañju’srii’s appearance as a distinctive iconographic form, although relatively late if considered in relation to his description as the Bodhisattva of wisdom in suutras, is not late if contrasted with the emergence of the iconographic forms of other Mahaayaana Bodhisattva figures. Excepting Avalokite’svara, he and Taaraa are the first to appear. This evidence also raises a number of issues concerning the origins and growth of the Mahaayaana in India. It calls into doubt the model that proposes a sharp distinction between the Mahaayaana and non-Mahaayaana, with the Mahaayaana tradition becoming increasingly predominant in the early centuries of the Christian era. 10 The Yogaacaarin Hsüan-tsang’s great interest in stories of ‘Saakyamuni and the Arhats suggests he was rooted in a general pre-Mahaayaana Indian tradition. 11 He recounts traditions he hears as being current throughout India, which further suggests that this was the case generally for Buddhists in India of his time whether they were Mahaayaanist or not. 12 There was no separate Mahaayaana Vinaya. 13According to Fa-hsien (c. 400 CE) Mahaayaana and non-Mahaayaana monks lived together in some monasteries. The iconographic evidence reviewed gives weight to the suggestion that there was no very sharp division between Mahaayaana and non-Mahaayaana in practice. Iconographically there appears nothing specifically Mahaayaanist until even as late as the sixth century and work on epigraphic evidence by G. Schopenxiv indicates that inscriptions containing distinctively Mahaayaana formulae are not found in India until the fourth or fifth centuries. The Mahaayaana may well have been a minority pursuit in India for a number of centuries into the Christian period. Questions about possible Indian origins and significance of a cult of Mañju’srii thus raise wider and more complex issues of the overall position of the Mahaayaana in the early centuries of the Christian era. To conclude, it would seem that a cult of Mañju’srii could not have been of much size in India before the seventh century, even allowing for the time it would take for a cult to iconographically define a figure so that it could then become manifest in history{rewrite}. There is no suggestion of any particular place becoming a focus for devotion to Mañju’srii. The predominant cults were fundamentally non-Mahaayaanist: those of ‘Saakyamuni and Maitreya. Evidence for the later Indian period is hard to assess since from the seventh century onwards there are no surviving wall-paintings such as we have for parts of Central Asia and China. 15Evidence from these latter places may help us assess whether a cult of Mañju’srii could have been imported from outside India.


THE CENTRAL ASIAN evidence comes from the cities stretching along the Silk Route between north-west India and western China. From the beginning of the first century CE, the political situation in India and China was such that the two cultures were in immediate contact. The empire, based in Bactria (in present day northern Afghanistan), covered much of central Asia as well as the whole of north India. In China, the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) dominated most of China, including the Silk Route’s eastern end. The resultant political stability allowed the flow of goods and ideas from India into Central Asia. Buddhism, in both Mahaayaana and non-Mahaayaana forms, became established in the wealthy Sino-Indian mercantile communities that arose there along the trade routes. It was from these communities that Buddhism spread to China. Later, with the demise of the Ku.saa.nas and the Later Han, these trade centres became city states in their own right. In the present context there are three areas of interest: Khotan, on the southern branch of the Silk Route, as it skirts the Takla Makan desert; Kucha and Turfan, on the northern branch; and Tun-huang at its eastern end. 16

In Khotan the Mahaayaana seems to have taken root, perhaps more so than anywhere else along the Silk Route. Some 7th-10th century Buddhist literature in Khotanese survives, as well as some Tibetan documents that concern Khotan. This literary material suggests that the cult of ‘Saakyamuni remained central and that Maitreya was the most important among the Bodhisattvas. There is no evidence that Mañju’srii was at all prominent though he is mentioned in some legendary accounts of the founding of monasteries. 17 As with Indian suutra material, one has to treat the evidence of literary material with caution as regards how it reflects what was actually occurring. Yet the basic picture it presents is not contradicted by the accounts of Fa-hsien and Hsüan-tsang, who both visited Khotan, or by the minimal archaeological remains in the area.

In the areas of Kucha and Turfan, 18 on the northern part of the silk route, there are a number of different sites. The literary remains here are fragmentary, but there are some very impressive surviving murals in cave temples. There are many depictions of ‘Saakyamuni, particularly scenes of him preaching, surrounded by monks and lay disciples. Maitreya and possibly Avalokite’svara are present, but there is no sign of a highly developed Mahaayaana, again corroborating Hsüan-tsang’s report. Once more, there is no indication of Mañju’srii having any prominence.

Mañju’srii is more in evidence at Tun-huang, where there survives a large collection of murals spanning a period from the fourth century CE to at least the tenth century. Mañju’srii, with Maitreya, is the most popular Bodhisattva depicted.19 However, the figure of ‘Saakyamuni still predominates. Mañju’srii is most commonly shown together with Vimalakiirti in scenes from the Vimalakiirtinirde’sa. This particular image, linked as it is with the narrative of the Vimalakiirtinirde’sa, does not indicate any cult of Mañju’srii. Though he has a prominent and significant role in this scripture, in the end Mañju’srii is bettered by the householder Vimalakiirti. Towards the close of the T’ang period (618-906 CE) representations of Mañju’srii appear that could be the objects of devotion. In these he is usually depicted on a lion throne, and often paired with Samantabhadra, who has an elephant throne. A blockprint and a recently discovered mural portray Mañju’srii on his own, seated on a lion and surrounded by radiant clouds.

Overall, the fragmentary evidence suggests a picture of Central Asian Buddhism that is little different from that of India: the Mahaayaana not having a high profile; and within the Mahaayaana, Mañju’srii not especially prominent, except in Tun-huang, where until the Tibetan invasions in the late eighth century the Chinese influence was strong. 20 The earliest paintings were the work of Chinese artists and may be said to represent an early phase of Chinese Buddhism.


A NUMBER OF SUUTRAS that contain the name of Mañju’srii in their titles or in which he plays a prominent role were translated into Chinese in the second and third centuries CE. Lokak.sema, working in the latter half of the second century, translated the ‘Suura.mgamasamaadhi Suutra (now lost), the Ajaata’satrukauk.rtyavinodana Suutra (T. 626) and part of the Avata.msaka Suutra (T. 280). The Vimalakiirtinirde’sa (T. 474), perhaps more popular in China than in India, was translated in the first half of the third century by Tche K’ien. Other third century translations featuring Mañju’srii include that of the Mañju’ Suutra by Nie Tao-tchen and’s translations of the Saddharmapu.n.dariika Suutra (T. 263) and the Mañju’sriibuddhak.setragu.navyuuha Suutra (T. 318). In the course of her research on the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa, 21 the French scholar Marcelle Lalou drew up two lists of suutras translated into Chinese between the late Han dynasty (25-220 CE) and the twelfth century (1127 CE). The lists were compiled on the basis of whether their titles contained on the one hand the name Mañju’srii or, on the other hand, the name Avalokite’svara. 22 She discovered that before 557 CE (the end of the Liang dynasty) there were seventeen suutras whose titles contained the name Mañju’srii, but just two with the name Avalokite’svara. After 557 CE the totals for the two lists become more even, though that of the ‘Mañju’srii’ list stays in the lead. Lalou was responding here to the work of Jean Przyluski. Przyluski had suggested that in the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa the sections where Mañju’srii has a central place pre-date those where Avalokite’svara is important. 23 Lalou’s count of names in the titles of translated suutras seemed to suggest that the same relative importance of the two Bodhisattvas was to be seen in early Chinese Buddhism. Lalou pursued her investigation of the significance of Mañju’srii in China by examining current archaeological evidence. She found that in the seventh to eighth century inscriptions of the Lung-men caves Mañju’srii is not mentioned at all. Avalokite’svara, on the other hand, is named in eighty inscriptions. Neither is Mañju’srii mentioned at Che-kou-sseu, where the inscriptions span the period from 531-867 CE. The same is true for the late sixth century inscriptions at Tsien-po-shan. 24 On the basis of this evidence Lalou concluded that ‘the cult of Mañju’srii was little practiced in Chinese Buddhism during the period that these caves were excavated’. 25 She argued that the reason for the predominance of suutras concerning Mañju’srii being translated into Chinese during this period is to be accounted for by the cult of Mañju’srii having precedence in India over that of Avalokite’svara, and those suutras thus having sufficient authority in the eyes of the Chinese Buddhists to be translated. This model would square with Przyluski’s analysis of the roles of Mañju’srii and Avalokite’svara in the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa. Yet as we have seen, the Indian iconographic (as distinct from textual) evidence suggests that figures of Avalokite’svara were earlier, and in this period more numerous, than those of Mañju’srii. More recent research has shown that Lalou is also wrong in her conclusions concerning a cult of Mañju’srii in China. The work of Paul Demiéville, Etienne Lamotte, and Raoul Birnbaum shows that Mañju’srii became a very significant figure in Chinese Buddhism during the T’ang dynasty (618-906 CE). 26 By the end of the eighth century Mañju’srii’s cult, centred on a five-peaked mountain complex called Wu-t’ai shan (‘Mountain of Five Terraces’), was one of the most important in China.


WU-T’AI SHAN LIES in the province of Shansi in north-eastern China. Here, during the fifth century or perhaps even earlier, a cult of Mañju’srii became established. The mountain was seen as the earthly abode of Mañju’srii. Reports of his presence there, as revealed in numerous stories of his miraculous appearances, spread beyond the confines of China so that by the mid-T’ang period it had become an international pilgrimage centre.

Wu-t’ai shan possessed a number of features that made it eminently suitable as a dwelling for Mañju’srii. Its flat-topped peaks were five in number, 27 it had a lake near its base, and it was thought to be a residence of immortals. Though not especially high, the tallest peak being a little less than ten thousand feet, it was renowned for its cool rivers, fragrant herbs and natural sights. 28 It would be an ideal setting for Mañju’srii and the five hundred .r.sis of Mt. Gandhamaadana in the Mañju’ Suutra. 29

An important source of evidence for the cult of Mañju’srii at Wu-t’ai shan is the large body of anecdotes concerning his miraculous appearances there. The Taish< canon preserves three ‘wu-t’ai shan chronicles’ that contain many such stories. 30another important document, also in the taish< canon, is the ‘notes on the tradition of the avata.msaka suutra’ by fa-tsang, the third patriarch of the hua-yen tradition. 31in japanese, the diary of ennin, a monk who made a pilgrimage to wu-t’ai shan from japan in 840, is a further source of such accounts. 32 in this literature mañju’srii is recorded as appearing in a number of forms: as a beggar, child, or old man; as a glowing cloud, or globe of shining light.

One of the earliest these stories, and also one which rapidly became of the most famous, concerns the kashmiri monk buddhapalita who visited wu-t’ai shan in 676 ce hoping to see mañju’srii. arriving at the mountain he prostrates himself on the ground and makes a supplication to mañju’srii. on rising he sees an old man coming towards him. the old man asks whether he has brought the with him. only this scripture can help remove the evil committed by the buddhists of china. buddhapalita confesses that he has not brought this text with him, to which the old man replies that if he wants to meet mañju’srii he will have to return to india to get it. then he will surely see mañju’srii. happy in his heart, buddhapalita bows his head in respect. when he looks up, the old man has disappeared! after returning to india, buddhapalita arrived back at wu-t’ai shan with the text of the dhaara.nii in 689 ce. he met mañju’srii (again) who showed him the mountain and its secrets. 33

One of the most important of the stories of the appearances and visions of mañju’srii preserved in the ‘wu-t’ai shan chronicles’ of the taish< canon deals with the experieces of a monk called tao-i. his visions were compelling enough to lead to the building of the golden pavilion monastery (chin-ko ssu), one of the principal monasteries to be erected on wu-t’ai shan.

Tao-i, a Ch’an monk, arrived at Wu-t’ai shan in 736 CE. He had travelled with another monk, and on arrival they stayed at Ch’ing-liang ssu, a monastery on the central peak of the mountain complex. Raoul Birnbaum summarises the story of Tao-i’s experiences when he sets off alone on foot hoping to meet Mañju’srii. The events are of enough interest and influence to give, at some length, part of Birnbaum’s summary:

‘[Dharmaraajaa Tao-i] was convinced that he had become a monk in the age of the end of the Dharma; only at this mountain would there be the possibility of seeing the sacred manifestation of the Bodhisattva. He reflected that he had experienced no difficulties in travelling to these sacred precincts, and attributed his good fortune to the gracious protective forces of the Bodhisattva.

Thinking such thoughts, he suddenly saw on the path before him an aged monk riding upon a white elephant. After mutual salutations, the monk spoke, indicating that he was aware of Tao-i’s origins and worthiness. After remarking on the numinous nature of the mountain precincts, the old monk suggested that Tao-i return the following dawn, for at that time he would he would gain a vision of Mañju’srii. As Tao-i thanked him and took his leave, the elephant vanished like the wind, leaving behind a fragrance of incense in the air.

The next day at dawn he set out alone from Ch’ing-liang ssu towards the western peak. Ascending the peak in a cold wind, he had visions of various objects-a glowing light, an unusual stuupa. Continuing onwards, he again encountered the old monk riding an elephant. The monk urged him to continue, and Tao-i went on, in the midst of this wild terrain suddenly coming upon an assembly of monks eating at a place of worship. Gazing with wonder, he continued on, retaining in his mind the focused wish to see the true form of Mañju’srii. A few paces further, he suddenly saw a youth, about 13 or 14 years old, who identified himself as Perceives Unity. He said: ‘O monk, you are at the Golden Pavilion Monastery’. Tao-i followed the youth some two or three hundred paces to the northeast, over a golden bridge to the monastery buildings, all of which were made of gold.

As he was led through the various sections of the monastery by the youth, all these sections filled with objects made of gold, Tao-i encountered once again the aged monk who had been riding the white elephant. At this point he realized that the old man was in fact Mañju’srii’. 34 Not surprisingly, Tao-i is overwhelmed. Recovering himself, he and Mañju’srii talk: Mañju’srii enquires about the state of the Dharma in the region that Tao-i comes from; Tao-i asks about the esssence of the Dharma. Food is then provided for Tao-i, and when he has eaten Perceives Unity gives him a tour of the monastery. Later, taking his leave of Mañju’srii, he walks away from the monastery. After a hundred paces he turns around: it has disappeared.

Tao-i reported his experience to the emperor, Hsüan-tsung, who, it seems, was struck enough by the story to fund the initial construction of an actual Golden Pavilion monastery on the site. The building was finally completed by the end of the eighth century, in large part through the efforts of the Indian monk Amoghavajra, who obtained a further grant from the emperor Tai-tsung in 766 CE. 35

The Japanese monk Ennin made his pilgrimage to Wu-t’ai shan in 840 CE. He stayed for two months and his diaries describe the experiences he had there. On a number of occasions, on days when the sky was otherwise completely clear, he and others saw brighly coloured luminous clouds. On one occasion he had the following experience:

‘Early in the night, in the sky above a ridge across a valley east of the [southern] terrace, we saw that there was a holy lamp. The group of us [ten monks] saw it together and worshipped it. The light of the lamp at first was as about as large as an alms bowl, but later it gradually grew as large as a small house. The crowd was greatly moved and with loud voices chanted the name of the Great Holy One [Mañju’srii]. There was another lamp which appeared closer to the valley. It, too, at first was like a straw rain hat [in size] but later grew gradually larger. The two lights, when seen from a distance, were about a hundred feet apart and blazed brightly. Just at midnight they died out and became invisible’. 36

Ennin also describes some of the monastic establishments and shrines on the mountain, including a famous image of Mañju’srii at the monastery of Ta Hua-yen:

‘The figure riding on a lion fills the five-bay hall. The lion is supernatural. Its body is majestic, and it seems to be walking, and vapours come from its mouth. We looked at it for quite a while, and it looked just as if it were moving’. 37

According to the monk in charge of the shrine, the image had been successfully cast only on the seventh attempt. Previous attempts had failed, with the sculpture cracking. Concluding there was something wrong with his work, the sculptor had prayed to Mañju’srii to show him how he should be represented. Ennin recounts the story:

‘When he finished making this prayer, he opened his eyes and saw the Bodhisattva Mañju’srii riding on a gold-colored lion right before him. After a little while [Mañju’srii] mounted on a cloud of five colors and flew away up into space. The master, having been able to gaze on [Mañju’srii’s] true appearance, rejoiced, [but also] wept bitterly, knowing then that what he had made had been incorrect’. 38

This story is significant also since it describes an image of Mañju’srii with its origins in Wu-t’ai shan that seems to have become a standard in China. Mañju’srii rides on a lion, appearing within radiant clouds. There is an early tenth century mural of him in cave 220 at Tun-huang, which was hidden until 1975, where he is depicted in this way. There are two similar tenth century blockprints, one also from Tun-huang, the other discovered in 1954 inside a Chinese statue of ‘Saakyamuni in Kyoto. In these blockprints Mañju’srii holds a discussion wand (the ju-i, also a staff of authority) rather than a sword, and is accompanied by two attendants, one of whom is a Chinese youth whose hands are held together in salutation. The other is dressed in Central Asian clothing and holds a rein attached to the lion’s neck.

As well as the corpus of anecdotes describing Mañju’srii’s miraculous appearances at Wu-t’ai shan, there are Suutra passages that associate him with the mountain. Paul Demiéville 39 has drawn attention to the association of Mañju’srii with Mt. Ch’ing-liang in Buddhabhadra’s translation of the Avata.msaka Suutra in the first quarter of the fifth century (418-420 CE). It is described as his residence and is the north-easterly mountain in a list of eight mountains placed at the eight points of the compass. Ch’ing-liang shan was an alternative name for Wu-t’ai shan. The same identification between Mañju’srii and Ch’ing-liang shan is found in the translation of the Avata.msaka Suutra made by ‘Sik.saananda in the closing years of the seventh century (695-699 CE). However, Lamotte has shown that the assertion is an interpolation of the translators and not in the original. He suggests that the interpolation was the work of ‘Sik.saananda, made at a time when the Hua-yen school, 40 centred on the Avata.msaka Suutra, had become popular, and that he altered the equivalent passage in the earlier translation of Buddhabhadra. 41Nevertheless, in combination with the documents concerning Buddhapalita’s visit in 676 CE, it demonstrates that in China, by the end of the seventh century, Wu-t’ai shan was firmly considered to be the residence of Mañju’srii.

This material also suggests that the increasing popularity of the Avatsa.msaka Suutra may have been one of the factors that promoted a cult of Mañju’srii at Wu-t’ai shan. Mañju’srii has a prominent role in the Avata.msaka Suutra, especially in the final section, the Ga.n.davyuuha, where he functions as the spiritual friend (kalyaa.namitra) of the merchant’s son Sudhana, talking to him and advising him in an immediate and practical way. To have Mañju’srii actually resident in China would be quite a coup! It would put China firmly on the Buddhist map. As Birnbaum put it, ‘By this event, China was transformed-in terms of Buddhist cosmology-from a distant borderland of Jambudviipa into a land blessed with authentic teachings’. 42

The influence of the Hua-yen tradition with respect to the cult of Mañju’srii is underlined by an examination of Fa-tsang’s Notes on the Tradition of the Avata.msaka Suutra. In a section of this document Fa-tsang (643-712 CE) gives an account of the history of Wu-t’ai shan. 43 He says that the Emperor Hiao-wen Hong (towards the latter part of the fifth century) built a monastery there. If this is the case it is probably the first Buddhist building on the mountain. He also refers to an episode in this period{when?} of a prince who searched for Mañju’srii on Wu-t’ai shan, burning his own body as an offering. And he states that during the time of Pei Ts’i (550-577 CE) there were more than two hundred monasteries (sa.nghaaraama) on the mountain, and that Mañju’srii was said to be always preaching the Avata.msaka Suutra there. The figure for the number of monasteries is likely to be an exaggeration: in the Wu-t’ai shan chronicle, the Kuang Ch’ing-liang chuan, written in 1060 CE, seventy two establishments worthy of note are listed (though there could well have been a decline after the T’ang period). However, the Avata.msaka Suutra is not the only scripture to link Mañju’srii and Wu-t’ai shan. Another work, ‘The Suutra on the Dhaara.nii of Mañju’srii’s Precious Treasury of the Dharma’ 44, translated into Chinese by Bodhiruci in 710 CE, contains a prophecy connecting him with the mountain. In this suutra the Bodhisattva Vajraguhyaka asks ‘Saakyamuni to elaborate on what will happen when his Dharma has disappeared from Jambudviipa. ‘Saakyamuni answers,

‘After I have passed away, in this Jambudviipa, in the north-east quarter there is a country named Mahaa Ciina. In the centre of this country there is a mountain named Five Peaks. The youth Mañju’srii will roam about and dwell there, expounding on the Dharma at the centre of the mountain for the sake of sentient beings. Countless devas, naagas, spirits, raak.sasas, ki.mnaras, mahoragas and other creatures human and not human encircle him, reverently making worship offerings’. 45

It is not possible to ascertain whether this is an interpolation into an Indian original since no Sanskrit version survives and the work has no known Tibetan translation. However, as with the corresponding material in the Chinese translations of the Avata.msaka Suutra, the passage indicates that by the beginning of the eighth century some Chinese saw Mañju’srii as not only resident at Wu-t’ai shan, but as teaching and being worshipped there. 46 Suutra passages such as these can also be seen as giving scriptural authority for Mañju’srii’s presence at Wu-t’ai shan. If, as is likely, they are interpolations, they are a means of providing legitimacy for an existing held belief that Wu-t’ai shan was the residence of Mañju’srii, a belief that the anecdotes indicate as already having some considerable momentum.

There is a further factor that may have been significant in reinforcing the cult of Mañju’srii at Wu-t’ai shan. Belief in his presence there coincided with the belief that the age of the termination of the Dharma had been entered. At such a time ignorance, suffering, strife, and wrong teachings increase, whereas occasions for making spiritual progress decrease and become harder to obtain. In such times, Wu-t’ai shan, as the residence of Mañju’srii, could provide a rare if not unique possibility of having direct contact with an enlightened being. This feeling that Wu-t’ai shan represented a special opportunity in a time when the Dharma was in decline is seen in the diaries of pilgrims such as Ennin and in the Wu-t’ai shan chronicles. In the Suutra translated by Bodhiruci, cited above, ‘Saakyamuni says that when Mañju’srii dwells in China, in the period when the Dharma is no longer present, he will have a special teaching appropriate for that time. 47

During the late T’ang period the cult of Mañju’srii reached its height at Wu-t’ai shan. That Mañju’srii resided in China became a belief of the whole Mahaayaana Buddhist world. I-tsing, travelling in India in the late seventh century, wrote,

‘… the people of India said in praise [of China], ‘The wise Mañju’srii is at present in Ping Chou, where the people are greatly blessed by his presence. We ought, therefore, to respect and admire that country’. 48

Further evidence of this belief is found in the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa. Speaking of China (mahaaciina), one verse declares,

‘And in this land there presently dwells, in the form of a youth, the Bodhisattva Mañ, of great self-possession [and] of great splendour’. 49

Though this stanza is found in the surviving Sanskrit, it is not in the Chinese translation. This is significant insofar as it means that, in this case, the link between Mañju’srii and China cannot be a Chinese interpolation.

By the late seventh century Wu-t’ai shan had become an international centre of pilgrimage. As we have seen, Buddhapaalita travelled there from Kashmir in 676 CE. In the eighth century, Vimalamitra, whose Tantric teaching had an important influence on early Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have visited, 50 and Ennin made his pilgrimage from Japan in 840 CE. 51 At Tun-huang, in cave 61, there is a huge mural that depicts the various sights of Wu-t’ai shan in the tenth century: the landscape with its buildings, temples and pilgrims. 52 Later literature attests to Mañju’srii’s continuing residence at Wu-t’ai shan: a biography of Padmasambhava, probably dating from the fourteenth century, describes him going to Wu-t’ai shan to learn the secrets of astrology from Mañju’srii; 53 and the Nepalese accounts of Mañju’srii’s creation of the Kathmandu valley and subsequent establishment of Buddhism there describe him as coming from Wu-t’ai shan (pañca’, accompanied by a number of disciples. 54 As a pilgrimage centre it continued to be important through to modern times. The famous monk and teacher Hsü-yün’s thousand mile pilgrimage to Wu-t’ai shan in the late nineteenth century took three years to complete: every three paces he stopped to make a full prostration on the ground. 55



IF ONE FIGURE had to be selected as being central to the promotion of the cult of Mañju’srii in China it would be that of the Indian tantric teacher Amoghavajra (705-774). Amoghavajra’s biography reveals the international nature of Mahaayaana (and tantric) Buddhism in the eighth century. Born into a merchant family in north-west India (possibly Samarkand), at the age of twelve he was travelling with his uncle in Java. There he met the tantric teacher Vajrabodhi (671-741) whose disciple he became and whom he accompanied to China. After Vajrabodhi’s death, he went back to South East Asia and studied the tantra further in ‘Srii La.nka with Naagabodhi. In 746 he returned to China where he remained until his death some twenty eight years later. 56 Raoul Birnbaum assesses Amoghavajra’s significance in the following terms,

‘ moghavajra was one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of Chinese Buddhism: charismatic speaker and passionate teacher, tireless translator and effective writer, ritual master and magican, advisor and preceptor to three emperors, builder of major temples, transmitter and consolidator of tantric teachings in China’. 57

Amoghavajra is perhaps best known for his part in the introduction of the Yoga Tantras into China. Building on the work of ‘Subhaakarasi.mha (637-735) and others (especially that of I-hsing), he translated an abridged version of the basic Yoga Tantra, the Sarvatathaatgatatattvasa.mgraha, where for the first time tantric methods-the use of mantras, mudraas, ma.ndalas etc.-are enlisted to help achieve enlightenment, rather than as a means of gaining secondary and material ends. A remarkable collection of Chinese documents show that another of Amoghavajra’s concerns was the promotion of the cult of Mañju’srii. These documents, which are preserved in the Taish< canon (t. 2120), consist in a collection of amoghavajra’s writings made in the late eighth century by the monk yüan-chao, a disciple of amoghavajra. they contain letters to two emperors (accompanied in some cases by their response) as well as his will and death-bed instructions. this material forms the basis for raoul birnbaum’s fascinating account of amoghavajra in his studies on the mysteries of mañju’srii. i shall give a brief summary of his findings. As we have seen, it was Amoghavajra who was responsible for finishing the construction of golden pavilion monastery (chin-ko ssu) by obtaining a grant from the emperor tai-tsung in 766 ce. it appears that amoghavajra, through the patronage of the emperor, was able transform mañju’srii from being the bodhisattva resident at wu-t’ai shan to also being, remarkably, a national protector. in 770 ce he successfully requested the emperor tai-tsung to promulgate an edict making mañju’srii the main deity in all the monastic refectories in china, replacing the arhat pi.n.dola. 58 in the letter of request, he says of mañju’srii that, ‘at present he guards on [wu-]t’ai shan’. this emphasis on the protective role of mañju’srii is reflected some eight months later when a temple for the worship of mañju’srii is built, at the suggestion of amoghavajra, at t’ai-yüan, the ancestral home of the t’ang emperors. finally, in 772 ce, tai-tsung takes the extraordinary step of issuing an edict, again at the request of amoghavajra, for the establishment of special shrines to mañju’srii in the grounds of every buddhist monastery in china. in each of these shrines, monks were employed to recite suutras that would have the effect of protecting the nation. in the capital, where amoghavajra’s translation and teaching activity was centred, the mañju’srii shrine was named ‘pavilion of the great holy mañju’srii to protect the nation’. There is not the space to discuss in any detail Amoghavajra’s motives in promoting mañju’srii in this way. one could easily see his actions cynically, in terms of gaining power and prestige, either for himself or for the buddhist establishment. birnbaum, however, suggests that amoghavajra saw the t’ang emperors as potential universal kings (cakravartin), figures who could, through their position, promote the dharma and thereby alleviate suffering. since mañju’srii dwelt at wu-t’ai shan, it would seem clear to many that he had a special link with china. he would, therefore, be an obvious candidate for the role of national protector. 59 Another element among the factors that allowed this expansion of status is the incorporation of mañju’srii into tantric ritual in china. it was, notably, a dhaara.nii that mañju’srii requested buddhapaalita to bring back from india when he visited wu-t’ai shan in 676ce. by the late eighth century the chen-yen school, which systematised the tantric teachings from india, had become well established. its rituals could be performed for the direct soteriological goal of enlightenment. they could also be performed for lixsecondary ends, including that of protection (from ill weather, famine, sickness etc.). there survive chinese tantric ritual manuals from this period that describe the procedures for invoking the protective power of mañju’srii. 60 To summarise, there was by the end of the seventh century a well established cult of Mañju’srii at Wu-t’ai shan, which was already attracting pilgrims such as Buddhapaalita from abroad. A few years later, new translations of suutras revealed that the Buddha himself had prophesied that Mañju’srii would dwell in China at Wu-t’ai shan. It is hard to estimate how long a cult with such a momentum would have taken to develop. If we accept the reports of Fa-tsang, a cult of Mañju’srii was established at Wu-t’ai shan perhaps during the fifth century or even earlier. Texts such as the Mañju’ Suutra and the Avata.msaka Suutra, 61which could well have promoted the early phase of the cult, were translated into Chinese as early as the third century. The negative findings at other sites reported by Lalou need not be troublesome. Textual evidence points to the existence in early Mahaayaana of competing cults centred on different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas linked with specific suutras and meditative absorptions. Such groups are likely to become associated with particular geographic locations. Thus a Bodhisattva or Buddha might well be eminent in one particular place or region yet not necessarily so elsewhere. A fuller account of Mañju’srii’s role in China in the early and T’ang period is beyond the scope of the present discussion, though he was not the only figure of significance. In the earliest suutras translated into Chinese it is Amitaabha and not Mañju’srii who appears as an object of devotion. 62 However, recent research based on archaeological evidence suggests that a cult of Maitreya developed in China before that of Amitaabha or any other Buddha or Bodhisattva, apart from ‘Saakyamuni. The study of surviving images shows a large shift between the sixth and seventh centuries. In the sixth century there are fifty images of ‘Saakyamuni, thirty five of Maitreya, but only nine of Amitaabha. In the second half of the seventh century, in contrast, there are twenty images of ‘Saakyamuni and Maitreya, but one hundred and forty four of Amitaabha and Avalokite’svara. 63 It seems unlikely, therefore, that any significant cult of Amitaabha developed in China much before the seventh century. In conclusion, the locus for the origins of a cult of Mañju’srii is to be found in China rather than India or Central Asia. His figuring in the murals of Tun-huang can be seen as reflecting a Chinese rather than Central Asian popularity. In India, nothing equivalent to the cult at Wu-t’ai shan developed. In any case, by the late seventh century China was the accepted dwelling place of Mañju’srii throughout the Buddhist world.

Anthony Tribe is currently teaching at the University of Missoula.

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The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley
Mañju’sriibuddhak.setragu.navyuuha Suutra
Melanges Chinois et Bouddhiques, Brussels
Mañju’ Suutra
Taish canon


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  1. This is the third (and final) article on the Origins, Role and Significance of the Bodhisattva Mañju’srii. For the first two parts see Western Buddhist Review Volume 2 (soon available).The present essay has grown considerably since it was originally written some years ago (1987 – 8) as part of a first degree dissertation. The conclusions are not significantly different, though recently published work has enabled a more vivid picture to emerge, particularly in relation to the role of Mañju’srii in Chinese Buddhism. In what follows there is no research contribution on my part. My basic intention in writing also has not changed, namely, to give an account of material that bears on the question of a possible ‘cult of Mañju’srii’, adding comment when appropriate. However, I have been aware, sometimes acutely, that in dealing with this material I have certain short-comings. Firstly, I am not a historian, yet the present subject centres on the assessment of historical data. I hope that my lack of formal training in the problems and methods of historical analysis has not produced any major error of judgement. Secondly, Chinese Buddhism is not my field. As a result I hope those whose field it is will forgive me for any omission of detail or perspective. Also, I have not used the Hanyu pinyin system of transliteration of Chinese characters as adopted by the Beijing government. The scholarly works that I consulted used earlier systems and I have adopted (nearly always) the most recent of those. Finally, though written from the perspective of the scholar, I hope that the material is of some interest to contemporary saadhakas of that ever-young Bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañju’srii.
  2. Though the word ‘cult’ can have negative overtones in contemporary usage, its primary sense implies devotion to a person or thing without indicating anything more about the nature of that devotion. In the present context I use the word simply to indicate a substantial following at a particular place or time.
  3. See note 1, above, for details of the first two articles in the series.
  4. Bhattacharyya, 1958, 100.
  5. Lamotte, 1960, 4.
  6. Snellgrove, 1987, 314.
  7. Williams, 1989, 240.
  8. See Beal , 1884, I. 180. For the following account I have also relied on David Snellgrove’s Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (1987, 312 – 7).
  9. Snellgrove 1987, 313.
  10. The sort of view I am thinking of can be found in the work of Lamotte (e.g. 1984, 90 Р94) who sees the Mahaayaana as essentially a lay-inspired break-away movement. However, more recent research suggests that the early Mahaayaana was a monastically based, non-unitary phenomenon embedded in non-Mahaayaana traditions. Its formation did not involve schism of the Sa.mgha (sa.mghabheda) and doctrinally it did not possess any views that were not prefigured by the non-Mahaayaana. See Williams (1989, 1 Р33) for a r̩sum̩ of this work.
  11. ibid. 312.
  12. It should be remembered that Hsüan-tsang’s account is of what he saw and how things were explained to him. It cannot necessarily be taken as a straightforwardly objective account.
  13. ibid. 305 for I-tsing’s late seventh century account.
  14. Schopen, 1979, 1 – 19.
  15. During the later period of Indian Buddhism (7th to 12th century CE), which becomes increasingly dominated by the Tantra, Mañju’srii continues to be an important figure in the texts. He is well represented in the different categories of Tantra. A number of rituals and ma.n.dalas are centred on him in the large Kriyaa Tantra work, the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa. In the [Mañju’srii] Naamasa.mgiiti, which enumerates the ‘Names’ of Mañju’srii as non-dual Knowledge or Awareness and was classified as a Yoga Tantra, he is described as “The Knowledge-Being Mañju’srii, the Knowledge-Body of all the Tathaagatas” (sarvatathaagatajñaanakaayasya mañju’sriijñaanasattvaasya … naamasa.mgiiti.h Davidson, 1983, 61). Some indication of the enormous influence of the Naamasa.mgiiti is seen in the fact that in the bsTan-‘gyur, the collection of Sanskrit commentaries and other secondary texts translated into Tibetan, 129 works are classified as being related to the Naamasa.mgiiti, ranging from substantial commentaries to shorter saadhanas and offering rituals. In the Yogottara Tantras (the Father division of the Anuttara Tantras) Mañju’srii, under the name of Mañjuvajra, is one of the two central deities of the Guhyasamaaja Tantra. The Tibetan historian Taaranaatha (born 1575) describes an incident in the life of Candragomin that involves a statue of Mañju’srii. It occurs at the time of Candragomin’s debate with the Maadhyamika Candrakiirti at Naalandaa. Before the debate starts they enter the gates of Naalandaa in ceremonious procession. The story is that the statue of Mañju’srii, which Candragomin and Candrakiirti follow, each to one side, turns its head towards Candragomin as if to favour him (according to Taaranaatha, Candragomin wins the debate). If this Candragomin is the 7th century grammarian, then the story could indicate that Mañju’srii had considerable importance at that time, at least at Naalandaa. But Taaranaatha has almost certainly conflated the 7th century Candragomin with a later (possibly 8th century) tantric Candragomin, the author of a number of commentaries including one on the Naamasa.mgiiti. Bu ston also tells the story that once, when Candragomin chanted a praise of Mañ the head of a statue of the latter bent down to listen (Obermiller, 1986, 132 – 3). Enjoyable though they are, these stories are not able to be historically placed with any reliablility.
  16. See Snellgrove’s, section ‘Traces of Buddhism in Central Asia’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (1987, 324 – 762). Von Hinüber, 1984, also gives a good short account of Cental Asian Buddhism. For a discussion of the artistic remains, mostly discovered during this century, see Bussagli, 1979.
  17. Snellgrove, 1987, 331 – 43.
  18. ibid. 343 – 9.
  19. ibid. 349 – 50.
  20. ibid. 356.
  21. The Mañju’sriimuulakalpa (“The Root Ordinance Concerning Mañju’srii”), a voluminous work subsequently classified as a Kriyaa Tantra, survives in Sanskrit, as well as in Tibetan and Chinese translation. See ‘Saastri (ed.), 1920 – 5.
  22. Lalou, 1930, 11 (using the Nanjio catalogue).
  23. Przyluski, 1923, 301 – 68.
  24. Lalou relied on Mission archeologique dans le Chine septentrionale, Chavannes, E. Paris, 1913.
  25. “Le culte de Mañju’srii etait peu pratiqué dans le bouddhisme chinois à l’époque où ces grottes ont été aménagées.” op. cit. p.12.
  26. See Demiéville, 1952; Lamotte, 1960; Birnbaum, 1983. Roaul Birnbaum’s excellent monograph on Mañju’srii in T’ang China, Studies on the Mysteries of Mañju’srii, builds on the work of Demiéville and Lamotte, particularly in relation to the role of Amoghavajra (705 – 774 CE) in promoting the cult of Mañju’srii in China.
  27. pañca’sikha. ‘Five-crested’ or ‘five-peaked’. Mañju’srii has a number of affiliations with this term. He is associated in the Mañju’ Suutra with Mt. Gandhamaadana (‘The mountain which intoxicates with its perfumes’), one of a chain of five mountain peaks in the western Himalayas. It is also an epithet (closely linked with pañcaciira), possibly descriptive of how Mañju’srii wears his hair; and finally, Pañca’sikha is the name of a gandharva who shares a number of qualities with Mañju’srii. For further discussion of Mañju’srii’s association with the term pañca’sikha, see p. 16 – 19 of the first article in this series (‘Mañju’srii: Origins, Role, and Significance (Part 1 – Origins)’. The Order Journal 2, 1989, p.15 – 26).
  28. For an evocative description of a journey to Wu-t’ai shan in the early 1930’s see John Blofeld, 1972, 114 – 155. Raoul Birnbaum suggests that Wu-t’ai shan was the first mountain in China to be associated with a Buddha or Bodhisattva, and that the establishment of sacred Buddhist mountains signifies an important step in the development of a distinctively Chinese form of Buddhism (Birnbaum, 1983, p.10). As well as Wu-t’ai shan, three other mountains became sacred to Buddhists in China: O-mei in the west, sacred to Samantabhadra; Chiu-hua in the south; and P’u-t’o, a mountain island off the Chekiang coast in the east, sacred to Kuan-yin (Avalokite’svara). P’u-t’o was identified with Avalokite’svara’s mountain of Potalaka, which is often located in the south of India. André Migot (1954, 29 – 40) descibes a visit to O-mei in 1947. Mary Mullikin & Anna Hotchikis (1973) give an illustrated account of their pilgrimage in 1935 – 6 of the nine sacred mountains-five Taoist and four Buddhist-of China. See Dudjom Rinpoche (1991, I, plate facing p.596) for a photograph of contemporary Wu-t’ai shan.
  29. The Mañju’ Suutra, translated into Chinese in the third century, describes Mañju’srii as living in the Himaalayas and converting five hundred sages ( to Buddhism. For the benefit of beings he performs a, and his remains are taken to the summit of Mt. Gandhamaadana. It is stated that those who are devoted to Mañju’srii will surely see him, either in a vision or in a dream. The Mañju’ Suutra is discussed in the two previous articles on Mañju’srii: see The Order Journal 2, 1989, p.19; The Order Journal 3, 1990, p.16.
  30. T. 2098 – 2100. T. 2099 is the Kuang Ch’ing-liang chuan, written in 1060 CE by Yen-i.
  31. T. 2073. Part of Fa-tsang’s Notes on the Tradition of the Avata.msaka Suutra has been translated into French by Lamotte (1960, pp. 55 – 60).
  32. This has been translated into English by Edwin Reischauer (1955).
  33. In recounting this story I have relied mainly on Lamotte (1960, 86 – 88) who translates (into French) a preface attached to the Chinese translation of the (T. 967) made in 689 CE. The preface gives the story of Buddhapalita visits to Wu-t’ai shan. It is also the subject of the twelfth chapter of the Wu-t’ai shan chronicle, the Kuang Ch’ing-liang chuan (T. 2099) (see Birnbaum, 1983, 104, note 6).
  34. Birnbuam, 1983, 14 – 5.
  35. See Birnbaum, 1983, 30.
  36. Reischauer, 1955, 260, cited in Birnbaum, 1983, 18. In the summer of 1937 John Blofeld witnessed a very similar event, again on the southernmost peak. Staying just below the peak at the highest temple, Blofeld and a number of other pilgrims were roused from sleep shortly after midnight by a monk who, lantern in hand, entered their sleeping quarters with a cry of “The Bodhisattva has appeared!”. They hurriedly dressed and climbed the hundred feet to a tower built on the very top of the peak that had a window looking out into empty space. Blofeld describes what happens.

    As each one entered the little room and came face to face with the window beyond, he gave a shout of surprise, as though all our hours of talk had not sufficiently prepared us for what we now saw. There in the great open spaces beyond the window, apparently not more than one or two hundred yards away, innumerable balls of fire floated majestically past. We could not judge their size, for nobody knew how far away they were, but they appeared like the fluffy woollen balls that babies play with seen close up. They seemed to be moving at the stately pace of a large, well-fed fish aimlessly cleaving its way through the water; but, of course, their actual pace could not be determind without a knowledge of the intervening distance. Where they came from, what they were, and where they went after fading from sight in the West, nobody could tell. Fluffy balls of orange-coloured fire, moving through space, unhurried and majestic-truly a fitting manifestation of divinity! (Blofeld, 1959, 149 – 50)

  37. Reischauer, 1955, 232, cited in Birnbaum, 1983, 18.
  38. Reischauer, 1955, 232 – 3, cited in Birnbaum, 1983, 18.
  39. Demiéville, 1952, 372.
  40. Hua-yen (‘Flower-garland’) is in fact the term the Chinese used to translate Avata.msaka.
  41. See Lamotte, 1960, 60f.
  42. Birnbaum, 1983, 12.
  43. Fa-tsang also worked with ‘Sik.saananda, the translator of the Avata.msaka Suutra containing the interpolations connecting Mañju’srii and Wu-t’ai shan. We should, therefore, perhaps treat his claims with caution. See Lamotte (1960, 55 – 60).
  44. Wen-shu shih-li fa pao-tsang t’o-lo-ni ching (T. XX, 1185A/1185B) which Lamotte retranslates into Sanskrit as Mañju’sriidharmaratnagarbhadhaara.nii Suutra (Lamotte, 1960, 85).
  45. Quoted from Birmbaum, 1983, 11.
  46. There are reasons for doubting whether this passage ever had a Sanskrit original. Bodhiruci was not only affiliated to the expanding Hua-yen tradition, which would give him a motive for promoting Mañju’srii, but he was also involved in ‘Sik.saananda’s translation of the Avata.msaka Suutra. He may have been party to the interpolation of the identification of Wu-t’ai shan with Mañju’srii that is found there.
  47. Birnbaum, 1983, 12.
  48. Takakusu, 1896, 169.
  49. bodhisattvo mahaadhiiro mañ mahaadyuti.h / tasmin de’se tu saak.saad vai ti.s.thate // (MmK 36.568). Cited by Lamotte, 1960, 85 (my translation).
  50. Vimalamitra is said to have gone to China and to Wu-t’ai shan after his thirteen years in Tibet (Dudjom Rinpoche, 1991, I, 555). According to the Tibetan historian Bu ston, the seventh century Tibetan king, Srong-brtsan sgam-po also visited Wu-t’ai shan where he founded 108 monasteries (Obermiller, 1931 – 2, II, 184). Paul Demiéville is sceptical about the historical reliability of this account (Demiéville, 1952, 188, note 1).
  51. Lamotte, 1960, 89.
  52. This mural has been studied by Ernesta Marchand (1976).
  53. Mañju’srii is associated with astrology in the (pre mid-eighth century) Indian text, the Mañju’sriinaamasa.mgiiti. Verse 103 descibes him as “glorious, possessing the circle of the lunar mansions” (‘sriimaan nak.satrama.n.dala.h) (See Davidson, 1981; Wayman, 1985, for two translations of the Naamasa.mgiiti). It was in China, however, that this association seems to have been elaborated and Mañju’srii seen freeing one from the negative influences of the planets (see Birnbaum, 1983, 92ff). The story of Padmasambhava’s visit to Mañju’srii reveals an ambiguity of feeling towards the use of astrology within a Buddhist context. The following account is adapted from the translation of Padmasa.mbhava’s biography edited by Evans-Wentz (see Evans-Wentz, 1954, 134 – 6).Padma’s next great guru was the Bodhisattva Mañju’srii, residing on the Five-Peaked Mountain, near the Siitaasara river, in the Shanshi Province of China. Mañju’srii’s origin, like that of Padmasa.mbhava, was supernormal:The Buddha once went to China to teach the Dharma, but instead of listening to him the people cursed him. So he returned to G.rdhrakuu.ta, in India. Considering it to be useless to explain the higher truths to the Chinese, he decided to have introduced into China the conditional truths, along with astrology. Accordingly, the Buddha, while at G.rdhrakuu.ta, emitted from the crown of his head a golden yellow light-ray which fell upona tree growing near a stuupa, one of the five stuupas, each of which was on one of the peaks of the Five-Peaked Mountain. From the tree grew a goitre-like excresence, whence there sprang a lotus blossom. And from this lotus blossom Mañju’srii was born, holding in his right hand the sword of wisdom and in his left hand a blue lotus blossom, and supporting the book of [the perfection of] wisdom; and the people spoke of him as having been born without a father and mother. From Mañju’srii’s head there issued a golden tortoise. The tortoise entered the Siitasara river, and from a bubble there came forth two white tortoises, male and female, which gave birth to five sorts of tortoises.At about this time the Lord Buddha emitted from the crown of his head a white light-ray which fell upon the goddess of Victory. The goddess went to Mañju’srii; and he, taking in his hand the golden tortoise, said, ‘This is the great golden tortoise’. Then he instructed and initiated the goddess in seven astrological systems.When these astrological teachings, known as the teachings which issued from the head of the most holy Mañju’srii, had spread all over the world, the people gave so much attention to them that the Dharma of the Lord Buddha was neglected. So Mañju’srii placed all the texts containing the teachings in a charmed copper box and hid it in a rock on the eastern side of the Five-Peaked Mountain. Deprived thus of astrological guidance, mankind suffered dire misfortunes: diseases, shortness of life, poverty, barrenness of cattle, and famine. Upon learning of these misfortunes, Avalokite’svara went to Padmasa.mbhava and said, ‘I have renovated the world thrice; and, thinking that all beings were happy, returned to Potaala. But, now, when I look down, I behold so much suffering that I weep’. And Avalokite’svara added, ‘Assume the guise of Brahmaa; and, for the good of the creatures of the world, go and recover these hidden treasures [of texts]’.Having assumed the guise of Brahmaa, Padma went to Mañju’srii and said, ‘Although not really part of the Dharma of the Lord Buddha, astrology is, nevertheless, of vast benefit to worldly creatures. Therefore, I beg you to take out the hidden texts and instruct me in them’. And Mañju’srii took out the hidden texts and instructed and initiated Padma in all of them.
  54. This legend is found in the Sanskrit Svaya.mbhuu A summary is found in Mitra (1981, 249 – 258). See also my Mañju’srii pt.1: Origins, p. 21 – 2 for some comments on this material. The Svaya.mbhuu also contains an account of an (Indian?) monk, Dharma’sriimitra who is described as wanting to learn the meaning of the twelve vowels of the Mañju’sriinaamasa.mgiiti. In his quest for an answer he starts on the long and dangerous journey to China to ask Mañju’srii himself their meaning. On his way he passes through Nepal and meets Mañju’srii in the Kathmandu valley. Mañju’srii answers his queries and Dharma’sriimitra is saved the trouble of his journey to China (see Mitra, 1981, 255). The story, while recognising Mañju’srii’s abode in China, can be read as suggesting that Mañju’srii is also available in the Kathmandu valley itself, thereby giving status to Buddhism in Nepal in the same way that the Wu-t’ai shan legends did to Buddhism in China. It has been pointed out to me that the story could also be interpreted as an act of kindness on the part of Mañju’srii towards those who were not able to make the long and dangerous journey to China to see him. An equivalent of this sort of account is the tradition that for those too old or ill to climb the many steps to the great Svaya.mbhuu stuupa, circumambulating the Kathesimbhu stuupa in central Kathmandu (a large but scaled-down replica of Svaya.mbhuu), produces the same merit.
  55. Welch, 1967, p.307; Luk, 1988, 14f.
  56. I have taken these biographical details from Birnbaum (1983, 25). The early part of his biography is less than certain. Lamotte’s account (1960, 89) differs slightly. Both Birnbaum and Lamotte rely on Chou Yi-liang’s ‘Tantrism in China’ (1944 – 5), which I have not been able to consult. This study contains an annotated translation of the standard Chinese biography of Amoghavajra and a discussion of its problems.
  57. Birnbaum, 1983, 25.
  58. For material on the Arhat Pi.n.dola, see Strong (1979 – 80).
  59. Birnbaum also points out that from another perspective it could be said that Mañju’srii himself was promoting his cult, since for the Buddhist world of that time it was indisputable that he was appearing again and again to visitors to Wu-t’ai shan (Birnbaum, 1983, 36).
  60. See Birnbaum, 1983, 68 – 90.
  61. The Avata.msaka Suutra was partially translated into Chinese in the second and third centuries by Lokak.sema (T. 280), Tche K’ien (T. 281), and (T. 283, 285, 288, 291, 292).
  62. A corpus of eleven texts translated were in the second century CE. These have been the focus of analysis by Paul Harrison. See Harrison, 1987, 79 – 80. These findings give further weight to the view that, at least textually, Mañju’srii’s role as an object of devotion is subsequent to and dependent upon such a role being adopted by Buddha figures such as Amitaabha.
  63. I take these figures from Williams (1989, 258) who cites Weinstein (1987) and Tsukamoto (1985). Significantly, the increase in the images of Amitaabha and Avalokite’svara ocur during the lives of the first three Chinese patriarchs of the Pure Land tradition, T’an-luan, Tao-ch’o and Shan-tao.

Tattooing – Gift of Okikurumi Turesh Machi, ancestral mother deity of the Ainu

Ainu woman with tattooed lips (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ainu woman with tattooed lips (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“Imekanu, Kindaichi Kyōsuke, and Nami” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The following lines are excerpted from Lars Krutak excellent work,


Article © 2008 Lars Krutak To view the above gallery click here

The indigenous people of northern Japan call themselves “Ainu,” meaning “people” or “humans” in their language. Recent DNA evidence suggests that the Ainu are the direct descendents of the ancient Jomon people who inhabited Japan as early as 12,000 years ago. Astonishingly, the Jomon culture existed in Japan for some 10,000 years, and today many artistic traditions of the Ainu seem to have evolved from the ancestral Jomon. As such, this artistic continuum represents one of the oldest ongoing cultural traditions in the world spanning at least ten millennia.

Jomon culture, like that of the Ainu, was based on a hunting-and-gathering economy. Exploiting natural resources from riverine, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems, the Jomon achieved stasis through active and continual engagement with their surrounding environments. Archaeological evidence in the form of ceramic sculpture supports this view, but it also suggests that particular animals (bears, whales, owls) were highly revered and possibly worshipped as deities. Among the Ainu, all natural phenomena (including flora, fauna, and even inanimate objects) are believed to have a spiritual essence, and particular animals (e.g., brown bears, killer whales, horned owls) continue to be honored in ceremony and ritual as “spirit deities” called kamuy.

Apart from zoomorphic sculpture, Jomon artisans also created anthropomorphic figurines (dogū) that were probably used by individual families for protection against illness, infertility, and the dangers associated with childbirth. Markings on the faces of many of these dogū likely indicate body painting, scarification, or tattooing, and similar figures carved more recently as rock art or into masks by indigenous people of the lower Amur River basin of the Russian Maritime Region suggest an ancient and unbroken tradition of personal adornment and ritual practice.

Ainu Tattooing

Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.

Ainu Tattooing

Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.

Because tattooing represented an ancestral custom derived from one common female ancestress, it was continued down through the centuries in the matrilineal line. Viewing tattoo practices through the lens of kinship, it is not surprising that the position of tattoo artist was customarily performed by grandmothers or maternal aunts who were called “Tattoo Aunts” or simply “Tattoo Women”.

At various times in history, Japanese authorities prohibited the use of tattoos by the Ainu (and other ethnic peoples under their authority like the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) in attempts to dislocate them from their traditional cultural practices and prepare them for the subsequent process of Japanization. As early as 1799, during the Edo Period, the Ezo Shogunate issued a ban on tattoos: “Regarding the rumored tattoos, those already done cannot be helped, but those still unborn are prohibited from being tattooed”. In 1871, the Hokkaido Development Mission proclaimed, “those born after this day are strictly prohibited from being tattooed” because the custom “was too cruel”. And according to one Western observer, the Japanese attitude towards tattooing was necessarily disapproving since in their own cultural system, “tattooing was associated with crime and punishment whereas the practice itself was regarded as a form of body mutilation, which, in case of voluntary inflictment, was completely averse to the prevalent notions of Confucian filial conduct”.

Of course, the Ainu vehemently evaded these laws because tattoos were traditionally a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. One report from the 1880s describes that the Ainu were very much grieved and tormented by the prohibition of tattooing: “They say the gods will be angry, and that the women can’t marry unless they are tattooed. They are less apathetic on this than on any subject, and repeat frequently, ‘It’s part of our religion.'” One Ainu woman stated in the 1970s, “I was twenty-one years old before I had this little tattoo put on my lips. After it was done, my mother hid me from the Japanese police for five days. I wish we could have retained at least this one custom!”

The modern Ainu term for tattooing is nuye meaning “to carve” and hence “to tattoo” and “to write”, or more literally, sinuye “to carve oneself”. The old term for tattoo was anchi-piri (anchi, “obsidian”; piri, “cut”).

Ainu woman wearing attush garment with magical embroidery, ca. 1890. The embroidery, like tattooing, was believed to keep evil spirits from entering the body.

Traditional Ainu tattooing instruments called makiri were knife-like in form, and sometimes the sheaths and handles of these tools were intricately carved with zoomorphic and apotropaic motifs. Before the advent of steel tipped makiri, razor sharp obsidian points were used that were wound with fiber allowing only the tip of the point to protrude so as to control the depth of the incisions. As the cutting intensified, the blood was wiped away with a cloth saturated in a hot ash wood or spindlewood antiseptic called nire. Soot taken with the fingers from the bottom of a kettle was rubbed into the incisions, and the tattooist would then sing a yukar or portion of an epic poem that said: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.” Afterward, the tattooist recited a kind of spell or magic formula as more pigment was laid into the skin: “pas ci-yay, roski, roski, pas ren-ren“, meaning “soot enclosed remain, soot sink in, sink in”.

While this invocation may not seem important at first glance, it was symbolically significant nonetheless. Every Ainu home was constructed according to plan with reference to the central hearth and a sacred window facing a stream. Within the hearth was kindled fire, and within the fire was the home of an important deity who served as mediator between all Ainu gods – Fuchi. The fire goddess Fuchi was invoked prior to all ceremonialsbecause communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention. Fuchi guarded over families and lent herspiritual support in times of trouble and illness or at times of birth and death. In this respect, the central hearth was a living microcosm of the Ainu mythological universe, because as a ritual space, it replicated and provided a means from which to actively intervene in the cosmos. However, it was also a space where Ainu and the gods grew wary of one another, especially if the fire was not burning at all times.

Ainu Tattoos, Girdles, and Symbolic Embroidery

According to Romyn Hitchcock, an ethnologist working for the Smithsonian Institution in the late 19th century, Ainu tattoo was laid upon the skin at specific intervals, the process sometimes extending over several years: “The faces of the women are disfigured by tattooing around the mouth, the style of which varies with locality. Young maidens of six or seven have a little spot on the upper lip. As they grow older, this is gradually extended until a more or less broad band surrounds the mouth and extends into a tapering curve on both cheeks towards the ears.”

Of course, the tattooist encouraged her client to remain still throughout the painful ordeal, since it was believed that the ritual would prepare the girl for childbirth once she had become a bride. It the pain was too great, one or more assistants held the client down so that the tattooist could continue her work.

After the mouth tattooing, the lips would feel like burning embers. The client became feverish and the pain and swelling would keep her from getting much sleep. Food became an afterthought and when the tattoo client became thirsty a piece of cotton grass was dipped in water and placed against the lips for the client to suck on.

The completed lip tattoos of women were significant in regards to Ainu perceptions of life experience. First, these tattoos were believed to repel evil spirits from entering the body (mouth) and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors.

Apart from lip tattoos, however, Ainu women wore several other tattoo marks on their arms and hands usually consisting of curvilinear and geometric designs. These motifs, which were begun as early as the fifth or sixth year, were intended to protect young girls from evil spirits. One motif, the braidform pattern, consisting of two rectilinear stripes braided side by side linked to a special motif, represents a kind of band also used for tying the dead for burial. Other marks were placed on various parts of the body as charms against diseases like painful rheumatism.

As with burial cords, the braid-like weave structure of women’s plaited girdles called upsor-kut were embodied with a similarly powerful supernatural “magic” symbolizing not only a woman’s virtue, but her “soul strength”. First discussed by the Western physician Neil Gordon Munro, who with his Japanese wife operated a free clinic in Hokkaido in the 1930s, upsor-kut (“bosom girdles”) were objects worn underneath the woman’s outer garment (attush) and kept “secret” from Ainu men. They were made of woven flax or native hemp varying in length and width and in the number of strands. Composed of either three, five, or seven plaited cords (sometimes alternating with intersecting or overlapping lozenges or chevrons), they closely resemble the tattoo motifs that appear on the arms of Ainu women.

Interestingly, girdles were received upon completion of a girl’s lip tattooing just before or on the occasion of marriage. The design specifications of the girdle were passed down by the girl’s mother; she instructed her daughter how to make the girdle and warned that if it was ever exposed to any male, great misfortune would come to her and the family.

Dr. Munro recorded at least eight types of upsor with each form related to a different line of matrilineal pedigree and associated with several animal and spirit deities (kamuy), such as the killer whale, bear, and wolf crests. Thus aristocratic women, especially the daughters of chiefs (kotan), wore more powerfully charged girdles than common women, because their ancestry connected them more closely to the kamuy. Munro also observed that the daughters of Ainu chiefs were tattooed on the arms before any other women in the village, suggesting that these types of tattoos conferred prestige and social status to the wearer. In this sense, tattoos and girdles appear to be functionally related.

However, tattoos and girdles were connected on yet another, more metaphysical level. The Ainu believed that the fire goddess Fuchi provided Ainu women with the original plans for constructing the sacred upsorgirdles. As noted earlier, Fuchi was also symbolized by the soot used in tattooing practice thereby linking the traditions of tattooing and girdling to Ainu mythological thought. And because each type of girdle was associated with a particular kamuy, it can be suggested that particular tattoos were perhaps associated with specific deities: “the wives of the deities were tattooed in a similar fashion as the Ainu women, so that when evil demons would see it, they would mistake the women for deities and therefore stay away”.

But the symbolic fortification of the body did not end with tattoos and girdles. It also extended to clothing. For example, Ainu embroidery seems to have had a related functional efficacy. Women embroidered simple double-stranded braid-like brackets around the neck, front openings, sleeves, and hem on the earliest

Ainu salmon skin and elm bark attush garments to keep evil spirits from entering the apertures of the body. The original designs, resembling braided rope, were nothing more than a solid color, usually dark blue similar to the color of tattoo pigment.

Among the indigenous peoples of the lower Amur River Basin (with whom the Ainu traded), similar design conventions embroidered and appliquéd onto traditional fish skin garments provided the wearer protection from evil spirits. Design motifs were placed on the borders around every opening in traditional robes (neck, arms, legs, front closure, and hem) and all borders had symbolic referents. For instance, the upper borders represented the Upper World and the patterns placed there offered protection in that direction; the hem represented the underworld or underwater world; and the middle parts stood for the world inhabited by humans. On one old indigenous Nanai fish skin robe I have seen in Vladivostok, avian designs represent the Upper World, fish patterns symbolize the lower realms and a Chinese inspired dragon completed the center.”

Museum photo gallery of these images may be seen here and at Ainu Tattoo

The photos on the page have not been uploaded, to view the gallery click here. The photos appended above are from the Wikimedia Commons in the public domain


Note on Okikurumi Turesh Machi and her relationship with Okikurumi

Okikurumi Turesh Machi is the according to some versions, the younger sister of Okikurumi, the creator god.

Legend of the water-wag-tail bird delivering a message to Aheterehai to look kindly upon the lovesick creator deity, who is equated with the soul of the Ainu land.  “A little bird flies to the cause of this affliction—the object of his affections. Word is brought to her of his deep-seated love and critical condition. The pretty little bird wags its tail and whispers in the lady’s ear that, if Okikurumi dies, the soul of Ainu-land will also depart. Therefore the bird begs her to have mercy upon poor Okikurumi for the sake of Ainuland.”–“The Legend of Okikurumi in Love” from Sacred Texts 

Okikurumi may have been a deified ancestral father of the Ainu who taught the Ainu many skills such as how to fell  trees rather than a creator deity…see Okikurumi

Burn baby burn! The Shinto inferno of Japan’s Dondo Yaki ceremony

Featured Image -- 10426


Fire rituals were likely transmitted by religious ascetics from Central Asia or Southeast Asia, the mayu balls have a counterpart in the traditions of the Southern Chinese who served them during birthdays and certain festivals to signify longlife and good health.

Originally posted on RocketNews24:

DY 5

When entering the grounds of a Shinto shrine in Japan, it’s customary to first stop by the water basin near the gate and rinse your hands, and sometimes your mouth, in order to cleanse them. Water isn’t the only classical element held to have purifying properties in Shintoism, though, since the same can be said about fire.

Obviously, worshippers aren’t called upon to put fire on their palms or inside their mouths. Instead, Shinto priests light pyres of charms and decorations during the Dondo Yaki ceremony, with the towering blazes regularly reaching 15 meters (49.2 feet) into the air.

View original 453 more words

Kumano’s Indian gods and tales, and the Japanized view of the Other World(s)


Kumano no honji emaki = The Legend of the Origin of Kumano, Shrine, Handscrolls, scroll 2; ink, color, and gold on paper ; 31.3 cm. Source: Digital Gallery, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Spencer Collection

Kumano no honji emaki (Picture Scroll of The Legend of the Origin of Kumano, Shrine), Handscrolls, scroll 2 scene 1; ink, color, and gold on paper ; 31.3 cm. Source: NYPL Digital Gallery, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Spencer Collection

The Kumano-no-Honji handscrolls are a set of three. The handscrolls belong to a genre of illustrated religious literature that describes the Buddhist origins of local Japanese deities (kami). The scroll recounts the genesis of the gods as Indian Buddhist royalty who experience treachery and persecution, fly to Japan, and apotheose as the deities of the Kumano Shrines.

Since prehistoric times until the present, the Kumano area has been regarded as a sacred, mystical abode of the gods and a place for miraculous healing. To read more about prehistoric nature worship and pre-medieval Kumano, see Descent of deities in the land of Kumano 

Reconstruction of a pilgrim procession

Reconstruction of a pilgrim procession

In the 11th century the Grand Shrines of Kumano Sanzan became a pilgrimage destination for the imperial family and aristocrats. By the late 15th century, the majority of pilgrims to Kumano were commoners. The Kumano Shrines are located in the Kii mountain range south of Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794. Three main shrines, are connected by a pilgrimage route, Shinto indigenous beliefs linked the Kumano region with the origin of the Japanese people. Buddhist missionaries later imagined the area of the shrines as the earthly paradise of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara (Kannon in Japanese), incorporating Buddhist beliefs and tales of Indian origin into the local religious landscape.

One of the most famous paths of the Heian period - the pilgrimage path leads from Yoshino, south of the ancient Nara capital, through Ōmine to Kumano. Source: Onmark Productions

One of the most famous paths from the Heian period – the pilgrimage path leads from Yoshino, south of the ancient Nara capital, through Ōmine to Kumano. Source: Onmark Productions

The Kumano Shrines were unusual in cultivating, rather than excluding, female pilgrims. Addressed to a largely female audience, this illustrated tale was one of the visual media used by Kumano nuns in their itinerant preaching to attract funds and pilgrimages to their shrines. According to Alison Tokita, the bikuni had a key role in disseminating the Buddhist oral tales and traditions: “Japan’s oral narrative performance practices, no longer extant, were often the preserve of itinerant women entertainers in the medieval era”. The handscroll ends by praising the miraculous benefits of pilgrimage. The calligraphic text translates: “If you once travel there, you will be protected from all afflicting boils and painful disasters. The ten evils and the five sins will vanish when you once set foot on that holy site. And peace, in this world and in the next, is guaranteed to whomever makes pilgrimage there.”

“Kumano bikuni, or the nuns of Kumano, were the female counterpart of etoki hoshi. Very little is known of their origins, but it may be assumed that these nuns, like most professionals with religious names, started their activities at a religious center. As their name suggests they were probably associated with the three sacred mountains of Kumano,  one of the most important centers of popular religion during the middle ages. In spite of the geographical isolation and the difficulty of the roads, Kumano attracted pilgrims in all walks of life, from the Emperor on down; a popular saying at the time likened the swarms to “ants on pilgrimage to Kumano” (ari no Kumano mairi)… and Tendai shodo priests from the Agui center in Kyoto included in their proselytizing texts their version of the origins of the divinities at Kumano.17 Much of this popularity was unquestionably due to the active missionary campaigns which the three shrines of Kumano had conducted at least as far back as the middle Heian period. Agents from these shrines toured the whole country seeking donations, and Kumano bikuni were no doubt among them…” (source: Barbara Ruch’s “Japan in the Muromachi Age“)

Seigantoji and Nachi falls. The great Kumano Sanzan complex also includes two Buddhist temples, Seiganto-ji and Fudarakusan-ji

Seigantoji and Nachi falls. The great Kumano Sanzan complex also includes two Buddhist temples, Seiganto-ji and Fudarakusan-ji

The following passage excerpt throws a great deal of light upon Medieval Japanese thought and worldviews, it is taken from Kazuhiko Komatsu’s chapter “The image of India in the Popular Literature of Japanese Medieval Period: with Special Reference to Pictorial Expressions in Otogizoshi Tales” from the book compilation of essays, “East Asian Literatures: Japanese, Chinese and Korean : an Interface with India

…Otogizoshi-tales flourished in Japan during the medieval period. India was known to Medieval Japan as the place where Buddhism and its originator, Shaka (Lord Buddha). As a result, proper nouns like India (Tenjiku) and names of places were found mostly in the Buddhist context.

The first story to be introduced in the is paper is called ‘ Kumano-no-Honji’. This is a story that traces the origin of the Gods in Kishu (presently Wakayama Prefecture in Japan) from India (Tenjiku) to Japan. The worship of Kumano Sanzan (Three Sacred Shrines of Kumano) was started in the imperial family of Kyoto and the nobilities after the mid-Heian Era and spread in the masses during the medieval period. Situated in the Kii Peninsula that lies to the South of Kyoto, the three shrines of Kumano Honsha, Kumano Shinha and Kumano Nachi Taisha were worshipped since olden times. They were not considered as one set right from the beginning, but were grouped up in course of time. They were worshipped and with the syncretism of Budhdism and Shintoism, the Gods from Kumano Sanzan were also provided with a Buddhist explanation.
‘Kumano-no-Honji’ is a story that has been created considering the confluence of Shintoism and Buddhism. “Honji” is a concept devised by Japanese Buddhists that explained the correlaton between Buddha and Japanese Gods (Kami). Japanese Gods (Kami) that existed in the soil of Japan before Buddhism arrived were considered to be reincarnations of Lord Buddha who came to salvage the masses. Thus, the explanation stressed that Kami was Buddha and Buddha was a reincarnation of Kami. However, following the popularization of the concept, ‘Honji’ was considered to be “A story that depicts how a human being, after undergoing various difficulties, was able to become Buddha due to the divine protection of Kami and Buddha”. Thus, ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ means “The story that explains how the Kumano Gods became Gods”.

There have been indications that ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ was originally written by propagators of the Kumano thought in order to spread the Kumano thought of worship. However, it became more of a fairy tale that had a germ of popular amusement in it, thus separating it from a religious context in the process of popularization. Thus, ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ is the story of the Gods of Kumano. However, the scene of the story is set at Magadha, a kingdom in central Tenjiku (India) and the characters are also Indian people. A brief outline of the story is given below:

Zenzai, the King of Magadha, situated in central India, had 1000 wives, but was not blessed by a son. Senko, a queen who lived in the Gosui palace, prayed to Goddesss Kannon-Bosatsu (Avalokiteshwara) in order to be blessed by the king’s affection. The Buddhist Goddess of mercy blessed her, and she conceived a baby on receiving the King’s affection. The King was overjoyed as he was able to have the long cherished Prince, but the other queens were jealous of Senko. They cast a charm on Queen Senko and brought an astrologer who gave a false prediction that the “child in Queen Senko’s womb will bring about the fall of the empire”. These plans failed , but the thousand queens disguised into witches and attached the King’s Gosui Palace, and the King left Queen Senko. The queens called the knights, forged a false royal order, and took Queen Senko into the deep forests of the mountain for execution. The Queen delivered a son just before being executed, who grew on the milk of his dead mother, protected by animals of the jungle.

When the prince was three years old, the Queen’s elder brother Chiken, who was a priest, entered the jungle and found out the prince. He took him to a monastery at the foothills of the mountain, educated him and planned a meeting of the father and son when the prince became seven years old. Soon the Queen was also brought to life by the magical powers of the priest; the lot of the queens was disclosed and all of them were punished. King Zenzai, along with Queen Senko, the prince, priest Chiken, and the retainers, decided to travel to Japan, rode on a vehicle that flew in the sky, reached Kumano in Japan and became the Gods of Kumano. The king is beleied to be the reincarnation of Amida Nyorai (Lord Amitabha), the Queen that of Kannon-Bosatsu (Goddess Avaokiteshwara) and priest Chiken of Yakushi-Nyorai (Bahasajhyaguru). It is said that Amida-Nyorai is worshipped as the Honji at the shrine of Kumano ongu, Kannon-Bosatsu at Kumano Shinu and Yakushi-Nyorai at Nachigu.

The brief outline of the story mentioned above shows that if the sentence “Zenzai, the king of Magadha stayed in central India…,” is not found at the beginning, it is hard to distinguish that the story takes place in India and the characters are people of India. It can also be mistaken as a story that has the Chinese or Japanese royal family as its main characters. This is because the actual story does not have any elements that would make the presence of ‘India’ felt in it.

What would be the situation if the illustrations that accompany this story are considered? Let us see the depiction of Tenjiku (India)given in ‘Kumano-no-Honji Emaki’ (The Picture Scroll of Kuma-no-Honji) which is preserved in the Kumata Shinto shrine.

Picture 1

Picture 1-A The Palace of King Zenzai, Kumano-no-Honji


Picture 1-A (shown above) shows the scene when the queens, disguised as witches, are annoying the King who has come to stay at the Gosui Palace where Queen Senko lived. King Zenzai and Queen Senko are surprised at the appearance of the witches. And Picture 1-B and Picture 1-C are the same scenes from another text of Kuma-no-Honji.

Their apparel of Picture 1 seems to be a mixture of Japanese and foreign (Chinese or Korean style) clothes. The palace architecture too, can be called as Japanese except for the use of red color paint that can be seen in one portion. This color can be called as an effort to distinguish the palace from the Japanese Palace. Picture 2 shows the scene when Queen Senko is taken away by the knights for decapitation. The weapon of the soldiers have somewhat foreign shapes, but their appearance is more or less similar to Japanese soldiers.

In other words, it can be said that India’s image depicted in these pictures is more of a mixture of Japanese and Chinese imagination of India. If we consider this as reality, then that would mean that the medieval Japanese were not able ot form a concrete image of India. It was an image that was neither Chinese nor Japanese – and of course completely different from reality –an image of country that medieval Japanese called as ‘India’.
The Concept of ‘The Other World’ in Japan

Here, I would like to deliberate from a different perspective on the pictorial depiction of the foreign style palace architecture and costumes. The image of India seen in the aforesaid story of ‘ Kumano-no-Honji’ seems to originate from a blend of Japanese and Chinese architecture and clothing. However, this blending does not stop at the image of India only, but continues further a a broader image that was common in the depiction of ‘The Other World’ by medieval Japanese.

The ‘Other World’ means a world that is on the other side of the everyday world of living beings. Beyond the day-today world, the Japanese have been imagining a world where Gods and goblins live. For example, they believed that there was a world above the sky that differed from the human world. At the same time, there existed worlds in the mountains, under water, on the other side of the sea, underground and even after death, a country (kingdom) of the dead existed for them. These worlds were even depicted in paintings throughout.

The ‘Picture Scroll of Amewakahiko Monogatari’ depicts one of Otogizoshi-tales that deals with royal palaces in the heavens. Amewakahiko was the son of the King of the world above the skies and the story is as follows.

Amewakahiko goes to the human world in the form of a snake and asks a princess to marry him, after which he changes into a beautiful youth and appears in front of her. Both of them do spend the married life together, but Amewakahiko soon goes back to the skies. The princess who loves her husband follows him to the celestial world, goes through various tests that his father gives and finally there is a reunion.

When we have a look at the illustration that depicts the royal palace of the celestial world, the architecture is of Chinese style (Picture 3), and the King in the Palace (Amewakahiko’s Father) is shown as a scary demon (Picture 4).
I would like to deliberate slightly on the point that the royal palace of the celestial world is ‘Chinese -styled’. It seems that when it came to depiction of a world without human beings, the medieval Japanese were not able to imagine it independent of the image of Chines, which was a country that had a lot of cultural interaction with Japan since ancient times.

The ‘Picture Scroll of Oeyama Shuten-Doji’ is a piece that depicts the royal palace in deep mountains (Oeyama). The king of this palace is also a demon as in the earlier story. The story is as follows:

In the deep recesses of Oeyama, situated in northwest of Kyoto, a group of demons had their palace and a demon called Shuten-Doji was their chief . These demons would frequently appear in the capital of Kyoto and attack princesses and women of the royal families. The Emperor sends a general called Minamotono Raiko, who completely exterminates the menace of demons and is welcomed back to the capital after his triumph. The Picture 5-A and Picture 5-B are the same scenes from another text of ‘Picture Scroll of Oeyama Shuten-Doji’. The palace in either text is Chinese- styled.

‘Momotaro’, another famous Japanese fairy tale also has a similar scene of extermination of demons, which had a castle similar to that of Shuten Doji.

The works that depict Water World (World of Dragon King) include picture scrolls of ‘Urashima Myojin (Urashima Taro’) (Picture 6, Picture 7), ‘Tawarano Tota’ (Picture 8, Picture 9), and ‘Hikohohodemino Mikoto’ (Picture 10). The story of ‘Urashima Myojin’ is given below:

Urashima, a fisherman who saves a turtle, is guided to the Dragon Kingdom by the turtle. He marries and settles there, but is reminded of his hometown after enjoying for some time and begs to return to his hometown to spend some time. He is given a small treasure chest as a souvenir and is told that he should not open it. When Urashima returns to his hometown he finds out that a few centuries have passed and the world has changed. A sad Urashima opens the treasure chest. As soon as he does this, a cloud of smoke arises from the chest and Urashima turns into an old man.

If we see the pictorial depiction of the Dragon Palace that is described in this story, it is identical to that of ‘Amewakahiko’s Story’ or to Oeyama Shuten-Doji’, i.e. Chinese styled architecture and the residents of the palaces are people who are wearing Chinese style clothes. ‘Tawarano Tota’ is again a story of the hero saving the serpent (An Apparition from the Dragon World) and in turn being taken to the Dragon world, there he experiences the warm hospitality of the Dragon King and returns laden with gifts. However, the image of the palace in this story is still centered on the Chinese image.

And what would be the world after death? Somehow, Japan has many pictures of Hell that depict the world after death. The enshrined deity of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto is supposed to have existed in reality. ‘The Charm of Kitano Tenjin’, a tale that describes the origin of this shrine says that Sugawarano Michizane was enshrined in this shrine as God in order to pacify his revengeful ghost. The smae story has an illustration depicting the Emperor suffering in Hell as he died of Michizane’s curse. The Master of Hell is God Yama, and his palace too is depicted as a Chinese-styled one (Picture 11, Picture 12).

There is a distinct similarity in all these pictorial depictions and the illustrations provided in the story of ‘Kumano-no-Honji’. India, for the medieval Japanese, was a distant country–a different world altogether almost like the Celestial World or the Water World.

The Image of India found in ‘Shaka-no-Honji’

I will introduce another piece from the genre of fairy tales. It is a story called ‘Shaka-no-Honji’. there are numerous works in Japan that include anecdotes about Shaka (Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, also known as Shakuson or Shakyamuni) and references to His biography that is known as ‘ Butsuden’ in Japan. These tales were already popular in the masses in India, Chines, Korea and Japan, and were even converted into illustrated stories. The Buddhist biographical scriptures that the ancient Japanese used were mainly those written in Chinese and even they were introduced as illustrated biographies. ‘Eingakyo( (Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect) is one of the most famous ancient works that was imported to Japan in the Nara Period (8th century AD).

Butsuden assumed significance among the believers of Buddhism as is mentioned in the first volumes of Konjau-Monogatarishu and Shiju-Hyaku-Innenshu, Setsuwa collections of medieval Japanese literature. Otogizoshi-Tales, which are a form of popular literature, were influenced by this trend and ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ Otogizoshi-Tales in a single-novel form, was created. A brief outline of the story of ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ is given below:

King Jobon, who lived in a castle named Kabira in India, did not have a son even at the age of 50. He got a prediction made about the way to obtain a son. As per the prediction, he invited Maya Bunin from the heaven to be his queen. She conceived the child in her sleep, and the baby was born. Buddha had come riding on a white elephant and entered the womb from the right side of her stomach.

However, the mother died seven days after the birth of the baby and it was brought up by its aunt. At the age of seven, when the child saw a small bird bring up a chick, he got to know that he did not have a mother and felt a strong urge to become a priest and attain Buddhahood. On hearing this, the King invited 500 astrologers to predict the Prince’s future, out of which 499 predicted that he would become a king, except for one who predicted that he would become a priest shunning all pleasures and strive for the salvation of all living creatures. The King still tried to persuade the prince and built a beautiful garden — Garden of Four Seasons –that would in full bloom throughout the year.

But when the Prince was enjoying his life in the garden, he met an old person who became ill and died as the time passed. The Prince was deeply moved on seeing the cremation of the old man who ultimately turned into bones and ashes. He visited a monk and felt futility of the human world after discussion with him. He told his father about his intentions to renounce the worldly pleasures. The King tried to persuade him by marrying him to the famous beautiful princess called Yashudara, who was his minster’s daughter. However, the minster put forth a condition that whoever wanted to marry his daughter had to piere seven iron targets by his arrow. Many suitors participated in the competition amongst which King Jobon’s nephew, Debadata, pierced five targets, but as the Prince’s arrow went through all seven, he got the beautiful princess in marriage. But as the Prince still had a very strong aspiration for Buddhahood, the Princess was unhappy. When the King promised the Prince that he would allow him to enter priesthood only when he got a son, he pointed at the Princess’ stomach and she conceived a child. At the age of 19, the Prince headed toward Mount Dantoku, leaving his palace behind. He met a saint (Saint Ararakarara), became a monk and continued penance for 12 years under his guidance.

After that, he was given the Lotus Sutra and was told to go back and preach it at the foothills of Mount Kaya in the kingdom of Magadha. He became Shaka Muni at the age of 30 years. Devils started disturbing his penitence over there. After attaining Buddhahood, he met Shudatsu the millionaire who built the Gion Monastery for him. At the age of 80, his forehead showed a ray of light. He told his disciples that the time for his Nirvana had arrived and attained Nirvana in the night.

As the story of Shaka-no-Honji’ is the biography of Lord Buddha, many Japanese know that the story is based on an Indian background. However, the understanding of the contents was done through a filter of ‘ Japanese Culture’. In other words, the story was adapted in such a way that if the names of characters and places are changed in to Japanese names, it would become a story of a Japanese Prince who is in search of Truth and Realization.

The outline of this story of ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ is based upon Buddhist Scriptures from China. A similar outline can be seen in Buddha’s biography depicted in the wall paintings at Dunhuang in China. In that sense, ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ can be called as the Japanese versions of Buddha’s biography from China. The Castle of Kabira is Kailavastu in Nepal, King Joubon is Shuddhodhan, his Queen Maya Bujin is Goddess Maya, Buddha’s wife Yashudara Yashodhara and Debadata is Devadatta. The names have been quite similar to the original Sanskrit names as they were assigned Chinese characters considering their meaning and pronunciation.

Let us see the pictorial depiction of Shaka and his Royal Palace as depicted in ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ which is preserved in Kotohira Shinto shrine. At a glance we can understand that the depiction is almost similar to those images of ‘The Other World’ that we have seen so far, i.e. Chinese styled palaces with people wearing Chinese styled clothing (Picture 13, Picture 14). The story of ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ is an important piece of knowledge for the Buddhists and was passed on through various mediums. For example, the ‘Depiction of Buddha’s Nirvana’, a painting that depicts the scene of Buddha’s death, was painted as wall paintings in temples and also used as hanging scrolls. Even the ‘Painting of Eight Scenes’ that depicts eight major scenes selected from Buddha’s life was often drawn.
In spite of this, Buddha’s story and India’s image were already depicted in China in the Chinese manner. They were adapted in such a way that it suited the Japanese context and were depicted in an increasingly Japanized manner.

These concepts were visualized on the basis of the Cosmology of the Japanese people of those days, that is ‘ The Other World’. Nothing could really broaden the image of India more than that of being a far off land where Buddhism was born. Thus the images of ‘The other World’ and India found in the fairy tales were drawn with the help of images of China, the sole neighbouring country whose reliable knowledge was available.

Thus I would like to put forth some simple conclusions through this paper. Medieval Japanese painters, who were asked to draw illustrations for fairy tales, particularly those having India as their background, tried to depict buildings, hair styles and costumes of characters with reference to the paintings drawn on the ‘Other World’. Moreover they tried to evolve an image that was all much more India, or rather all the more unworldly, there is an impression that they must have visited temples and referred to Chinese traditional paintings, Buddhist paintings or illustrations from Buddha’s biography.

However, no matter how hard they tried to give it an Indian look to emphasize the exotic features , they could not come out of the impressions of the famous Chinese style paintings (including Korean style as well). Moreover, if you see the chronology of illustrated fairy tale stories with India in it – perhaps that would be because Modern Japan had closed its doors for outsiders – it seems that the imagination about India gradually turned into Japanese style images with the passage of time. It was not until the modern times when a lot of information about India reached Japan that there was change in the Japanese image of India. It started from a change in the name – ‘Tenjiku’ became ‘Indo ‘ (India). It seems that until that time, India’s image visualized by the Japanese people could not shake itself off from the eclectic image that was a blend of the Chinese and the Japanese style images.”


Further reading:

Kumano Sanzan

Communing with nature in Kumano’s land of ancient gods (Japan Times, Jan 11, 2014)

TOKITA, Alison, “Performance and Text: Gender Identity and the Kumano Faith“, Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 16, March 2008

Ikumi Kaminishi. Explaining Pictures: Buddhist Propaganda and Etoki Storytelling in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. x + 284 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-2697-0. Reviewed by Monika Dix here

For those interested in Heavenly Hiking: Exploring Japan’s abode of the gods via the Kumano Kodo by Daniel Allen

Map of Kii Peninsula. Source. Higashi-Kishu IT Community, 'The variety of Kumano Kodo,' in Kumano Kodo "Ise-ji route": What is Kumano Kodo, 2004, online:

Map of Kii Peninsula. Source. Higashi-Kishu IT Community, ‘The variety of Kumano Kodo,’ in Kumano Kodo “Ise-ji route”: What is Kumano Kodo, 2004, online:


An excellent opportunity to examine and study the Art of Hiten (celestial beings) should not be missed…at the Suntory Museum from November 23rd (Sat.), 2013 to January 13th (Mon.), 2014

Suntory Exhibition: In commemoration of the completion of the Heisei renovations to the Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Celestial Dance: The Art of Hiten

National Treasure Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds South figure 1 Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1) Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

National Treasure
Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds South figure 1
Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1)
Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

1.Origins and Transmission: From India to Japan

Hiten are essentially celestial beings classified at the highest level of the realms of karmic existence known in Buddhist belief as the Six Paths. Since celestial beings are able to float in mid-air, in the Buddha realm they soar overhead and scatter flowers, playing musical instruments, burning incense, and otherwise exalting the enlightened beings. It is in this capacity that images of Hiten have accompanied depictions of Buddhas from the birthplace of Buddhism in India, through Central Asia, to China and its Western Regions. Each place engendered its own particular style of expression: In Gandhara they were influenced by Western Hellenism. In China and its Western Regions they were melded with indigenous traditions and magnificently adorned the walls of temple grottoes. Thus, Hiten advanced on a grand, continental scale along the axis of the Silk Road, eventually making their way to Japan, even while retaining components from distant Europe. This section traces one segment of the development of the Hiten form through a small but revealing selection of examples from regions from India to China. Upon reaching Japan, they exhibit a diversity of forms that reflects this evolutionary path. Of these, the former wall paintings from the Horyu-ji Main Hall inner sanctuary (No. 21) and the East Pagoda finial from Yakushi-ji (No. 25) are celebrated as classic examples illustrating what one might imagine to be the prototypical form of Hiten.



Relief carving of scenes from the life of Buddha:“The Temptation of Buddha by Mara,”“Subjugating the Demons and Achieving Enlightenment,” “The First Sermon”
Gandhara, 2nd-3rd century
Ryukoku University

Buddha Triad (uncovered from the Kawara-dera temple site) Asuka period, 7th century  Asukamura Board of Education

Buddha Triad (uncovered from the Kawara-dera temple site)
Asuka period, 7th century
Asukamura Board of Education

2. Scenes of the Heavenly Realm: From Images of the Pure Land to Ornamentation

The Buddhist sutras recount that not only Hiten, but also figures such as sacred Karyubinga and Gumyochobirds also dance in his honor, while the trees and earth of the Paradise glitter with the Seven Treasures. These are just some of the many ways that the wondrousness of the Buddha realm is expounded. Scenes of this heavenly world are illustrated in Pure Land paintings, through which it is possible to see in concrete form the ideal paradise to which the people of the times aspired. At the same time, sculptural images of Hiten, dancing bodhisattvas and other figures, jeweled canopies, glowing nimbuses, and the various decorative ornaments adorning the icons were not only fitting accoutrements for the Buddha; they also served as three-dimensional expressions of the Pure Land in our own world. This section examines the landscape of the Pure Land world, starting with painted depictions of the Western Paradise and continuing with examples of groupings of bodhisattvas, Karyobinga and Gumyocho birds, and other beings that worshipped the Buddha with the Hiten. The Hiten-covered nimbuses and pataka banners, keman ornaments, and other sacred adornments can further be seen as a means of expressing and recreating the scenery of the Pure Land in the present world. Through works such as the banner cap(No. 53), keman sanctuary ornament (No. 54) that are said to have decorated the Konjikido Golden Hall of Chuson-ji, the resplendent heavenly world idealized by the people of the time, will surely take shape before your very eyes.


National Treasure Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments Heian period, 11th century Nara National Museum

National Treasure
Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments
Heian period, 11th century
Nara National Museum

3. Development of the Hiten: Divine Attendants of the Amida’s Descent

By the latter half of the Heian period, the deeply held desire to be reborn into paradise brought about the rapid spread of belief in a “coming of Amida” in which the Amida Nyorai and various sublime bodhisattva attendants descended to this world to receive a person into the Pure Land paradise on his deathbed. This belief inspired paintings and sculptures depicting the descent of Amida attended by bodhisattvas. Their brilliant dancing and exquisite music-filled figures surely gave strength to those who hoped to be reborn and at the same time served as assurance of the pleasures of rebirth into the next life. The Hiten and bodhisattvas, which originally should have supposedly been different kinds of beings in the Pure Land, both worshipped and served the Nyorai and both drifted through the air on floating clouds, grew more and more alike. Hiten also evolved into members of Amida’s entourage along with the bodhisattva attendants and took after the 25 bodhisattvas that were believed to accompany Amida in his descent to welcome the spirits of the dead. In addition, the clouds that had long been associated with Hiten became a convention for expressing movement through space. This section follows the development of the image of the Hiten through paintings of Amida’s descent as well as through sculptural representations

National Treasure Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments Heian period, 11th century Nara National Museum

Important cultural property Descent of Amida with twenty-five bodhhisattvas Kamakura period, 13th -14th century
Fukushima Museum

4. The Byodo-in Phoenix Hall: The World of the Pure Land Paradise and Dancing Hiten

Built in 1053, the National Treasure Phoenix Hall of Byodo-in, together with its gardens, has as a whole been celebrated since the Heian period as an Amida Hall that replicates the Pure Land paradise. Framed by architectural elements echoing the pagodas depicted in Pure Land paintings, the figure of Amida Nyorai is enshrined atop a dais that was once bedecked with mother-of-pearl, and covered by a double canopy patterned with magnificent Hosoge flowers. The surrounding doors and pillars are painted with images of the Nine Levels of Rebirth in the Pure Land replete with dancing bodhisattvas, and on the small wall above the horizontal top beam are carved figures of worshipping bodhisattvas on clouds in various forms of dance and playing musical instruments. Figures of Hiten are also fitted onto the nimbus behind the principal Buddha image, creating an interior space overflowing with images of Hiten that surround a central Amida Nyorai figure in a display truly befitting of a sacred Buddhist space. In special tribute to the completion of the restoration of the Phoenix Hall for the first time in nearly a half-century, this section presents all fourteen figures from the National Treasure Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds (No. 70) as well as the National Treasure Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai (No. 69) which adorn the nimbus of the principal image and are being shown outside the temple grounds for the first time ever. These Buddhist images and the resplendent hall interior resulting from the recent restoration work can be considered the crystallization of the Japanese interpretation of the Pure Land and Hiten that were transmitted along the Silk Road, demonstrating a maturity of form that historical records have termed a “solemnity of Buddha statuary unparalleled in all history.”

National Treasure Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai South figure 4 Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1) Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

National Treasure
Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai South figure 4
Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1)
Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto



Amida’s descent upon clouds, celestial beings, and the use of cloud motif – an artistic convention

Cloudsoul, chinkonsai, soul-binding, soul-summoning and soul-shaking practices – origins and theories

Emperor  the Raifuku (outer robe) of the ceremonial court costume of the emperor. This ceremonial court costume originates in the Nara-period (710-784) when the court-ceremonials were designed

The Raifuku (outer robe) of the ceremonial court costume of the Emperor Komei(r. 1846-1866). Cloud-mountain peak motif seen across the middle. This ceremonial court costume originates in the Nara-period (710-784) Imperial Collections of Japan  Source: Japanese Symbols of Government

From our previous post “Ainu cloud motif and their creation myth of deity’s descent on five-colored cloud“, we traced the use of the cloud motif and symbolism in conjunction with deities or divinities, ancestors, sages and heroes to their early use both in art and in concepts in genealogies and myths of the peoples of the Northeast Eurasia or Far East.

From Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority” by David T. Bialock, comes an understanding of the origin of the “chinkon” and tama “cloudsoul” concept and the rites, and the purpose behind it and the cosmological framework that surrounded it:

Although Nihon shoki’s entry on Temmu’s rite is regarded as the earliest extant mention of the chinkon (spirit pacification), the graphs glossed as “mitama-furi” in the text are actually shokon, also read tama-yobai (“soul-summoning”). The conventional chinkon reading of the passage together with its vernacular gloss “mitama-furi” probably dates from a commentarial tradition transmitted by the Urabe lineage. Thus, according to a secret kun-reading given in the twenty-first scroll of the Shaku nihongi, the graphs were intended to be read “mitama-furi,” a ritual elsewhere represented in Shaku nihongi by the graphs chinkonsia. This eading of the graphs, now well established, was also argued for by Ban Nobutomo in his classic study Chinkon den, where he noted that the phrase “should be recorded as , but one can surmise that it was written in conformance with the usual Chinese practice.”51
… turn to some descriptions of the chinkon rite in the law codes and their commentaries, which have been the basis for most attempts to construct its ancient ritual function. These include the Taiho Code o 701 (extant only fragmentarily in the later Yoro Code), the Ryo no shuge (selected in 833), and the Ryo no guge (selected prior to 868). According to the Taiho Code , the chinkonsai was held in midwinter in the Eleventh Month on a tora no hi (days o f the tiger), and followed by the daijosai on a u no hi (day of the rabbit), a period that coincided with the winter solstice. In Chinese yin-yang five agents thought, both of these days were identified with the agent wood (the beginning of the cycle), which corresponded to the direction east and the season spring. Both the month and days were a time when the positive yang pneumas were believed to mount upward and all things were held to be in a state of movement. It was thus an ideal time for intiating activities such as royal accessions. 52
turning to some actual definitions of the chinkon rite, we find the following explanation in the Ryo no gige under the heading chinkon: “The graph means to pacify. A person’s yang spirit (yoki) is called soul (tama). The tama moves about, meaning one summons back the tama that wanders about in a state of separation and pacifies it inside the body (literally “bowels”.] Therefore it is named “chinkon” (to pacify the soul), another definition from the Ryo no shuge contains some additional details: A person’s yang spirit is called ‘kon’ it moves about. A person’s yin spirit is called ‘haku’ it is white. Therefore one calls back the white soul wandering about in a state of separation and causes it to be pacified inside the bowels. Therefore it is called chinkon.
The exact source for the ideas contained in these descriptions remains uncertain, but the language recalls ancient Chinese ideas about the fate of the soul after death. According to the Li ji: the yang qi of the “cloudsoul” (hun) rises up to the sky (tian) after death, whereas the yin or dark elements associated with the body or “whitesoul” (po) return to the earth. 55 Another passage in the Li Ji , on the rites of mourning , speaks of summoning back the cloudsoul and returning it to the body (po)56. It was under the influence of such commentaries, according to Watanabe Katsuyoshi, that modern scholars developed the idea of a “soul that wanders about in separation from its body” and interpreted chinkon as a rite primarily aimed at preventing such separation by placating the “tama” and thereby obviating the illness and death that were held to result from such separation57.
The yin-yang five agents principles and the related concept of “qi” which informed the ritual setting (temporal and geomantic) of the chinkonsai and the descriptive language of the law doctors, were fundamental, of course to Chinese philosophical thought. In Daoism, the induction of qi into the body and its proper regulation became one of the basic practices for achieving longevity, a central concern of later Daoist literature, as in Xiang’er’s commentary on the Daodejing, which also functioned as a guide to the enlightened ruler.58 thus in Bokenkamp’s paraphrase of one Xiang’er passage “the pneumas of morning and evening should be caused to descend into the human body , where they should be mixed with the body’s own pneumas so that they are evenly distributed throughout.” On the other hand, this time citing directly from the Xiang’er “When the heart produced ill-omened and evil conduct, the Dao departs, leaving the sack (belly) empty. Once it is empty, deviance enters, killing the person.”60 As these citations make clear, the principle of balacning and harmonizeing qu was of paramoutn importanecce; deviancce” (xie) on the other hand, arose from a a failure ot achieve a proper balacne or mixing o pnemas resulting in illlness and death. … The emphasis in the Xiang’er passage on the belly, for example, recalls what Watanabe characterizes as the peculiar language of the law commentaries where the aim of the rite was to draw the erring “tama” back into the “bowel“.  A related notion found in the Chuxue ji, a Tang period encyclopedia compiled at the order of Emperor Xuangzong (r. 712-756), states that on the winter solstice the yang qi is restored to the belly and hot things placed in qi are easily digested.61 If this Daoist medical advice offers a parallel to the ideas of the law doctors in their attempts to describe the chinkon rite, recipes for the production of immortality elixirs provide a suggestive context for understanding the relationship between the medicinal herb and Temmu’s spirit-summoning rite. An entry from scroll seventy-seven on “elixirs” in Yunqi qiqian (Seven Lots from the Satchel of the Clouds), an encyclopedia of older Daoist texts and extracts compiled under the Northern Song, describes a life-extending elixir called lingwan that allows one to “pacify the cloud souls, coagulate the white souls, and fly off into the seventy-four directions,” and in another passage “to sport about on the Five Mountain Peaks.” Not least interesting here is the combination of graphs chinkon, “pacify the cloud souls”) the same two graphs that are used for the Japanese chinkon or “mitama-furi” rite.  Another entry from the Inner Transmission of the Purple Sun Master (Ziyang zhenren neichuan, 399), collected in scroll 106 of the Yunji qiqian, relates that the consumption of zhu over a period of five years–the same medicinal herb ingested by Temmu–produces a glow in the body, gives one a vision that can see right through to the five viscera, and enables one to become an immortal.

By now it should be evident that Temmu’s ingestion of the herb hakuchi cannot be fully accounted for by a straitforward medical reading. The calendrical and yin-yang principles that informed its consumption and the accompanying shokon rite belonged to the same sphere of symbolic activity that would soon be housed in the Yin-Yang bureau and Medical bureau and as the following notice from Jito’s chronicle makes clear: “The Yin-yang Doctors, the priest (shoshi) Hozo and Doki, received twenty of ryo of silver.”64 The date of this third reference to Hozo, just prior to the establishment of the official Yin-Yang Bureau, indicates that he was one of than important group of technical experts who mediated the cultural assemblage transmitted from  the continent. Although the ingestion of the herb zhu (hakuchi) and its efficacy as both a medicinal and immortality elixir are well documented in Daoist lore and herbals the practice seems to have especially flourished in the period of the Southern dynasties (420-589) when Tao Hongjing composed his herbal and Daoist works.65  It can be assumed that Hozo, a Paekche immigrant would have been knowledgeable about this tradition–its influence having reached the Korean kingdom–as well as conversant with practices from Tao honjing’s region that were outside the written transmission.66  In the early Tang work Qianjinyaogang (Essential Prescriptions Worth a hundred Weight in Gold), composed by the Daoist master and physician Sun Simiao (d. 682) sometimes between 650 and 658. Predating the Tang medical reforms , this text transmitted a tradition very close to the earlier Southern dynasties ‘ tradition and contained detailed discussions on the preparation of zhu and its capacity to harmonize in accord with yin-yang five agents principles.67

The cosmological theory of resonance, much of which is recorded in the Gogyo taigi that reached Japan no later than the end of the seventh century invests Temmu’s ingestion of the elixir and the shokon rite with its reliopolitical significance. Held in the Eleventh Month on a a tora no hi (day of the tiger), the rite’s timing corresponded to the agent wood and the direction east. In Daoist medical lore pertaining to the five viscera, the cloudsoul (kon) resided in the liver (kan), which was identified with the element wood and controlled the eyes, hair, nail, and muscles. The liver was also known as the Office of the General, the faculty responsible for wise counsel; and its element wood was identified with “virtue” (jin) that actifies the myriad things making its analogous to the ruler.68 According to another text cited in Gogyo taigi, The lineage of Thearchs (DIXI pu), “Heaven and earth first arose, then generated the Heavenly Thearch (tenno) who rules through the virtue wood,” a formulation that derives from the symbolism of the hexagram zhen, identified variously with lightning, the dragon and the dark springs. The Yijing states that the thearch and myriad things arise from zhen, with zhen identified with the direction east.69 Although these correspondences add weight to the medical aim of this  hybrid rite, they do so by locating Temmu at the center of a radiating cosmological order, which gains additional significance because the rite took place at a critical juncture when the tenno was being newly adopted as a title of authority.70

The belief of musubi – binding the soul to keep it from wandering off (see also The symbolism of knots and Frazer on the separable external soul)

During the Chinkonsai,

“The chief officiant counts eight times from one to ten, knotting the yufu each time. By tying knots in this symbol of the emperor’s life span, the officiant keeps his tama from slipping away. the eight times and eight knots refer to the eight musubi (binding) tama of deities.
As one can see by these examples, the mitamashizume or chinkon-sai was a ritual means to fix the emperor’s tama so that it would not leave his body. the ancient Japanese greatly feared wandering tama and made the utmost efforts to affix them. A similar ceremony is still being carried out secretly each year at the Isonokami shrine (Renri City, Nara prefecture). This ritual may have to do partly with the Kyujiki, a text which gives much more importance to the Mononobe clan whose ancestral deity is enshrined at Isonokami, than the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki.
Such tamafuri and tamashizume rituals were often popularly called iki-bon, the Bon of living spirits. the Buddhist Urabon festival of late summer, however, a festival primarily concerned with the souls of the dead, has now superseded in importance this ceremony for the souls of the living.”

Source: Rethinking Japan Vol 1.: Literature, Visual Arts & Linguistics (by Adriana Boscaro, Franco Gatti, Massimo Raveri)

The Taoist concept of soul summoning may have been transmitted via Korean immigrants, or directly by Chinese immigrants, or both.

A celestial being on a cloud motif seen on a bronze bell of the Korean kingdom Silla. c. 833  Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

A celestial being on a cloud motif seen on an ancient bronze bell of the Korean kingdom Silla. c. 833 Photo source: Imperial Japanese Commission to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition: Japanese Temples and their Treasures (The Shimbi Shoin 1915) Wikimedia Commons


Chinkon rituals of “shaking the soul”

From Ze’ev Erlich’s Torifune and tama furi:

TAMA FURI/ Furitama-no-Gyo
Tama(soul) Furi (shake) basic meaning is the self Chin-kon and relates directly to the furube-no-kamu-waza of Chinkon Saho.
Furitama ( Soul Shaking)
1. Stand with your legs apart about shoulder width .
2. Place your hands together with the right hand over the left. Leave space between them big enough for an imaginary ping pong ball.
3. Place your hands in that position in front of your stomach and 0shake them vigorously up and down.
4. While shaking them concentrate and repeat the words: Harae-do-no-Okami – an invocation to the kami of the place of harai.
The Object Furitama-no-gyo
The purpose of shaking the soul is to generate awareness of it within yourself. Kon, (the soul), in Shinto, is one of the four important elements along with Mei (life), Rei (spirit) and Ki (which means Spirit in its causal aspect – Ki is a kind of energy source). Kon is the most important of the four since human beings can also be described as Waketama (separated individual souls), which is another way of saying “children of the kami”.

In Chinese art, an ancient cloud “meander” motif is related to the Hun and Po concepts of the afterlife. The cloud is a commonly seen design and when repeated in a pattern symbolizes never-ending fortune.

Clouds, sometimes referred to as “auspicious clouds” (xiangyun 祥云), represent the heavens and also “good luck” because the Chinese word for cloud (yun 云) is pronounced the same as yun (运) meaning “luck” or “fortune”. Auspicious clouds may be seen on coins and charms or amulets.

The cloud motif or form often resembles the auspicious shape of the lingzhi “fungus of immortality”. These are concepts that are related to thunder and the ability to call down rain, and also closely related to dragon and star symbolism.  (Source: The Hidden or Implied Meaning of Chinese Charm Symbols)


Theories on the Taoist concepts of Hun and Po souls

Chinese Taoist or daoist texts

Hun controls yang spirits in the body,
Po controls yin spirits in the body,
all are made of qi.
Hun is responsible for all formless consciousness,
including the three treasures: jing, qi and shen.
Po is responsible for all tangible consciousness,
including the seven apertures: two eyes, two ears, two nose holes, mouth.
Therefore, we call them 3-Hun and 7-Po.

Master Hu continues with an elaboration of these dynamics; and ends by pointing out that, like all of cyclic existence, the relationship between Hun and Po is a seemingly “endless cycle,” which is transcended “only by the achieved,” i.e. by the Immortals (in their transcendence of all duality):

He Yin-Yang’s Framework For Understanding Hun & Po

Another way of understanding Hun and Po is as an expression of Yin and Yang. As Twicken points out, the Yin-Yang framework is the foundational model of Chinese metaphysics. In other words: it is in understanding how Yin and Yang relate to one another (as mutually-arising and inter-dependent) that we can understand how — from a Taoist perspective — all pairs of opposites “dance” together, as not-two and not-one: appearing without actually “existing” as permanent, fixed “entities.”

In this way of viewing things, Po is associated with Yin. It is the more dense or physical of the two “spirits,” and is known also as the “corporeal soul,” since it returns to earth — dissolving into gross elements — at time of the time of the death of the body.

Hun, on the other hand, is associated with Yang, since it is the more light or subtle of the two “spirits.” It’s known also as the “ethereal soul,” and at the time of death leaves body to merge into more subtle realms of existence.

In the process of Taoist cultivation, the practitioner seeks to harmonize the Hun and Po, in a way which gradually allows the Po (the more dense) aspects to more and more fully support the Hun (the more subtle) aspects. The outcome of this kind of refinement process is the manifestation of a way-of-being and way-of-perceiving known by Taoist practitioners as “Heaven on Earth.”

Staying & Moving In The Mahamudra Tradition

In the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition (associated primarily with the Kagyu lineage), a distinction is drawn between the “staying” and the “moving” aspects of mind.

The “staying” aspect of mind refers more-or-less to what is sometimes also called the “witnessing” capacity. It is the perspective from which the arising and dissolving of various phenomena (thoughts, sensations, perceptions) is observed. It is the aspect of mind which has the capacity to remain (and is quite naturally) “continuously present,” and unaffected by the “objects” or “events” that arise within it.

The “moving” aspect of mind refers to the various appearances which — like waves on an ocean — arise and dissolve. These are the “objects” and “events” that seem (at least initially) to have a space/time duration: an arising, an abiding, and a dissolution. As such, they seem to undergo change or transformation — in opposition to the “staying” aspect of mind, which is unchanging.

A Mahamudra practitioner trains, first, in the capacity to toggle back and forth between these two (“staying” and “moving”) perspectives (known also as the “mind-perspective” and the “event-perspective”). And then, eventually, to experience them as simultaneously-arising and indistinguishable (i.e. nondual) — in the way that waves and ocean, as water, actually are mutually-arising and indistinguishable.

Taoism Meets Mahamudra, For A Cup Of Tea

The resolution of the moving/staying polarity, I would suggest, is basically equivalent (or at least opens the way for) the transcending of what Master Hu refers to as the tangible-consciousness/formless-consciousness polarity; and the absorption of the more densely-vibrating Po into the more subtle Hun.

Or, to put it another way: the corporeal Po “serves” the ethereal Hun — in Taoist cultivation — to the extent that mind’s appearances become self-aware, i.e. conscious of their source & destination in/as the Hun — like waves becoming conscious of their essential nature as water.

Source: Hun and Po

Hun (ChinesepinyinhúnWade–Gileshun; literally: “cloud-soul”) and po (ChinesepinyinWade–Gilesp’o; literally: “white-soul”) are types of souls in Chinese philosophy and traditional religion. Within this ancient soul dualism tradition, every living human has both a hunspiritual, ethereal, yang soul which leaves the body after death, and also a po corporeal, substantive, yin soul which remains with the corpse of the deceased. Some controversy exists over the number of souls in a person; for instance, one of the traditions within Daoism proposes a soul structure of sanhunqipo 三魂七魄; that is, “three hun and seven po“. The historian Yü Ying-shih describes hun and po as “two pivotal concepts that have been, and remain today, the key to understanding Chinese views of the human soul and the afterlife.”[1]

The Chinese characters 魂 and 魄 for hun and po typify the most common character classification of “radical-phonetic” or “phono-semantic” graphs, which combine a “radical” or “signific” (recurring graphic elements that roughly provide semantic information) with a “phonetic” (suggesting ancient pronunciation). Hun  (or 䰟) and po  have the “ghost radical” gui  “ghost; devil” and phonetics of yun  “cloud; cloudy” and bai  “white; clear; pure”.

Besides the common meaning of “a soul”, po 魄 was a variant Chinese character for po  “a lunar phase” and po  “dregs”. The Shujing “Book of History” used po 魄 as a graphic variant for po 霸 “dark aspect of the moon” – this character usually means ba 霸 “overlord; hegemon”. For example, “On the third month, when (the growth phase, 生魄) of the moon began to wane, the duke of Chow [i.e., Duke of Zhou] commenced the foundations, and proceeded to build the new great city of Lǒ” (tr. Legge 1865:434). The Zhuangzi “[Writings of] Master Zhuang” wrote zaopo 糟粕 (lit. “rotten dregs”) “worthless; unwanted; waste matter” with a po 魄 variant. A wheelwright sees Duke Huan of Qi with books by dead sages and says, “what you are reading there is nothing but the [糟魄] chaff and dregs of the men of old!” (tr. Watson 1968:152).

In the history of Chinese writing, characters for po 魄/霸 “lunar brightness” appeared before those for hun 魂 “soul; spirit”. The spiritual hun 魂 and po 魄 “dual souls” are first recorded in Warring States period (475–221 BCE) Seal Script characters. The lunar po 魄 or 霸 “moon’s brightness” appears in both Zhou Dynasty (1045–256 BCE) Bronzeware script and Oracle bone script, but not in Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BCE) oracle inscriptions. The earliest form of this “lunar brightness” character was found on a (ca. 11th century BCE) Zhou oracle bone inscription (Yü 1987:370).


The po soul’s etymology is better understood than the hun soul’s. Schuessler (2007:290, 417) reconstructs hun 魂 “‘spiritual soul’ which makes a human personality” and po 魄 “vegetative or animal soul … which accounts for growth and physiological functions” as Middle Chinese γuən and pʰak from Old Chinese *wûn and *phrâk.

The (ca. 80 CE) Baihu Tang 白虎堂 gave pseudo-etymologies for hun and po through Chinese character puns. It explains hun 魂 with zhuan 傳 “deliver; pass on; impart; spread” and yun 芸 “rue (used to keep insects out of books); to weed”, and po 魄 withpo 迫 ” compel; force; coerce; urgent” and bai 白 “white; bright”.

What do the words hun and [po] mean? Hun expresses the idea of continuous propagation ([zhuan] 傳), unresting flight; it is the qi of the Lesser Yang, working in man in an external direction, and it governs the nature (or the instincts, [xing] 性). [Po] expresses the idea of a continuous pressing urge ([po] 迫) on man; it is the [qi] of the Lesser Yin, and works in him, governing the emotions ([qing] 情). Hun is connected with the idea of weeding ([yun] 芸), for with the instincts the evil weeds (in man’s nature) are removed. [Po] is connected with the idea of brightening ([bai] 白), for with the emotions the interior (of the personality) is governed. (tr. Needham and Lu 1974:87)

Etymologically, Schuessler says  魄 “animal soul” “is the same word as”  霸 “a lunar phase“. He cites the Zuozhuan (534 BCE, see below) using the lunar jishengpo 既生魄 to mean “With the first development of a fetus grows the vegetative soul”.

, the soul responsible for growth, is the same as  the waxing and waning of the moon”. The meaning ‘soul’ has probably been transferred from the moon since men must have been aware of lunar phases long before they had developed theories on the soul. This is supported by the etymology ‘bright’, and by the inverted word order which can only have originated with meteorological expressions … The association with the moon explains perhaps why the  soul is classified as Yin … in spite of the etymology ‘bright’ (which should be Yang), hun’s Yang classificiation may be due to the association with clouds and by extension sky, even though the word invokes ‘dark’. ‘Soul’ and ‘moon’ are related in other cultures, by cognation or convergence, as in Tibeto-Burman and Proto-Lolo–Burmese *s/ʼ-la “moon; soul; spirit”, Written Tibetan cognates bla “soul” and zla “moon”, and Proto-Miao–Yao *bla “spirit; soul; moon”. (2007:417)

Lunar associations of po are evident in the Classical Chinese terms chanpo 蟾魄 “the moon” (with “toad; toad in the moon; moon”) and haopo 皓魄 “moon; moonlight” (with “white; bright; luminous”).

The semantics of po 魄 “white soul” probably originated with 霸 “lunar whiteness”. Zhou bronze inscriptions commonly recorded lunar phases with the terms jishengpo 既生魄 “after the brightness has grown” and jisipo 既死魄 “after the brightness has died”, which Schuessler explains as “second quarter of the lunar month” and “last quarter of the lunar month”. Chinese scholars have variously interpreted these two terms as lunar quarters or fixed days, and (Shaughnessy 1992:136–145) Wang Guowei‘s lunar-quarter analysis the most likely. Thus, jishengpo is from the 7th/8th to the 14th/15th days of the lunar month and jisipo is from the 23rd/24th to the end of the month. Yü (1987:370) translates them as “after the birth of the crescent” and “after the death of the crescent”. Etymologically, lunar and spiritual po <pʰak < *phrâk 魄 are cognate with bai < bɐk < *brâk 白 “white” (Matisoff 1980, Yü 1981, Carr 1985). According to Hu Shih (1946:30), po etymologically means “white, whiteness, and bright light”; “The primitive Chinese seem to have regarded the changing phases of the moon as periodic birth and death of its [po], its ‘white light’ or soul.” Yü (1981:83) says this ancient association between the po soul and the “growing light of the new moon is of tremendous importance to our understanding of certain myths related to the seventh day of the months.” Two celebrated examples in Chinese mythology are Xi Wangmu and Emperor Wu meeting on the seventh day of the first lunar month and The Princess and the Cowherd or Qixi Festival held on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

The etymology of hun < γuən < *wûn 魂 is comparatively less certain. Hu (1946:31) said, “The word hun is etymologically the same as the word yun, meaning “clouds.” The clouds float about and seem more free and more active than the cold, white-lighted portion of the growing and waning moon.” Schuessler cites two possibilities.

Since  is the ‘bright’ soul, hún is the ‘dark’ soul and therefore cognate to yún 雲 ‘cloud’ [Carr 1985:62], perhaps in the sense of ‘shadowy’ because some believe that the hún soul will live after death in a world of shadows [Eberhard 1967:17]. (2007:290)

Both Chinese hun and po are translatable as English “soul” or “spirit“, and both are basic components in “soul” compounds. In the following examples, all Chinese-English translation equivalents are from DeFrancis (2003).

  • hunpo 魂魄 “soul; psyche”
  • linghun 靈魂 “soul; spirit”
  • hunling 魂靈 “(colloquial) soul; ghost”
  • yinhun 陰魂 “soul; spirit; apparition”
  • sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “soul; three finer spirits and several baser instincts that motivate a human being”
  • xinpo 心魄 “soul”

Hunpo and linghun are the most frequently used among these “soul” words.

Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-djen, eminent historians of science and technology in China, (1974:88) define hun and po in modern terms. “Peering as far as one can into these ancient psycho-physiological ideas, one gains the impression that the distinction was something like that between what we would call motor and sensory activity on the one hand, and also voluntary as against vegetative processes on the other.”

Farzeen Baldrian-Hussein (2008:521) cautions about hun and po translations: “Although the term “souls” is often used to refer to them, they are better seen as two types of vital entities, the source of life in every individual. The hun is Yang, luminous, and volatile, while the po is Yin, somber, and heavy.”


Based on Zuozhuan usages of hun and po in four historical contexts, Yü (1987:370) extrapolates that po was the original name for a human soul, and the dualistic conception of hun and po “began to gain currency in the middle of the sixth century” BCE.

Two earlier 6th century contexts used the po soul alone. Both describe Tian 天 “heaven; god” duo 奪 “seizing; taking away” a person’s po, which resulted in a loss of mental faculties. In 593 BCE (Duke Xuan 15th year, tr. Legge 1872:329), after Zhao Tong 趙同 behaved inappropriately at the Zhou court, an observer predicted: “In less than ten years [Zhao Tong] will be sure to meet with great calamity. Heaven has taken his [魄] wits away from him.” In 543 BCE (Duke Xiang 29th year, tr. Legge 1872:551), Boyou 伯有 from Zheng (state) acted irrationally, which an official interpreted as: “Heaven is destroying [Boyou], and has taken away his [魄] reason.” Boyou’s political enemies subsequently arranged to take away his hereditary position and assassinate him.

Two later 6th century Zuozhuan contexts used po together with the hun soul. In 534 BCE (Duke Zhao 7th year, tr. Legge 1872:618), the ghost of Boyou 伯有 (above) was seeking revenge on his murderers, and terrifying the people of Zheng. The philosopher and statesman Zi Chan, realizing that Boyou’s loss of hereditary office had caused his spirit to be deprived of sacrifices, reinstated his son to the family position, and the ghost disappeared. When a friend asked Zi Chan to explain ghosts, he gave what Yu (1972:372) calls “the locus classicus on the subject of the human soul in the Chinese tradition.”

When a man is born, (we see) in his first movements what is called the [魄] animal soul. [既生魄] After this has been produced, it is developed into what is called the [魂] spirit. By the use of things the subtle elements are multiplied, and the [魂魄] soul and spirit become strong. They go on in this way, growing in etherealness and brightness, till they become (thoroughly) spiritual and intelligent. When an ordinary man or woman dies a violent death, the [魂魄] soul and spirit are still able to keep hanging about men in the shape of an evil apparition; how much more might this be expected in the case of [Boyou]. … Belonging to a family which had held for three generations the handle of government, his use of things had been extensive, the subtle essences which he had imbibed had been many. His clan also was a great one, and his connexions [sic] were distinguished. Is it not entirely reasonable that, having died a violent death, he should be a [鬼] ghost?

Compare the translation of Needham and Lu (1974:86), who interpret this as an early Chinese discourse on embryology.

When a foetus begins to develop, it is (due to) the [po]. (When this soul has given it a form) then comes the Yang part, called hun. The essences ([qing] 情) of many things (wu 物) then give strength to these (two souls), and so they acquire the vitality, animation and good cheer (shuang 爽) of these essences. Thus eventually there arises spirituality and intelligence (shen ming 神明).”

In 516 BCE (Duke Zhao 20th year, tr. Legge 1872:708), the Duke of Song (state) and a guest named Shusun 叔孫 were both seen weeping during a supposedly joyful gathering. Yue Qi 樂祁, a Song court official, said: “This year both our ruler and [Shusun] are likely to die. I have heard that joy in the midst of grief and grief in the midst of joy are signs of a loss of [xin 心] mind. The essential vigor and brightness of the mind is what we call the [hun] and the [po]. When these leave it, how can the man continue long?” Hun and po souls, explains Yu (1987:371), “are regarded as the very essence of the mind, the source of knowledge and intelligence. Death is thought to follow inevitably when the hun and the p’o leave the body. We have reason to believe that around this time the idea of hun was still relatively new.”

Silk painting found in the (168 BCE) tomb of Lady Dai at Mawangdui, interpreted (Yü 1987:367) as depicting her hun soul ascending to heaven and her family performing the zhaohun“summoning the soul” ritual below.

Soon after death, it was believed that a person’s hun and po could be temporarily reunited through a ritual called the fu 復 “recall; return”, zhaohun 招魂 “summon the hun soul”, or zhaohun fupo 招魂復魄 “to summon the hun-soul to reunite with the po-soul”. The earliest known account of this ritual is found in the (3rd century BCE) Chu Ci poems Zhaohun 招魂 “Summons of the Soul” and Dazhao 大招 “The Great Summons” (Csikszentmihalyi 2006:140–141). For example, Wu/Shaman Yang 巫陽 summons a man’s soul in Zhaohun.

O soul, come back! Why have you left your old abode and sped to the earth’s far corners, deserting the place of your delight to meet all those things of evil omen?

O soul, come back! In the east you cannot abide. There are giants there a thousand fathoms tall, who seek only for souls to catch, and ten suns that come out together, melting metal, dissolving stone …
O soul, come back! In the south you cannot stay. There the people have tattooed faces and blackened teeth, they sacrifice flesh of men, and pound their bones to paste …
O soul, come back! For the west holds many perils: The Moving Sands stretch on for a hundred leagues. You will be swept into the Thunder’s Chasm and dashed in pieces, unable to help yourself …
O soul, come back! In the north you may not stay. There the layered ice rises high, and the snowflakes fly for a hundred leagues and more…
O soul, come back! Climb not to heaven above. For tigers and leopards guard the gates, with jaws ever ready to rend up mortal men …

O soul, come back! Go not down to the Land of Darkness, where the Earth God lies, nine-coiled, with dreadful horns on his forehead, and a great humped back and bloody thumbs, pursuing men, swift-footed … (tr. Hawkes 1985:244–5)

Hu (1946:31–32) proposed, “The idea of a hun may have been a contribution from the southern peoples” (who originated zhaohun rituals) and then spread to the north sometime during the sixth century BCE. Calling this southern hypothesis “quite possible”, Yu (1987:373) cites the Chuci (associated with the southern state of Chu) demonstrating “there can be little doubt that in the southern tradition the hun was regarded as a more active and vital soul than the p’o. The Chuci uses hun 65 times and po 5 times (4 in hunpo, which the Chuci uses interchangeably with hun, Brashier 1996:131). [On the other hand, it has been shown that that cloud symbolism and the cloudsoul hun has been a staple belief of all the northeast Asians and Central Asians since prehistoric times which suggests a much earlier northern provenance with the tumuli-building peoples.]

The identification of the yin-yang principle with the hun and po souls evidently occurred in the late fourth and early third centuries BCE (Yü 1987:374), and by “the second century at the latest, the Chinese dualistic conception of soul had reached its definitive formulation.” The Liji (11, tr. Legge 1885:444) compounds hun and po with qi “breath; life force” and xing “form; shape; body” in hunqi 魂氣 and xingpo 形魄. “The [魂氣] intelligent spirit returns to heaven the [形魄] body and the animal soul return to the earth; and hence arose the idea of seeking (for the deceased) in sacrifice in the unseen darkness and in the bright region above.” Compare this modern translation (Yü 1987:374), “The breath-soul (hun-ch’I 魂氣) returns to heaven; the bodily soul (hsing-p’o 形魄) returns to earth. Therefore, in sacrificial-offering one should seek the meaning in the yin-yang 陰陽 principle.” Yü summarizes hun/po dualism.

Ancient Chinese generally believed that the individual human life consists of a bodily part as well as a spiritual part. The physical body relies for its existence on food and drink produced by the earth. The spirit depends for its existence on the invisible life force called ch’i, which comes into the body from heaven. In other words, breathing and eating are the two basic activities by which a man continually maintains his life. But the body and the spirit are each governed by a soul, namely, the p’o and the hun. It is for this reason that they are referred to in the passage just quoted above as the bodily-soul (hsing-p’o) and the breath-soul (hun-ch’i) respectively. (Yü 1987:376)

Loewe (1979:9) explains with a candle metaphor; the physical xing is the “wick and substance of a candle”, the spiritual po and hun are the “force that keeps the candle alight” and “light that emanates from the candle”.

The Yin po and Yang hun were correlated with Chinese spiritual and medical beliefs. Hun 魂 is associated with shen 神 “spirit; god” and po 魄with gui 鬼 “ghost; demon; devil” (Carr 1985:62). The (ca. 1st century BCE) Lingshu Jing medical text spiritually applies Wu Xing “Five Phase” theory to the Zang-fu “organs”, associating the hun soul with liver (Chinese medicine) and blood, and the po soul with lung (Chinese medicine) and breath.

The liver stores the blood, and the blood houses the hun. When the vital energies of the liver are depleted, this results in fear; when repleted, this results in anger. … The lungs store the breath, and the breath houses the po. When the vital energies of the lungs are depleted, then the nose becomes blocked and useless, and so there is diminished breath; when they are repleted, there is panting, a full chest, and one must elevate the head to breathe. (tr. Brashier 1996:141)

The Lingshu (Brashier 1996:142) also records that the hun and po souls taking flight can cause restless dreaming, and eye disorders can scatter the souls causing mental confusion. Han medical texts reveal that hun and po departing from the body does not necessarily cause death but rather distress and sickness. Brashier (1996:145–6) parallels the translation of hun and po, “If one were to put an English word to them, they are our “wits”, our ability to demarcate clearly, and like the English concept of “wits,” they can be scared out of us or can dissipate in old age.”

Jade burial suits were believed to delay the bodily po soul’s decomposition.

During the Han Dynasty, the belief in hun and po remained prominent, although there was a great diversity of different, sometimes contradictory, beliefs about the afterlife (Hansen 2000:119; Csikszentmihalyi 2006:116–117, 140–142). Han burial customs provided nourishment and comfort for the po with the placement of grave goods, including food, commodities, and even money within the tomb of the deceased (Hansen 2000:119). Chinese jade was believed to delay the decomposition of a body. Pieces of jade were commonly placed in bodily orifices, or rarely crafted into jade burial suits.

Generations of sinologists have repeatedly asserted that Han-era people commonly believed the heavenly hun and earthly po souls separated at death, but recent scholarship and archeology suggest that hunpo dualism was more an academic theory than a popular faith. Anna Seidel analyzed funerary texts discovered in Han tombs, which mention not only po souls but also hun remaining with entombed corpses, and wrote (1982:107), “Indeed, a clear separation of a p’o, appeased with the wealth included in the tomb, from a hun departed to heavenly realms is not possible.” Seidel later (1987:227) called for reappraising Han abstract notions of hun and po, which “do not seem to have had as wide a currency as we assumed up to now.” Pu Muzhou surveyed usages of the words hun and po on Han Dynasty bei 碑 “stele” erected at graves and shrines, and concluded (1993:216, tr. Brashier 1996126), “The thinking of ordinary people seems to have been quite hazy on the matter of what distinguished the hun from the po.” These stele texts contrasted souls between a corporeal hun or hunpo at the cemetery and a spiritual shen at the family shrine. Kenneth Brashier (1996:158) reexamined the evidence for hunpodualism and relegated it “to the realm of scholasticism rather than general beliefs on death.” Brashier (1996:136–137) cited several Han sources (grave deeds, Houhanshu, and Jiaoshi Yilin) attesting beliefs that “the hun remains in the grave instead of flying up to heaven”, and suggested it “was sealed into the grave to prevent its escape.” Another Han text, the Fengsu Tongyi says, “The vital energy of the hun of a dead person floats away; therefore a mask is made in order to retain it.”

The divisible and wandering hun and po soul concepts in Daoism 

Hun 魂 and po 魄 spiritual concepts were important in several Daoist traditions. For instance (Baldrian-Hussein 2008:522), “Since the volatile hun is fond of wandering and leaving the body during sleep, techniques were devised to restrain it, one of which entailed a method of staying constantly awake.”

The sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “three hun and seven po” were anthropomorphized and visualized. Ge Hong‘s (ca. 320 CE) Baopuzi frequently mentions the hun and po “ethereal and gross souls”. The “Genii” Chapter argues that these dual souls cause illness and death.

All men, wise or foolish, know that their bodies contain ethereal as well as gross breaths, and that when some of them quit the body, illness ensues; when they all leave him, a man dies. In the former case, the magicians have amulets for restraining them; in the latter case,The Rites [i.e., Yili] provide ceremonials for summoning them back. These breaths are most intimately bound up with us, for they are born when we are, but over a whole lifetime probably nobody actually hears or sees them. Would one conclude that they do not exist because they are neither seen nor heard? (2, tr. Ware 1966:49–50)

This “magicians” translates fangshi 方士 “doctor; diviner’ magician”. Both fangshi and daoshi 道士 “Daoist priests” developed methods and rituals to summon hun and po back into a person’s body. The “Gold and Cinnabar” chapter records a Daoist alchemical reanimation pill that can return the hun and po souls to a recent corpse: Taiyi zhaohunpo dan fa 太乙招魂魄丹法 “The Great One’s Elixir Method for Summoning Souls”.

In T’ai-i’s elixir for Summoning Gross and Ethereal Breaths the five minerals [i.e., cinnabarrealgararsenolitemalachite, and magnetite] are used and sealed with Six-One lute as in the Nine-crucible cinnabars. It is particularly effective for raising those who have died of a stroke. In cases where the corpse has been dead less than four days, force open the corpse’s mouth and insert a pill of this elixir and one of sulphur, washing them down its gullet with water. The corpse will immediately come to life. In every case the resurrected remark that they have seen a messenger with a baton of authority summoning them. (4, tr. Ware 1966:87)

For visualizing the ten souls, the Baopuzi “Truth on Earth” chapter recommends taking dayao 大藥 “great medicines” and practicing a fenxing 分形 “divide/multiply the body” multilocation technique.

My teacher used to say that to preserve Unity was to practice jointly Bright Mirror, and that on becoming successful in the mirror procedure a man would be able to multiply his body to several dozen all with the same dress and facial expression. My teacher also used to say that you should take the great medicines diligently if you wished to enjoy Fullness of Life, and that you should use metal solutions and a multiplication of your person if you wished to communicate with the gods. By multiplying the body, the three Hun and the seven Po are automatically seen within the body, and in addition it becomes possible to meet and visit the powers of heaven and the deities of earth and to have all the gods of the mountains and rivers in one’s service. (18, tr. Ware 1966:306)

The Daoist Shangqing School has several meditation techniques for visualizing the hun and po. In Shangqing Neidan “Internal Alchemy”, Baldrian-Hussein says,

the po plays a particularly somber role as it represents the passions that dominate the hun. This causes the vital force to decay, especially during sexual activity, and eventually leads to death. The inner alchemical practice seeks to concentrate the vital forces within the body by reversing the respective roles of hun and po, so that the hun (Yang) controls the po (Yin). (2008:533)

Number of souls

The number of human “souls” has been a long-standing source of controversy among Chinese religious traditions. Stevan Harrell (1979:521) concludes, “Almost every number from one to a dozen has at one time or another been proposed as the correct one.” The most commonly believed numbers of “souls” in a person are one, two, three, and ten.

One “soul” or linghun 靈魂 is the simplest idea.[2] Harrell gives a fieldwork example.

When rural Taiwanese perform ancestral sacrifices at home, they naturally think of the ling-hun in the tablet; when they take offerings to the cemetery, they think of it in the grave; and when they go on shamanistic trips, they think of it in the yin world. Because the contexts are separate, there is little conflict and little need for abstract reasoning about a nonexistent problem. (1979:523)

Two “souls” is a common folk belief, and reinforced by yin-yang theory. These paired souls can be called hun and Three “souls” comes from widespread beliefs that the soul of a dead person can exist in the multiple locations. The missionary Justus Doolittle recorded that Chinese people in Fuzhou

believe each person has three distinct souls while living. These souls separate at the death of the adult to whom they belong. One resides in the ancestral tablet erected to his memory, if the head of a family; another lurks in the coffin or the grave, and the third departs to the infernal regions to undergo its merited punishment. (1865 II:401–2)

Ten “souls” of sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “three hun and seven po” is not only Daoist; “Some authorities would maintain that the three-seven “soul” is basic to all Chinese religion” (Harrell 1979:522). During the Later Han period, Daoists fixed the number of hun souls at three and the number of po souls at seven. A newly deceased person may return (回魂) to his home at some nights, sometimes one week (頭七) after his death and the seven po would disappear one by one every 7 days after death. According to Needham and Lu (1974:88), “It is a little difficult to ascertain the reason for this, since fives and sixes (if they corresponded to the viscera) would have rather been expected.” Three hun may stand for the sangang 三綱 “three principles of social order: relationships between ruler-subject, father-child, and husband-wife” (Needham 1974:89). Seven po may stand for the qiqiao 七竅 “seven apertures (in the head, eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth)” or the qiqing 七情 “seven emotions (joy, anger, sorrow, fear, worry, grief, fright)” in traditional Chinese medicine (Baldrian-Hussein 2008:522). Sanhunqipo also stand for other names.

Source: Hun and Po

Chinkon is still a revived Shinto practice today in Japan, as a soul-binding or soul-summoning procedure or rite for healing (an ancient shamanic calling back the wandering soul spirit) Chinkon  kishin and as a ‘Chinkon’  (‘Pacifying and Deepening the soul’ exercise, which is “a quiet journey into  the interior. This involves meditation, and focusing on specific  mental images. These three elements, purification, spiritual movements, and meditation, are the bases of Shinto training” see Green Shinto’s “Spiritual exercises: misogi, furitama and chinkon” article. The chinkon ritual practice was revived by Shinto scholar Honda Chikaatsu who based the practice on the Chinkonsai court ritual and the Kojiki account of Okinaga Tarashi Hime’s medium spirit possession, see Birgit Staemmler’s “Chinkon Kishin: Mediated Spirit Possession in Japanese New Religions” at p 117.

Cloud spiral motif seen on traditional clothing of Ainu people, c. 1904 (Wikipedia)

Cloud spiral motif seen on traditional clothing of Ainu people, c. 1904 (Wikipedia)

The cloudsoul hun, we theorize, was likely a far older motif of Northeast Asia from prehistoric times, as the cloud spirals are a common motif in ceramics of the prehistoric Jomon people of Japan as well as the Amur populations(see Ainu cloud motif), although interpretations lend themselves variously to both solar as well as cloud symbols. As a pre-Hun and proto-Tartar-Mongol belief, cloud-symbol-associated sky, storm and thunder god beliefs likely spread westwards influencing early Indo-European and Anatolian populations as well as all of East Asian civilization, see Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol“.  Cloud symbolism is given detailed treatment in Camman Schuyler’s article “The Symbolism of the Cloud Collar“, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar., 1951), pp. 1-9 URL:, as well as Hubert Damisch’s “A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting“. In The Language of Kilim of Anatolia, Uzeyir Ozeyurt showed that Mongolian princes of Hitay and Anatolian Hittite village weaving used the same fertility motifs, and that many basic motifs are shared between East and West, including cloud spiral and storm/thunder meander patterns. We may surmise that while the cloud-soul meaning was lost during the cloud motif’s diffusion westwards, cloud symbolism associations with a divinity’s descent, and particularly that of sky-storm gods, remained.