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The Different Japanese Buddhas

Therevada or Mahayana?

In Buddhism, there are many different schools of thought. Those who practice Therevada Buddhism believe that only those leading a monastic life can ever hope to attain enlightenment. Those who practice Mahayana, however, believe that enlightenment is possible for all sentient beings, and pay homage to myriad Buddhas. These are the Buddhas that I will be focusing on in this article, and even more specifically, I will be talking about the Buddhas from Japanese schools of thought.

Shaka Nyorai. Notice the hand gestures.

Shaka Nyorai. Notice the hand gestures.

Shaka, the Historical Buddha

I'll start with the founder of Buddhism known as Shaka Nyorai in Japan. In Northern India, present day Nepal, where Buddhism originated, this Buddha is known as Siddhartha or Guatama Buddha. He was born in the sixth century B.C. but Buddhism was late arriving in Japan. It wasn't until the late sixth century A.D. that Buddhism made its way to the Japanese archipelago by way of China and Korea. Shaka, or Shakamuni, which means "Sage of the Shaka Clan" has since been revered in Japan by most Buddhist sects. The Pure Land sect is one exception. They revere Amida Nyorai. The Shingon sect is another exception as they revere Dainichi Nyorai, but they have included Shaka among the 13 Deities, or Jusanbutsu.

Being able to differentiate one Buddha from another can be hard. Here are some traits specific to Shaka that might help make it easier.

  • Shaka Buddha almost always is depicted wearing a simple monk's robe.
  • He's usually standing or sitting in a lotus flower.
  • Common mudra, or hand gestures, for this Buddha is "Fear Not" (right hand held up), and "Blessing Mudra" (left hand pointed down).
Amida Nyorai with his fleet of bodhisattvas.

Amida Nyorai with his fleet of bodhisattvas.

Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light and Life

This is perhaps the most popular of all Buddhas in Japan and certainly, the most revered in the Pure Land sect which is the most widespread sect in Japan. Amida Nyorai is described in the Amitabha Sutra, the Sutra of Infinite Life, among other Mahayana texts. Before becoming a Buddha, Amida was a bodhisattva known as Hozo. Hozo pledged that upon attaining Buddhahood he would create the Pure Land, which is the Eastern version of life after death in Christianity. All one needs to do to enter into the Pure Land upon death is to have at least once in your life recited, "Namu Amida Butsu," which is basically, "All hail Amida Buddha."

Since Amida has become a mode to salvation for everyone, he is usually depicted in paintings called raigo riding on a cloud with a fleet of bodhisattvas following him as he greets you upon entering the Pure Land. He is perhaps the easiest to identify, at least in paintings. In statues it is a bit harder since he bears all the common traits of every Buddha, the long ears, the bump on his head, and the monk's robe. You can see in the picture below, that he looks like any other Buddha.

This is the Amida Daibutsu in Kamakura, Japan.

This is the Amida Daibutsu in Kamakura, Japan.

Yakushi Nyorai. Notice the curling of his right hand.

Yakushi Nyorai. Notice the curling of his right hand.

Yakushi, Buddha of Medicine and Healing

Yakushi Nyorai, along with Shaka, was among the first Buddhas to arrive in Japan in the late sixth century A.D. You can imagine his quick popularity as this was a deity that could heal sickness and disease. even today he is one of the most loved Buddhas and among the 88 temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, 23 are dedicated to him. he even has his own temple, Yakushi-ji, erected in the eighth century by Emperor Temmu. This is one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara and the headquarters of the Hosso Buddhist sect.

Usually, Yakushi Nyorai is depicted sitting with a jeweled medicine jar in his left hand, but he is often confused with Shaka Nyorai when he is depicted without it. That's because his mudra are similar to Shaka Nyorai's. A clue to help identify him is that his right hand is slightly curled, which is a gesture for granting wishes.

The Showa Daibutsu was erected in 1984, during the Showa period.

The Showa Daibutsu was erected in 1984, during the Showa period.

Dainichi, the Great Sun Buddha

Dainichi Nyorai, or the Cosmic Buddha, is the central Buddha of the Esoteric Buddhist sects in Japan. Ever since the Heian period (794-1192 A.D.) Esoteric sects like the Shingon sect, have worshiped Dainichi Nyorai as the Central Buddha of the Universe. In this sect and among other esoteric sects, Dainichi replaces Shaka as the main Buddha. He is also often identified with Birushana Nyorai, which is another manifestation of the same deity.

Dainichi, also known as Daibutsu, or the Great Buddha, unlike other depictions of Buddhas, is usually depicted under the guise of a bodhisattva and greatly adorned, wearing a crown and jewels. He is often seen with the preaching hands mudra or the Mudra of Six Elements.

As I said before he is often identified with Birushana Nyorai. Todai-ji is home to one of the most famous examples of Dainichi Buddha, but the Buddha there is actually Birushana, not Dainichi. This is probably because Birushana means coming from the sun, and Dainichi means the great sun. To the right is a modern interpretation of Dainichi Nyorai, and below is the Buddha at Todai-ji, which is actually Birushana, but goes by Dainichi, as well.

The Todai-ji Buddha, Dainichi, or actually, Birushana.

The Todai-ji Buddha, Dainichi, or actually, Birushana.

Miroku Nyorai is more streamlined.

Miroku Nyorai is more streamlined.

Miroku, Buddha of the Future

Miroku Nyorai, also known as the Maitreya, or Bodhisattva of the Present. He is the Buddha to come, kind of like the Christian's belief in a second coming, only without all the death and destruction. On the contrary, Miroku Nyorai is supposed to bring salvation to all sentient beings. This is another belief of esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kobo Daishi in the late eighth, early ninth centuries.

Miroku has a more streamlined look. He is quite easily identified because of this. He's usually depicted holding or wearing a stupa in the crown, with his right ankle atop his left knee, and with his right hand touching his cheek. If you notice on the picture to the right, he is thinner, and even looks younger than most Buddhas. Like Amida, he is sometimes seen descending to earth in art called Miroku Raigo-zu.

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This concludes this article. I hope it has helped. While I am not a Buddhist, being an atheist allows me to learn about other cultures objectively. I am also not an expert, but I have taken three semesters on Asian Studies now and I only hope to put my knowledge to good use.


Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization. United States. Cengage Learning, 2006.

Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu. University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

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Leave a Comment and Vote Up!

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on May 14, 2012:

Thank you for a wonderful hub about Buddhist art and imagery in Japan. I really appreciate the help knowing which Buddha I'm looking at, when I see a statue.

One note: Although Therevadan Buddhism traditionally focused on monasticism, Therevadan Buddhism today, which includes the American Vipassana tradition and newer developments in Thailand, encourages lay practice as a path to Awakening (Enlightenment) as well.

Voted up and interesting!

Shell Vera from Connecticut, USA on January 17, 2012:

This is a wonderful, insightful hub! I really enjoyed reading it and learning about the various Buddhas and what they represented. I also like that you provided book references so we can read more on our own, as well as suggested even more when asked from a fellow hubber. Thank you for the information.

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on January 16, 2012:

I have come to know Siddhartha, Buddha because we are doing a musical play about him. I enjoyed reading your hub and learning about the different Buddhas. :)

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! To read and vote this way please:

emmaspeaks (author) from Kansas City on January 14, 2012:

Oh, well, thank you! I will.

Anahi Pari-di-Monriva from Massachusetts on January 13, 2012:

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! It is well-deserved! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the different Buddhas; you explained the differences clearly and succinctly and I loved the pictures you included! Your education has been well worth your time. Keep sharing!

emmaspeaks (author) from Kansas City on January 13, 2012:

Thank you hush4444! I have spent several semesters at college learning about Chinese and Japanese history and religion so I hope to make that pay off in some way.

hush4444 from Hawaii on January 12, 2012:

Fantastic hub! You explained the five buddhas very well, and your hub is so well-formatted that it just flows. I look forward to reading more of your hubs.

emmaspeaks (author) from Kansas City on January 08, 2012:

I just thought of another book, Hagakure. this is an old text and would be a primary source, but it is basically the way of the samurai. Hope that helps.

emmaspeaks (author) from Kansas City on January 08, 2012:

Warrior Rule in Japan, by Marius B. Jansen is a good book about the shogunates. There is a whole chapter on the Tokugawa. Also, the two books I cited for this article are good, but broad and cover a lot of general information. These are some of the books I had to read for my Japanese Civilization class. Miyamoto is more of a legend. He's a real historical figure, but I think you'll find that in old texts from that era, there was a tendency to exaggerate the truth, so finding something historical that coincides with the legend will be a challenge. it definitely sounds like an interesting project, though. I'm trying to get through a nasty pinkeye infection right now, so I can't see too well to look up anything else on him that I might have, but I wish you good luck!

Jarn from Sebastian, Fl on January 07, 2012:

I had heard it said that each of the five Buddhas corresponded to each of the five Japanese classes, as indicated in the Book of Five Rings. However, I'm not familiar with which is which. Do you happen to know, but chance, which is which?

Also,I'm planning to write a book about the author of that work, Musashi Miyamoto (the Sword Saint of Japan)but have yet to find much in the way of references to daily Japanese culture and lifestyle during the early Tokugawa Shogunate. With your background in Asian studies, can you recommend any good reference manuals or books?

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