Buddhist statues come in pairs with their Buddhist temples, but please do not think that they are all the same, as each statue has its own significance and representation. Viewing Buddhist statues becomes more exciting with an awareness of the differences in each statue. Here are some different types of Buddhist statues and their characteristics.
Why were Buddhist statues created?
When Buddhism was first introduced to Japan (538 A.D.), only Buddhist high priests or nobles knew how to read Buddhist scriptures, so Buddhism did not immediately reach the general public. To overcome this obstacle, Buddhist statues were made to spread the lore of the religion and convey a sense of the mercy of the Buddha, without adherents having to read. Since Buddhism was introduced to Japan, numerous statues have been built with the intention of relieving the suffering of mankind. Buddhist statues are roughly divided into four types: Nyorai, Bosatsu, Myouo, and Tembu.
The famous great Buddha of Kamakura is Amida Nyorai.
Nyorai is the name for a Buddha at the highest level in the hierarchy of the world of Buddhism. The word Nyorai implies that one has reached the state of enlightenment, the final objective of Buddhism. Generally, the statues of Nyorai are cloaked with a thin fabric without decorative ornaments, and have a distinctive spiral hairstyle called "rahatsu". Amongst all Nyorai, three well-known figures are Amida Nyorai, who leads mankind to bliss, Yakushi Nyorai, who heals physical and mental illness, and Dainichi Nyorai, who only appears in the world of esoteric Buddhism (Shingon sect). You can tell which Nyorai is which by the position of their hands. Amida Nyorai holds his hand in the position of the “OK” gesture, Yakushi Nyorai has a gallipot in his left hand, and Dainichi Nyorai has his hand in the position called the "vajra mudra" (formed by grasping the raised forefinger of the clenched left hand with the clenched right hand, with the tip of the right forefinger touching the tip of the left forefinger). Two attendant statues, on either side of a Nyorai statue, also differ between the Nyorai figures.
Seated Yakushi Nyorai Statues (middle) at Tokondo (Eastern Golden Hall) at Kofuku-ji Temple in Tokondo, Nara.
A statue made in the early 10th century (housed at the Honolulu Academy of Arts). This statue can be identified as Dainichi Nyorai from its hand position.
The word Bosatsu is interpreted as "one who desires enlightenment,” which indicates a Buddha that is undergoing training. These statues have accessories like necklaces and bracelets, and have their hair in a bun. While training, the Bosatsu also takes on the role of helping others and teaching the belief in Buddhism. Bosatsu statues are normally in a standing position, which illustrates a readiness to assist. In Buddhism it is said that the level of suffering and grief will equal the level of desire, and that each category of struggle has a different Bosatsu to help. There are therefore countless types of Bosatsu. The Bosatsu statues with the most variation are the Kannon Bosatsu with 33 different forms such as Shokannon Bosatsu, which has a miniature replica of Amida Buddha on its head, Juichimen Kannon, with 11 faces, and Senju Kannon, which has 11 faces and 1,000 arms (though sometimes it's represented using only 42 arms).
A statue of Senju Kannon (a national treasure) stored in the Sanjusangendo temple of Kyoto
Myouo is a Buddha who protects those in training from foul desires, visits justice on the evil, and educates the disobedient with force. It is therefore illustrated with a frightening expression, and with a weapon. It also has additional characteristics like a roaring fire in the background, hair spiked up in fury, and a bare upper body with a short skirt. Amongst all Myouo, the most well-known form is Fudo Myouo. This form has a sword in its right hand and a rope in its left to seize evil, and a fiery background. The team consisting of Fudo Myouo, Gozanze, Gundari, Daiitoku, and Kongoyasha is called the Godai Myouo (Five Great Myouo). Of all Myouo, only Kujaku Myouo carries no weapon and has a soft, fond expression.
A statue of Fudo Myouo stored in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (formally stored in the Kuhon-ji Temple in Kyoto)
In the world of Buddhism, a Tembu is a defender. Tembu are said to have originally been gods of other religions, like Brahmanism and Hinduism, but who themselves converted to Buddhism. There are therefore various forms of Tembu, such as a samurai, a god of fortune, and a goddess. They also take on various appearances, like a noble with an official uniform, a samurai dressed in armor, and an ogre. Well-known Tembu are the Shitenno team (Four Great Tembu - Jikokuten, Zochoten, Komokuten, and Tamonten), as well as Taishakuten and Bonten.
A statue of one of the Four Great Tembu, Komokuten, from Joruri-ji Temple in Kyoto that is currently stored in the Tokyo National Museum.
Differences between Buddhist statues can be identified by their hand positions, sitting positions, and held objects. There are also differences in style depending on the period. Please take note of these differences when visiting Buddhist statues.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.