Buddhist Statues 3:

Converted Gods


The Nyorai and Bosatsu are the highest levels of Buddhist deity. Below them are the Myo-o, followed by the Tenbu, which basically consist of gods assimilated from other religions. I don't have any examples of the Myo-o (though when I do I will put them here), but here are several examples of Tenbu.




This is Ebisu, the only one of the "seven lucky gods" which originated in Japan. He and Daikokuten (who are often depicted together) are the most popular of the seven gods. Ebisu is generally shown as above, with a large red sea bream ("tai" in Japanese) under his arm.

This statue stands 10.5 cm. (4.2 inches) high and sits in a little wooden box. His fishing rod is a piece of twig, as is usual. He probably dates from the first half of the 19th century.

Below is another Ebisu, made of cast iron. He's about 45 cm. (18 inches) high, and quite heavy. The following inscription on his back shows that he is not very old - he was made for display in a sentou (public bath) in Showa 27 (i.e., 1952 - the same year I was born).


We use him as a kind of glorified garden gnome. Sadly, he still had his original fishing line until my daughter's rabbits got at it one day and nibbled it away. He is now reeling his sea bream in with a piece of copper wire.



This is a lesser-known Tenbu god, called Idaten. Idaten is a mountain god, The Tenbu are the lowest of the four levels of Buddhist gods, and generally have the office of guarding the other gods. Idaten is a mountain god, famed for his fleetness of foot. Still today, people may call a speedy runner "Idaten", even without knowing that it is the name of a Buddhist deity (much in the same way, I suppose, as people in the west might praise someone's Herculean efforts or Titanic strength without really knowing who Hercules and Titan were).


This is one of the weirdest objects I own. This is Genbu, one of four gods which came to Japan from China. They are scarcely remembered at all today except in various fantasy mangas, such as Fushigi Yuugi. The four gods are Seiryu, a blue dragon representing spring and the east, Suzaku, a red peacock representing summer and the south, Byakko, a white tiger representing autumn and the west, and Genbu, a black tortoise representing winter and the north. Genbu is said to have done battle with a serpent, and is frequently shown either entwined with the snake or - as here - with the snake on his back. Archeologists working at Kitora tomb in Asukamura, Nara Prefecture recently uncovered a set of paintings of all four of these animal gods.

It is not clear whether Genbu and his accompanying gods qualify as Tenbu, but I include this here, since they are closely assoicated in Japan with the Shitenno (the four heavenly gods), who are definitely Tenbu.


This Genbu is made of wood and measures 15.5 cm (6.2 inches from head to tail. The cylinder-shaped piece of wood on which the snake is carved is removable, and is 11 cm. (4.4 inches) high. This would have served (I think) to hold incense. The tail of the snake has broken off (see picture above, left), but otherwise he is in excellent condition. There is some writing underneath which I have not been able to decipher. He may have been placed along with carvings of the other three gods at the points of the compass as part of the ceremony of blessing a new building. One sometimes sees Genbu or the other three gods in metal, but wooden ones are rare.



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