Buddhist Pantheon

Some of the main representatives of the Buddhist Pantheon, in Musée Guimet, Paris.

The Japanese Buddhist Pantheon designates the multitude (the Pantheon) of various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and lesser deities and eminent religious masters in Buddhism. A Buddhist Pantheon exists to a certain extent in Mahāyāna, but is especially characteristic of Vajrayana Esoteric Buddhism, including Tibetan Buddhism and especially Japanese Shingon Buddhism, which formalized it to a great extent. In the ancient Japanese Buddhist Pantheon, more than 3,000 Buddhas or deities have been counted, although nowadays most temples focus on one Buddha and a few Bodhisattvas.[1]



A Japanese mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, and other Bodhisattvas, surrounding the central Buddha Mahavairocana.

Early, pre-sectarian Buddhism had a somewhat vague position on the existence and effect of deities. Indeed, Buddhism is often considered atheistic on account of the fact that it denies the existence of a creator god and human responsibility to him/her. However, nearly all modern Buddhist schools accept the existence of gods of some kind; the main point of divergence is on the influence of these gods. Of the major schools, Theravada tends to de-emphasize the gods, whereas Mahayana and Vajrayana do not.

The rich Buddhist Pantheon of northern Buddhism ultimately derives from Vajrayana and Tantrism.[2] The historical devotional root of pantheistic Buddhism seem to go back to the period of the Kushan Empire.[3] The first proper mention of a Buddhist Pantheon appears in the 3-4th century Guhyasamāja, in which five Buddhas are mentionned, the emanations of which constitute a family:[4][5]

The five Kulas are Dvesa, Moha, Rāga, Cintāmani, and Samaya, which conduce to the attainment of all desires and emancipation

By the 9th century under the Pala king Dharmapala, the Buddhist Pantheon had already swelled to about 1,000 Buddhas.[7] In Japan, Kūkai introduced Shingon Esoteric Buddhism and its Buddhist Pantheon, also in the 9th century.[8]


The Buddhist Pantheon in Japanese Buddhism is defined by a hierarchy in which the Buddhas occupy the topmost category, followed in order by the numerous Bodhisattvas, the Wisdom Kings, the Deities, the "Circumstancial appearances" and lastly the patriarchs and eminent religious people.[9]

Level Category Japanese nomenclature
Level 1 Buddhas 仏部
Level 2 Bodhisattvas 菩薩部
Level 3 Wisdom Kings 明王部
Level 4 Deities 天部
Level 5 Circumstancial appearances 神仏混淆部
Level 5 Religious men 高僧・祖師部

A famous statue group, the mandala located at Tō-ji temple in Kyōto, shows some of the main elements and structure of the Buddhist Pantheon. The mandala was made in the 9th century and offered to Kūkai.[10] A duplicate was brought to Paris, France, by Emile Guimet at the end of the 19th century, and is now located in the Musée Guimet.[11]

Japanese Buddhism incorporated numerous Shintō deities in its pantheon and reciprocally. Japanese Shingon also has other categories, such as the Thirteen Buddhas.[12] Zen Buddhism however clearly rejected the pantheistic conceptions of orthodox Buddhism.[13]

Buddhas (仏部)


Hōshō Nyorai/ Ratnasambhava Buddha.

Five Wisdom Buddhas

The five Wisdom Buddhas (五仏) are centered around Vairocana (Japanese: Dainichi Nyorai, 大日如来), the supreme Buddha. Each of the four remaining Buddhas occupies a fixed cardinal point. Each of them are a manifestation of Buddha-hood, and are active in different world-periods in which they manifest themselves among Bodhisattvas and humans.[14]

Five Wisdom Buddhas and four Bodhisattvas at the corners

The five Wisdom Buddhas, guarded by four Great Diamond Bodhisattvas at the corners. The Buddha at the front is at the South and is Ratnasambhava.

Fukūjōju Nyorai


Amida Nyorai


Dainichi Nyorai

(principal deity)

Ashuku Nyorai


Hōshō Nyorai


These "Dhyani Buddhas" form the core of the Buddhist pantheistic system, which developed from them in a multiform way.[15] At the Musée Guimet, the five Buddhas are surrounded by protective Bodhisattvas.[16] There is also a multitude of other Buddhas, such as Yakushi, the Buddha of medicine.

Bodhisattvas (菩薩部)

Kongo Haramitsu Bodhisattva

Bodhisattva Kongō-Haramitsu/ Vajraparamita.

Bodhisattvas are personages who are on the point of entering Buddhahood but postpone doing so in order to help other beings attain enlightenment. Bodhisattvas are paragons of compassion in Mahayana Buddhism. In the Buddhist Pantheon, besides the past and future Buddhas, there are numerous Bodhisattvas as well.[17]

Sometimes, five main "Matrix" Bodhisattvas are determined (五大菩薩), grouped around a central Bodhisattva, Kongō-Haramitsu (金剛波羅蜜菩薩) in the case of Tōji Temple.[18]

Bodhisattvas Pantheon

Five Matrix Bodhisattvas, guarded front right by Heavenly King Jikoku, and back right Heavenly King Tamon. Musée Guimet.






(principal deity)





Beyond these five main Bodhisattvas, there is a huge quantity of other Bodhisattvas, all beings who have postponed enlightenment for the benefit of helping mankind.

Wisdom Kings (明王部)


The Wisdom King Gundari is a manifestation of one of the Five Buddhas, Ratnasambhava/ Hōshō Nyorai.

The Wisdom Kings (Vidyârâjas) were initially divinities of Esoteric Buddhism but were then later adopted by Japanese Buddhism as a whole. These Gods are equipped with superior knowledge and power that give them influence on internal and external reality. These Kings became the object of personification, either peaceful in the case of female personifications, and wrathful in the case of male personifications. Their aggressivity expresses their will to get rid of negative forces in devotees and in the world. They are therefore an expression of the Buddha's compassion for all beings.[19]

Five Wisdom Kings

Wisdom kings

Five Wisdom Kings. Front left is a protective deity: the Heavenly King Zōchō, and back left another one: Heavenly King Kōmoku.

The Five Wisdom Kings (五大明王) are emanations of the Buddhas and protect them. They are usually represented as violent beings. They represent the ambivalent in nature, and seem to derive from ancient Yaksa and Brahmanical tradition.[20]






(principal deity)





Beyond the five principal kings, numerous other Wisdom Kings exist with a great variety of roles.

Other Wisdom Kings

Many more Wisdom Kings also exist with numerous functions. In general, the Wisdom Kings are viewed as the guardians of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Deities (天部)

Jikoku Dhrtarashtra

The Heavenly King Jikoku (持国天).

Gods, although benefiting from an exceptional longevity, nevertheless are submitted to the cycle of rebirths, and remain outside of the world of enlightenment and Nirvana. They are aiming to reach Nirvana eventually however, and therefore endeavour to help Buddhism and its devotees.[21] According to Buddhist cosmology, adopted from Indian cosmology, the deities live in the Three World and are positionned hierarchically according to their position in respect to the cosmic axis of Mount Sumeru. High above the mount resides Brahma, on the summit reside the Thirty Three Gods with Indra as their king, at half-height reside the God Kings of the Orient, and at the bottom inferior deities.[22] Numerous deities are included in the Buddhist Pantheon.

The term Ten (天) is the equivalent of the Indian Deva and designated the higher divinities from the Four Heavenly Kings up. The term Jin (神) designated lower-level deities.[23]

The Four Heavenly Kings are an important part of these deities.

Circumstancial appearances (神仏混淆部)

Izuna Gongen the circumstancial appearance of Mount Izuna

Izuna Gongen (飯綱権現), the circumstancial appearance of Mount Izuna (飯綱山).

Although divinities are considered to be subjects to the law of impermanence, Buddhism nevertheless considers that men should place themselves under their protection. When Buddhism entered Japan in the 6th century numerous Shintō divinities were also present in the Japanese islands, although they had no iconography. This category is specific to Japan and provides for the incorporation of these Shintō divinities.

The Buddhist term "Gongen" (権現, "Avatar", meaning the capability of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to change appearance to facilitate conversion) thus came into use in relation to these gods. Shintō deities came to be considered as appearances of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.[24] Thus numerous Shintō figures have been absorbed as Buddhist deities.[25] This was also sometimes reciprocal, as in the case of Benten and Ugajin.

This syncretism was officially abolished by the establishment of the Meiji Emperor in 1868 and the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order (神仏分離令, also 神仏混淆禁止 Shinbutsu Konkō Kinshi).[26]

Religious men (高僧・祖師部)

Daruma Daishi Bodhidharma

"Daruma Daishi" Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism.

Buddhism has also created an iconography for the saint men who assisted to its diffusion. These are historical beings, although some legendary elements can be attached to them. Some, such as Kōbō-Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, are the subject of a devotion equivalent to that of the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. Some have also acquired the qualities of protective spirits, such as Battabara protector of the baths, or Fudaishi, protector of monastical librairies. The list of these religious men comprises men from the "Three Countries" where Buddhism was born and then prospered along the Silk Road: India, China, Japan.[27] The Sixteen Arhats, saint men who were predecessors or disciples of the Buddha, are also part of this category.


  1. Religion of the Samurai Kaiten Nukariya p.87 [1]
  2. An Introduction to Buddhist Esoterism Benoytosh Bhattacharyya p.120 [2]
  3. Buddhist art & antiquities of Himachal Pradesh, upto 8th century A.D. Omacanda Hāṇḍā p.82 [3]
  4. An Introduction to Buddhist Esoterism Benoytosh Bhattacharyya p.121 [4]
  5. Buddhist art & antiquities of Himachal Pradesh, upto 8th century A.D. Omacanda Hāṇḍā p.82 [5]
  6. An Introduction to Buddhist Esoterism Benoytosh Bhattacharyya p.121 [6]
  7. Buddhist art & antiquities of Himachal Pradesh, upto 8th century A.D. Omacanda Hāṇḍā p.83 [7]
  8. The body: toward an Eastern mind-body theory Yasuo Yuasa, Thomas P. Kasulis p.125 [8]
  9. Notice at Musée Guimet
  10. Musée Guimet exhibit
  11. Musée Guimet exhibit
  12. Sources of Japanese tradition William Theodore De Bary, p.338 [9]
  13. Religion of the Samurai Kaiten Nukariya p.88 [10]
  14. Religion in Nepal by K. R. van Kooij p.22 [11]
  15. Buddhist art & antiquities of Himachal Pradesh, upto 8th century A.D. Omacanda Hāṇḍā p.82 [12]
  16. Musée Guimet exhibit
  17. The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell p.129 [13]
  18. Musée Guimet exhibit
  19. Musée Guimet exhibit
  20. Tantric Buddhism and altered states of consciousness Louise Child p.109 [14]
  21. Musée Guimet exhibit
  22. Musée Guimet exhibit
  23. Musée Guimet exhibit
  24. Musée Guimet exhibit
  25. Sources of Japanese tradition William Theodore De Bary, p.338 [15]
  26. Musée Guimet exhibit
  27. Musée Guimet exhibit

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