The Four Heavenly Kings

Keepers of the Four Directions

Moving further down the Garden, we note four imposing human figures. These are the four Deva Raja, the Kings of the Four Directions. These four figures have Hindu predecessors. In chart form, here are some associations:

[Incidentally, Mo-li (魔力) indicates "magic power"; Hung is "Vast," Ching is "Pure," Shou is "Age" (longevity) and Hai is "Sea."]

The Hindu gods appear in a passage of the famous epic The Ramayana:

May He whose hands the thunder wield
Be in the east thy guard and shield;
May Yama's care the south befriend,
And Varun's arm the west defend;
And let Kuvera, Lord of Gold,
The north with firm protection hold.

"He whose hands the thunder wield" is Indra; "Varun" and "Kuvera" are alternate spellings for "Varuna" and "Kubera." Kubera is sometimes also called "Soma"; incidentally, the four gods are associated not only with four directions, but with four planets as well: Yama with Mars, Indra with Jupiter, Kubera with Venus, and Varuna with Mercury.

These same gods appear in stories of the Buddha. For example, when he left his palace in the middle of the night to seek Enlightenment, each of the Four held up one of his horse's hooves so that his family wouldn't be awakened. Later, they appear transformed as Buddhist figures with important roles to play, as indicated in the "attribute" column. Their images are common in temples all through Asia; some temples in Japan, instead of having the "Ni-O" gates described above, have "Shi-tenno"--Four Heavenly King--gates, with two figures in alcoves on either side of the front of the gate, and two more in alcoves on either side of the back.


Now let us meet the Four Heavenly Kings one by one. Starting on the front left is Virudhaka, who is holding a sword. His Chinese name is Mo-Li Hung, and he is associated with the Hindu god Yama, the god of death and the Underworld. He is King of the South, where he lives in a palace made of glass and rules over the Jambudvipa continent. He is known as "The One Who Enhances Virtue" (Zeng Zhang), using his Sword of Wisdom to control evil. Sometimes called "The Enhancement Heavenly King," by controlling evil he enhances or improves the lives of all sentient beings.

He is also King of the Kumbhandas, a kind of gourd-shaped demon. Sometimes he is depicted trampling a demon under foot, representing the control of evil, but also reminding us that all of these Kings have a wrathful aspect. The control of evil can be a messy business, and as many have observed, "If you want to make an omelet, you're going to have to break some eggs." However, overall, his actions are of great benefit. His Sanskrit name "Virudhaka" indicates "growing large," with an overtone of bringing prosperity. (picture)


Next, behind Virudhaka, is the King known as Dhrtarastra, seen here holding a lute. His Chinese name is Mo-Li Ching, and he is associated with the Hindu god Indra, Lord of Thunder. He is King of the East, where he rules the continent of Purva-videha from a palace of gold. He is "The One Who Upholds the Land" (Chi Guo) through Harmony. As his lute represents ease, comfort, and the good things of civilization, it also symbolizes Harmony or balance: the strings must be neither too tight nor too loose, and so all human affairs must be conducted with moderation. He is also referred to as "The Kingdom-keeper Heavenly King."

He is King of the Gandharvas, who are celestial musicians and often appear in art looking like angels. In his wrathful aspect, he is able to pluck the strings of his lute and raise up winds. As his enemies stop to listen, the wind whips up their campfires, and their camps burn to the ground, so the Kingdom is protected. He, like Virudhaka, is sometimes seen holding a sword. This reinforces the meaning of Dhrtarastra, "Protector of the Nation," and reminds us that even as a musician he embodies great strength and power. (picture)


On the right we come to Vaisravana, holding an umbrella. He is actually the leader of the Four Heavenly Kings. Sometimes he is depicted alone, but represents all four; this is the case with his popular form in Japan, Bishamon-ten. His Chinese name is Mo-Li Shou; he is also the Hindu god Kubera, Lord of wealth. He is King of the North, where he rules over the Uttarakuru continent from his palace of crystal. He is "The One Who Listens Incessantly" (Duo Wen), and his umbrella symbolizes his protection of the Dharma assembly.

He is also known as "The Knowledgeable Heavenly King," using his umbrella to shut out delusions and distractions, enabling us to focus on the pure Dharma. Sometimes, instead of the umbrella, he holds a banner of victory, or a pet mongoose commemorating his victory over the Nagas (Serpents). In popular thought, this mongoose can bring forth priceless jewels. Though Vaisravana is superficially a god of wealth, we soon learn that the "wealth" he represents is knowledge of the Dharma. He, too, may hold a sword, or a trident. Sometimes in his left hand we see a vessel or stupa containing treasure.

He is also King of the Yakshas, a kind of tree or nature spirit. In his wrathful aspect, he uses his umbrella to create darkness and chaos, scattering his enemies. (picture)


Finally, we come to Virupaksa, the figure on the front right holding a snake in one hand and a wish-fulfilling jewel in the other. He is known as Mo-Li Hai in Chinese, and as Varuna, Lord of the Cosmic Order, in the Hindu tradition. Just as Virupaksa is "The One With Broad Perception," so the Hindu Varuna was said to watch over the world with a thousand eyes. He is King of the West, and ruler of the Apara-godaniya continent from his silver palace.

The snake in his hand signifies that he is King of the Nagas (Serpents), and he serves to raise up our awareness and inspire in us the Bodhi mind. Thus he is the "The Broad-eyed Heavenly King" (Guang Mu). His negative aspect is also represented by the snake: snakes are neither good nor bad, but they are volatile. If one is not ready for the change represented by the serpent-power, it can seem like a disaster! (picture)


This same power is symbolized by the Dragon Emperors of the Four Great Oceans. These Dragon Kings (one of whose sons Kuan Yin rescued above) hold power over the elements: rain, storms, earthquake, wind, etc. Think about rain for a moment: is it good or bad? If you are a farmer, and it comes in moderation, it's "good"; if you are going on a picnic, it's "bad." If your city is experiencing a drought, it's "good"; if there is a flood, it's "bad." And so the dynamism of these elements brings change, which may be good or bad depending on your perspective.

The Dragon Emperors are not strictly Buddhist figures, representing some of the powers in Chinese cosmology. They often appear in popular literature, such as The Journey to the West.


So what are all of these characters--a boy and a girl, Heavenly Kings, and Dragon Emperors--doing in Kuan Yin's Garden? Simply, they are her minions, available to do her bidding. She hears a cry: "Help me, Kuan Yin, I cannot absorb the material I am studying!" And she sends off Vaisravana to protect the supplicant with His umbrella, enabling him to concentrate. "O, Kuan Yin, we are having an earthquake in Australia!" And off she sends the Dragon Emperor of the Southern Ocean to quell the disturbance.

And so this Garden represents the "war room" for Kuan Yin's battle against suffering. The pond in its center is symbolic of this function: in Chinese temples, people would bring live aquatic animals purchased in the marketplace and release them into ponds built specially for that purpose. (Hence the sign asking people not to put turtles in the water--it's full of chlorine!) The animals scattered about the Garden (can you find the elephants and tigers?) remind us that Kuan Yin is not just there for humans, but for all sentient beings.

We have now completed our focus on Compassion; it is time to move up the Courtyard of Cultivation.


Now turn your attention to each of the Deva Kings, starting at the front left and moving clockwise to the front right:

O Virudhaka, Great Heavenly King of the South Who Defends Truth and Controls Evil!

Help me with your sword of Wisdom to conquer evil in my life.

Help me to develop greater virtue.

Help me to enhance the lives of all sentient beings.

O Dhrtarastra, Great Heavenly King of the East Who Brings Ease and Creates Harmony!

Help me to appreciate the good things life offers.

Help me to conduct my affairs in moderation.

Help me to uphold the smooth functioning of society.

O Vaisravana, Great Heavenly King of the North Who Knows All and Protects Everyone!

Help me to accumulate the Wealth of Knowledge.

Help me to focus my thoughts on the pure Dharma.

Help me to see victory.

O Virupaksa, Great Heavenly King of the West Who Sees All and Brings the Serpent-Power!

Help me to see beyond my limited preoccupations.

Help me to appreciate the benefits of change in my life.

Help me to be aware, and manifest the Bodhi mind.


Now consider the Four Dragon Emperors in the ponds:

O Dragon Emperors of the Four Great Oceans!

Protect us from disaster.

Brings us beneficial conditions.

Teach us the virtues of change.

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