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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 7: The Trinity and Triple Gods and Goddesses, Cont.

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 2 of 3


In the Orient, there is a peculiar kind of folk art in which a god is depicted as having a hundred or so more arms than is necessary or than his thorax can reasonably support. Most westerners regard this limb largesse with mild horror as though, in the required obeisance, we were being asked to genuflect before some divine scorpion or heavenly centipede. Were the thing smaller and on the floor, we would stomp on it.

It helps to remember that whenever we are carrying too many packages we often say that we "could use another hand". In the same way, this plethora of extremities is intended to convey the idea that the god in question needs additional hands to carry all the good things he has to give us. The sculptor merely obliged and made up the deficit. Naturally, there is an endless variety of articles the god can hold.

When, however, a divine person carries only one or two items, these "attribute objects" clearly indicate identity:

Additionally, Bodhisattvas generally have elaborate crowns and frequently sit in a casual ‘saddle’ posture atop their representative animal.

The Bodhisattva Manjusri in "saddle" posture mounted on his representative animal.
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara/Guan Yin

The most frequently represented bodhisattva is Avalokitesvara/Guan Yin in his/her androgyne form. A thousand years ago, statues of Avalokitesvara/Guan Yin were exclusively male. Then the fashion changed, and the bodhisattva took on decidedly feminine characteristics. While these latter representations still occur and are usually referred to as Guan Yin, Bodhisattva of Compassion or Lady of Mercy, the most compelling renditions are of the androgyne. (See Kwannon with the Future Buddha in our Chapter V).

The throne of Avalokitesvara/Guan Yin is a lotus. (This bodhisattva is never mounted on an animal.)

Other than standing upright, three postures are usually seen: lalitasana (one leg folded in horizontally towards the body and the other leg dangling over the edge of the "seat"; dhyanasana, the lotus posture; and maharajalilasana (one leg folded vertically against the body and the other leg folded horizontally on the ground. This leg position is known as "Royal Ease".

Avalokitesvara/Guan Yin may be depicted holding a lotus in either hand, in which case the remaining hand is usually free; or holding in the right hand a flask of water (‘amniotic’ fluid to nourish the immortal foetus, the so-called ‘dew of immortality’) and in the left hand a sprig of willow. The willow tree is sacred in Chinese lore (consider the famous willow plates) and is a medicinal tree (aspirin comes from the willow bark).

Frequent posture taken by Avalokitesvara/Guan Yin - maharajalilasana (Royal Ease).
Bodhisattva Manju or Manjushri
  • Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is another androgyne bodhisattva. Like most, he/she wears an elaborate crown.
  • His throne is either a lotus or a lion, the symbol of bravery.
  • His asana is either the lotus posture or the "saddle" posture.
  • His attribute objects are the flaming sword of discrimination in one hand and a book of Buddhist scripture held atop a lotus in the other.

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Fugen), the Bodhisattva of Love (Karuna), is also an androgynous being. He/she is frequently paired with Manju, suggesting the duo, Logos and Eros.

  • His asana is either the lotus posture or the "saddle" posture.
  • His throne is either a lotus or an elephant.
  • His attribute object is a scroll of verse.

The Future Buddha Maitreya (Mithras; Miroku; Mirjok)
Astonishingly beautiful bronze statue of Maitreya (Miroku) as a young man, dreaming into existence worlds to come. Mirjok. 7th (?) Century Korea.

Maitreya is the divine child, child Mercurius, Diamond Body, or Immortal Foetus of the alchemical regimen. As "heir apparent" to the Buddha’s Realm, he is scheduled to make his appearance into the Samsaric world at the close of the Buddha Shakyamuni’s 2500 year reign. (Look for him in the twenty-first century).

Considerable confusion regarding his physical appearance arises from his mistaken identification with an insouciantly obese fellow called the Laughing Buddha whose belly may be rubbed for good luck. Experienced Buddhist mystics concur (I have seen no exceptions to this) that visionary appearances of Maitreya are those, whether boy or man, of a slender, well-built individual whose physical appearance may inspire a variety of reactions none of which involves rubbing his belly. Well... not for luck, anyway.

  • His throne is a lotus.
  • His posture is usually peculiarly cross-legged, a posture unique to his representations.
  • His attribute object is a miniature stupa (a funerary monument)

Miniature stupa (funerary monument) with pagoda, held by Maitreya.
Crossed legged posture exclusively assigned to Maitreya.

Guardian Kings or Kings of the Four Directions also present problems (see photographs below). Their attribute objects are well known, but assigning them to specific world directions is by no means a simple matter. Confusion arises from positions taken and positions faced. For example, the mystics of many religions report seeing a black but racially non-descript figure, male or female. Usually, the world direction associated with this figure is North.

Photo courtesy of Fa Jue.
In India, Shiva, a decidedly North figure, is often depicted as a black child nicknamed "Little Black Sambo" who, as I recall, cleverly gets a Bengal tiger to chase its tail until it melts into butter. (This tale has nothing whatsoever to do with Africa. In the first place, there are no tigers in Africa). Shiva is a northern god because his throne is the Himalayas which lie in the north of India. Therefore, he is called "The South Facing God" since obviously he overlooks all of India. In this same way, directional gods get mixed up with their positions and facings. This causes their respective color designations also to become confused. While no two accounts ever agree fully on who is who and which directions and attribute objects belong to whom, generally we can say that the eastern king is white (being covered with the ashes of burnt offerings) and holds a lute. The southern king is bearded, wields a sword, and is associated with yellow. The western king’s face is frequently obscured. He carries a pearl and is associated with bright fire red or lightning. The northern king holds an umbrella -the stem is the world axis and the tip points to Polaris. The spines of the umbrella indicate the constellations which whirl around it. The color associated with him is black or, sometimes, dark green.

Four Directional Kings at Nan Hua Monastery, China. Photos taken by author in l985. The huge statues have since been repainted. The lute of the Eastern King is propped against the wall.

Wrathful deities are grotesque creatures and lohans and arhats (saints) are completely human figures with neither throne, posture, nor attribute object associated with them.

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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