Bishamonten (Tamonten)

毘沙門天 (多聞天)

October 15, 2017

Main Shrines

Fukuō Jinja    福王神社        

Mie-ken, Mie-gun, Komono-chō, Taguchi 2404   

三重県三重郡菰野町田口2404                                

Along with Daikokuten and Benzaiten, Bishamonten is one of the three Shichifukujin of Hindu/Buddhist origin, but among the generally smiling Seven Gods of Happiness he is the only one to be wearing not only a severe expression but also a suit of armour. It is said that his first incarnation was as the Hindu God of Wealth, Kubera, and according to the Mahābhārata he lived in the northern Himalayas, functioning as the Guardian of the North. On being brought into Buddhism as Vaiśravaṇa, he became one of the Four Guardian Kings, the leader in fact, as ancient India suffered numerous incursions from the north and the guardian of that direction, as Vaiśravaṇa/Bishamonten remained, had to be by far the strongest of the four. In a commentary on the Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra there is a note that the vow made by Bishamonten enables the believer to ward off misfortune, lengthen his or her life span, and amass wealth, i.e. the pre-Buddhist Kubera connotations have been retained. However, after he was brought into Japan in the sixth century as Tamonten, the name applied to him as one of the Four Guardian Kings, his warrior aspects were quickly brought to the fore.

The introduction of Buddhism into Japan did not go unopposed, and it was only the divine guidance of Bishamonten which finally led to its unquestioned adoption. While there is written evidence of Buddhist monks visiting Japan in 467, the Nihon Shoki dates its "official" arrival to 552 during the reign of the Emperor Kinmei, when King Syong Myong of Pekche presented him with an image of the Buddha made of gold and copper and a covering message eulogising the glories of Buddhism. The Emperor, however, could not officially sanction the introduction of the new faith without the consent of his advisors, the leaders of the three key clans in early Japanese history, the Soga, the Mononobe, and the Nakatomi. The Soga argued in favour of Buddhism, the Mononobe and Nakatomi against, citing the primacy of the Shintō kami. At the Emperor’s instructions an experiment was conducted by which the leader of the Soga clan, Soga no Iname, the Grand Minister (Omi/ Ōmi) of the land, installed the image of the Buddha in his house and worshipped it. The result, in Aston's words: - "After this a pestilence was rife in the Land, from which the people died prematurely. As time went on it became worse and worse and there was no remedy."  At the urging of the Mononobe the image was cast into a nearby canal and Iname’s house burnt down. The enmity engendered between the Soga and the Mononobe by these events festered for the next 30 years. During the reign of the next emperor, Bidatsu (572-585), the Soga “held faith in Buddhism and practiced it unremittingly…Soga no Umako, (who had become Grand Minister), built another Temple in his house…From this arose the beginning of Buddhism” (Aston p102). In 585, at the Emperor Bidatsu’s funeral, there was a barbed exchange between Umako and the then Mononobe clan leader, Mononobe no Moriya (物部 守屋), and, again quoting Aston, ”From this small beginning the two Ministers conceived a hatred for each other” (p105).

In the reign of the next emperor, Yōmei (585-587), actual hostilities between the two clans started with  open warfare breaking out early in the first year of the reign of the emperor after Yōmei, Sujun (587-592), and culminating in the Battle of Shigisan in 587. Yōmei was Kinmei's 4th child, his mother was Kitashihime, the daughter of Soga no Umako. He both "believed in the Buddha and reverenced the Way of the Gods (Shintō, 神道、the first time this phrase is found,)" Aston, II p106). In 586 He took as consort his half-sister, the Princess Anahobe no Hashihito no Himemiko (穴穂部間人皇女); her mother was one of Iname's daughters. She bore the emperor four sons, the eldest of whom, Shōtoku Taishi, later became regent to Japan's first Empress, Suiko (592-628),

and left an indelible imprint  on early Japanese history. The immediate cause of the war was the Soga's and Mononobe's having backed different candidates to succeed Yōmei and at one stage the Soga forces, having been rebuffed three times in their attempts to take a Mononobe fortified position, were on the verge of becoming a rabble. Let Aston take up the story:- "At this time the Imperial Prince Mumayado (厩戸皇子, another name for Shōtoku Taishi)...followed in the rear of the army. He pondered in his own mind, saying to himself:- "Are we not going to be beaten? Without prayer we cannot succeed." So he cut down a nuride tree, and swiftly fashioned images of the four Heavenly Kings. Placing them on his top-knot, he uttered a vow:- "if we are now made to gain the victory over the enemy, I promise faithfully to honour the four Heavenly Kings, guardians of the world, by erecting to them a temple with a pagoda." Victory, and the utter defeat of the Mononobe, duly followed.

 

There is no mention here per se of Bishamonten but other accounts are much more specific. even down to the hour and the day on which he appeared. There is no doubt that Bishamonten is much more important in Buddhism that in Shintō, but he is one of the Shichifukujin. The occupations with which Chiba associates him are ambassadors, clergymen (along with Ebisu), missionaries (also along with Ebisu), nurses, physicians, policemen, reporters, and soldiers.

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© Rod Lucas 2016-2019

All text and photos by Lucas unless otherwise stated