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Buddhism is usually viewed by Westerners as a pantheistic religion or a religion with no personal gods. However, that’s not the case with Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. Due to strong influences from Hinduism and Shintoism, as well as the near-constant competition with Shintoism in Japan, this form of Esoteric Buddhism has developed many deities that aim to protect the Buddhas and the followers of that religion.
Also, because of how much Japanese Esoteric Buddhism had to compete with Japanese Shintoism, it’s not surprising that a lot of these deities are assertive, strong-willed, and even angry. The prime example of that is Fudy Myoo – the wrathful deity with unshakable faith and a fiery sword.
Who is Fudo Myoo?
Fudo Myoo, or Fudō Myō-ō, is the Japanese version of the Vajrayana Buddhist and East Asian Buddhist deity Acala or Acalanātha. In all its variants and all religions he exists in, Fudo Myoo is a wrathful deity and a protector of Dharma – a set of virtues and personal behaviors considered righteous in multiple Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and others.
Most of all, however, Fudo Myoo’s main goal is to literally frighten people into following the teachings of the Dainichi Buddha, also known as Vairocana or Maha Vairocana in Sanskrit. Dainichi Buddha is an old Indian Buddha that’s integral to Japanese Buddhism. Fudo Myoo is not the only “Myoo” who protects the faith in that Buddha.
Who are the Myō-ō Wisdom Kings?
Fudo Myoo is one of the five Myō-ō of Japanese Buddhism. Also known as the Five Wisdom Kings, Mantra Kings, Knowledge Kings, Kings of Light, Kings of Mystical Knowledge, or just The Vidyaraja in Sanskrit, these five deities include:
- Gōzanze Myoo – King of the East
- Gundari Myoo – King of the South
- Daiitoku Myoo – King of the West
- Kongōyasha Myoo – King of the North
- Fudo Myoo – King of the Center
(Not to be confused with the Four Heavenly Kings who include Bishamonten/Vaisravana).
Of the Five Myoo Mantra Kings, Fudo Myoo is the most central, powerful, and worshipped one. He’s always depicted sitting in between the other four and he is the strongest defender of the Esoteric Japanese Buddhism.
Fudo Myoo the Wrathful
Fudo Myoo’s appearance very much resembles that of a god of war. He can even look like an “evil” deity to westerners or to strangers to Japanese Buddhism.
Fudo Myoo’s face is twisted in a furious grimace, his eyebrows are tilted over his angry eyes, and he is either biting his upper lip or he has two fangs protruding from his mouth – one facing up and one facing down. He always stands in an intimidating posture and holds a fiery kurikara sword that subdues demons (said to be his wisdom cutting through ignorance) and rope or a chain to catch and bind demons with. In many representations, Fudo Myoo is also standing in front of a wall of flames.
A question that many ask is – why is this deity constantly furious?
Most people’s perception of Buddhism is that it’s a peaceful and loving religion, yet, most Japanese Buddhist deities like Fudo Myoo seem very angry and aggressive. The main reason for that seems to be the highly contentious religious context this form of Buddhism had to develop within.
Japan is a country of many religions and mythologies – Shintoism being the oldest and most prominent one, followed by different variations of Buddhism, Chinese Taoism, and Hinduism. Over time, Japanese Esoteric Buddhism has developed as the second most prominent religion in the Land of the Rising Sun but to achieve that, its followers had to be very protective of Dainichi Buddha’s teachings. Fudo Myoo and the other Myoo Kings are as angry and aggressive as they are precisely to protect Japanese Buddhism from the influence and aggression of other religions.
The teachings of Dainichi Buddha, however, are very similar to that of Indian and Chinese Buddhism. The aggressiveness of Fudo Myoo isn’t reflected in the teachings.
The God of Immovable Faith
In addition to being a god of wrath, Fudo Myoo’s other main association is with the unshakable faith in Buddhism. The name Fudō literally means immovable, meaning that his faith in Buddhism is unquestionable and any good Buddhist should strive to have as much faith in Buddhism as Fudo Myoo.
Symbolism of Fudo Myoo
The symbolism of Fudo Myoo is clear from his very appearance and name. A protective deity that zealously protects the teachings of Dainichi Buddha, Fudo Myoo is a deity with no patience for religious uncertainty and agnosticism. Serving as a “Boogieman” of sorts both to Buddhists with wavering faith and to outsiders who seek to undermine the teachings of Dainichi Buddha, Fudo Myoo is the ultimate champion of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism.
Importance of Fudo Myoo in Modern Culture
Unlike the kami and yokai of Japanese Shintoism, the gods of Japanese Buddhism are not used in modern culture as often. Fudo Myoo is such a famous deity, however, that he or characters based on him still make frequent appearances in various Japanese manga, anime, or video game series. A couple of the most famous examples include the manga series Shaman King and the anime series Saint Seiya Omega.
Fudo Myoo Tattoos
A curious note to add is that Fudy Myoo’s face is a famous tattoo design in and outside of Japan. Whether on one’s bicep, back, or chest, a Fudo Myoo’s face or stature makes for a colorful, intimidating, and captivating tattoo design.
The symbolism of the Buddhist deity is also an additional reason for the popularity of these tattoos as both wrath and unshakable faith are two of the most popular themes in tattoo designs.
Fudo Myoo (a.k.a. Acala) has remained popular since the Middle Ages, and can be found in Nepal, Tibet and Japan. Fudo Myoo is a worshipped deity in his own right in Japan, and can be found outside many temples and shrines. He is a constant presence in Japananese Buddhist art.