These 16 Prajna Guardians (Devas) are often pictured at the front pages of Chinese sutras, accompanying the Dharma lecture being given by Buddha Shakyamuni, who is flanked by Manjushri and Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas.
The iconography of these sixteen guardians is described meticulously in the Forms of the Sixteen Prajna Protector Deity Kings (般若守护十六善神王形体) which is collected as Chapter 1293, Volume 21 in the Taisho Tripitaka (大正新脩大藏经). This text was purportedly translated during the 5th Lunar month in 722 CE into its extant form in Chinese by the Indian Buddhist master Vajrabodhi (金剛智三藏 or 跋日罗菩提) (669-741 CE).
Our statues were crafted based on this description, albeit with some deviation especially with respect to colour.
* According to Anita Khanna, Buddhist Iconography in the Butsuzozui of Hidenobu, D.K. Printworld, 2010, pp. 139–141. † According to JAANUS / juuroku zenshin 十六善神. ‡ According to《佛光大辭典》, pp. 390－392. § According to《佛学大辞典》, pp. 106－107.
16 Prajna Guardians (16 Shaka 釈迦Protectors; 16 Good Dieties or Gods or Spirits; Japanese: Shaka juuroku zenshin 釈迦十六善神 or Shaka sanzon juuroku zenshin 釈迦三尊十六善神). A specific group of warlike figures yasha 夜叉, believed to be the protectors of the DAIHANNYAKYOU 大般若経 (Sk: Mahaprajnaparamitasutra, The Great Wisdom Sutra).
In art works, Shaka, with the mudra of the *tenbourin-in 転法輪印 or *seppou-in 説法印, is attended by the two bodhisattvas *Fugen 普賢 and * Monju 文殊. The Sixteen Protectors appear in two groups of eight to either side and in front of the principal figures. They are believed to guard the sutra and those who uphold it.
Paintings of the Sixteen Protectors were hung as central images for ceremonies called Daihannya-e 大般若会 at which there was a tendoku 転読 (flipping through pages, or opening scrolls, and reading the chapter headings at breakneck speed) of the text a certain number of times. The earliest record of commissioning a painting for a ceremony dates from 1114, while the earliest extant paintings date from the third quarter of the 12th Century CE.
The Sixteen Protectors are: Daitorada 提頭羅宅 *Jikokuten 持国天; Birurokusha 毘盧勒叉 *Zouchouten 増長天; Saifukudokugai 摧伏毒害; Zouyaku 増益; Kanki 歓喜; Joissaishounan 除一切障難; Batsujozaiku 抜除罪垢; Nounin 能忍; Ueshiramanu 吠室羅摩拏 *Tamonten 多聞天; Birubakusha 毘盧博叉 *Koumokuten 広目天; Riissaifui 離一切怖畏; Kugoissai 救護一切; Shoufukushoma 摂伏諸魔; Noukushou 能救諸有; Shishiimou 師子威猛 and Yuumoushinchi 勇猛心地. Other protective figures such as Changti 常啼 (Jp: Joutei ), a nun Fayou 法優 (Jp: Houyuu) *Basusen 婆薮仙 and Kudokuten 功徳天 (a form of *Kichijouten 吉祥天) may also be included in paintings of the juuoku zenshin. Anan 阿難 and Kashou 迦葉, disciples of the Buddha (see *Juudai deshi 十大弟子), may also be added. *Bonten 梵天 and *Taishakuten 帝釈天 are sometimes added to the group, making eighteen.
Yaksha (Sanskrit: यक्ष yakṣa) is the name of a broad class of nature-spirits, usually benevolent, who are caretakers of the natural treasures hidden in the earth and tree roots. They appear in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist mythology. The feminine form of the word is yakṣī (यक्षी) or Yakshini (yakṣiṇī, यक्षिणी).
Yaksha, Mathura, 1st-2nd century CE, Kushan period. Victoria & Albert Museum.
In Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist mythology, the yakṣa has a dual personality. On the one hand, a yakṣa may be an inoffensive nature-fairy, associated with woods and mountains; but there is also a darker version of the yakṣa, which is a kind of ghost (bhuta) that haunts the wilderness and waylays and devours travelers, similar to the rakṣasas.
The Vimalakirti Sutra (维摩经) describes three types of yakshas: those of the earth, space and sky. Since these non-human beings have supernatural powers, they are sometimes, perhaps mistakenly, referred to as devas, asuras or demons.
Also Yakusha 薬叉 (Sk: Yaksa), a class of semi divine beings, usually considered to be of a benevolent and inoffensive disposition, but sometimes also classed with malignant spirits such as the *rasetsu 羅刹. The female counterparts are called Yashanyo 夜叉女 (Sk: Yaksi, Yaksini) and were regarded in particular as tree nymphs or symbols of fertility.
Yasha were adopted into Buddhism at an early stage, and many finely executed stone reliefs and statues are to be found at Sanchi, Mathura and elsewhere in India. Eventually, they came to be included among the eight classes of beings that protect Buddhism *hachibushuu 八部衆. They also act as attendants of *Bishamonten 毘沙門天, who is said to have under his command “eight Yasha generals ”Yasha hachidaishou 夜叉八大将.
The Twelve Divine Generals *juuni shinshou 十二神将 who protect devotees of *Yakushi 薬師 and the Sixteen Good Gods juuroku zenjin 十六善神 who protect the DAIHANNYAKYOU 大般若経 (Great Wisdom Sutra) also belong to the category of Yasha, while Kongoushu 金剛手 is often described as a Yasha general, and the goddess *Kariteimo 訶梨帝母 is said to have been a Yashanyo who was converted to Buddhism.
In Buddhist mythology, the yakṣa are the attendants of Vaiśravaṇa, the Guardian of the Northern Quarter, a beneficent god who protects the righteous. In China and Japan it has been their role as tutelary spirits that has received the greatest emphasis, and therefore they are generally represented clad in armour. They have come to be popularly regarded as demons of fearsome appearance who harm and even devour humans
Buddha Shakyamuni, Manjushri, Samantabhadra and the Sixteen Virtuous Deities, illustrated frontispiece of each volume of the Maha Prajna Paramita sutras stored in our Aranya Sutra Chamber.
Depicted exclusively in Sino-Japanese Buddhist art, their imagery is popularised in paintings which portray them surrounding Buddha Shakyamuni (who may be flanked by two Bodhisattvas, usually Manjushri and Samantabhadra) in their stipulated regalia and postures. Xuan Zang and other protector deities may also be included in the foreground .
These were handcrafted by Wenlin Arts & Crafts Co Ltd, Putian, Hanjiang, China and hand-painted by Shanghai You Shan Guan Decorate Design Co Ltd.
The Sponsorship of each Prajna Guardian was $20,000 fully adopted.
The 16 Prajna Guardians are brought down to the Hundred Dragons Hall for the yearly Rains Retreat, where we chant the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra, 6 fasciles per day taking 100 days to complete the 600 fasicles.
1. Lokesh Chandra, Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography, International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan, 1999, Vol 11, pages 3315 – 3318
2. Meher McArthur, Reading Buddhist Art, An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs & Symbols, Thames & Hudson,2002, page 55
3. Anita Khanna, Buddhist Iconography in the Butsuzozui of Hidenobu, D.K. Printworld, 2010, ISBN 13:978-81-246-0542-2, pages 139 – 141