Niō (仁王?) or Kongōrikishi (金剛力士?) are two wrath-filled and muscular guardians of the Buddha standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples in East Asian Buddhism in the form of frightening wrestler-like statues. They are dharmapala manifestations of the bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, the oldest and most powerful of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon. According to Japanese tradition, they travelled with Gautama Buddha to protect him and there are references to this in the Pāli Canon as well as the Ambaṭṭha Sutta. Within the generally pacifist tradition of Buddhism, stories of dharmapalas justified the use of physical force to protect cherished values and beliefs against evil. The Niō are also seen as a manifestation of Mahasthamaprapta, the bodhisattva of power that flanks Amitābha in Pure Land Buddhism and as Vajrasattva in Tibetan Buddhism.
Kongōrikishi are usually a pair of figures that stand under a separate temple entrance gate usually called Niōmon (仁王門?) in Japan, hēnghā èr jiàng (哼哈二将) in China and Geumgangmun (金剛門) in Korea. The right statue is called Misshaku Kongō (密迹金剛?) and has his mouth open, representing the vocalization of the first grapheme of Sanskrit Devanāgarī (अ) which is pronounced "a". The left statue is called Naraen Kongō (那羅延金剛?) and has his mouth closed, representing the vocalization of the last grapheme of Devanāgarī (ह [ɦ]) which is pronounced "ɦūṃ" (हूँ). These two characters together symbolize the birth and death of all things. (Men are supposedly born speaking the "a" sound with mouths open and die speaking an "ɦūṃ" and mouths closed.) Similar to Alpha and Omega in Christianity, they signify "everything" or "all creation". The contraction of both is Aum (ॐ), which is Sanskrit for The Absolute.
Misshaku Kongō or Agyō
Misshaku Kongō (密迹金剛?), also called Agyō (阿形?, "a"-form, general term open-mouthed statues in aum pair), is a symbol of overt violence: he wields a vajra mallet "vajra-pāṇi" (a diamond club, thunderbolt stick, or sun symbol) and bares his teeth. His mouth is depicted as being in the shape necessary to form the "ah" sound, leading to his alternate name, "Agyō". Misshaku Kongō is Miljeok geumgang in Korean, Mìjī jīngāng in Mandarin Chinese, and Mật tích kim cương in Vietnamese. It is equivalent to Guhyapāda vajra in Sanskrit.
Naraen Kongō or Ungyō
Naraen Kongō (那羅延金剛?), also called Ungyō (吽形?, "um"-form, general term closed-mouthed statues in aum pair) in Japanese, is depicted either bare-handed or wielding a sword. He symbolizes latent strength, holding his mouth tightly shut. His mouth is rendered to form the sound "hūṃ" or "Un", leading to his alternate name "Ungyō". Naraen Kongō is Narayeon geumgang in Korean, Nàluóyán jīngāng in Mandarin Chinese, and Na la diên kim cương in Vietnamese.
A manifestation of Kongōrikishi that combines the Naraen and Misshaku Kongō into one figure is the Shukongōshin at Tōdai-ji in Nara, Japan. Shukongōshin (執金剛神?), literally "vajra-wielding spirit", is Shūkongōshin or Shikkongōjin in Japanese, Jip geumgang sin in Korean, Zhí jīngāng shén in Mandarin Chinese, and Chấp kim cang thần in Vietnamese.
Kongōrikishi are a possible case of the transmission of the image of the Greek hero Heracles to East Asia along the Silk Road. Heracles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples. This transmission is part of the wider Greco-Buddhist syncretic phenomenon, where Buddhism interacted with the Hellenistic culture of Central Asia from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD.
Nio Zen Buddhism
Nio Zen Buddhism was a practice advocated by the Zen monk Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655), who advocated Nio Zen Buddhism over Nyorai Zen Buddhism. He recommended that practitioners should meditate on Nio and even adopt their fierce expressions and martial stances in order to cultivate power, strength and courage when dealing with adversity. Suzuki described Nio as follows: “The Niō (Vajrapani) is a menacing God. He wields the kongōsho (vajra) and he can crush your enemies. Depend on him, pray to him that he will protect you as he protects the Buddha. He vibrates with energy and spiritual power which you can absorb from him in times of need.”
Influence on Taoism
- The Kiddy Grade characters Un-ou and A-ou are named for Ungyō and Agyō, respectively.
- The Street Fighter characters Akuma and Gouken are based around Nio.
- In chapter 68, Yotsuba is placed in an altar to Nio (Niou) to frighten her into not lying. In chapter 74, Yotsuba takes picture of a man on the street whom she mistakes for a Nio.
- The Skip Beat! character Shō Fuwa has been depicted as Ungyō and Agyō in times of great anger.
- In Volume 4 of the light novel Heaven's Memo Pad this is used as a reference in depicting the character of Alice.
- In the manga/anime series Eyeshield 21, the twins Unsui Kongo and Agon Kongo of the Shinryuji Naga American football team are named after Ungyō and Agyō.
- In the series Flint the Time Detective, known as Space-Time Detective Genshi-kun in Japan, the character "Nioja" (known as "Ninja" in English) is loosely based on them.
- In the One Piece Manga, chapter #784, the Special Technique "Gear Fourth" of Monkey D. Luffy is based around Nio.
- Door gods, for similar protective East Asian deities
- Vajrapani & Skanda
- Buddhist temples in Japan
- Korean Buddhism
- Buddhist & Greco-Buddhist art
- The illustrated encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism By Helen Josephine Baroni, Page 240
- See "金剛" at William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodous. A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms
- Transliterations from Digital Dictionary of Buddhism
- "The origin of the image of Vajrapani should be explained. This deity is the protector and guide of the Buddha Sakyamuni. His image was modeled after that of Hercules. (...) The Gandharan Vajrapani was transformed in Central Asia and China and afterwards transmitted to Japan, where it exerted stylistic influences on the wrestler-like statues of the Guardian Deities [Nio]." (Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p23)
- Helen Josephine Baroni (June 2002). The illustrated encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-8239-2240-6. Retrieved 26 March 2012.
- Fengshen Yanyi, chapter 99.
- Religions and the Silk Road by Richard C. Foltz (St. Martin's Press, 1999) ISBN 0-312-23338-8
- The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity by John Boardman (Princeton University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-691-03680-2
- Old World Encounters. Cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times by Jerry H.Bentley (Oxford University Press, 1993) ISBN 0-19-507639-7
- Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural contacts from Greece to Japan (NHK and Tokyo National Museum, 2003)
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