The Closely-Listening Heavenly King

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on March 20, 2017.)

The very-dark-green (nearly black) faced Duo Wen with his
umbrella at Longxing Temple, Zhengding, Shijiazhuang, Hebei

The next of our "Four Heavenly Kings" is called Vaishravana, whose story originates with the lesser-known Hindu god named Kubera.

In Indian tradition, Kubera is the god-king of the Yakshas, a group of benevolent nature spirits. As such, he has become associated with wealth (since all wealth is ultimately derived from natural resources). In China, he has become Vaishravana, where his very-dark-green face (appearing in some cases almost black) may be a nod to his former association with nature.

But his key attribute among the Chinese is not wealth, but his ability to hear things clearly. This is in fact related to the Sanskrit root of Vaishravana: vi-shru means "to hear distinctly." Thus in Chinese he is called Duo Wen Tian, meaning "The Heavenly King Hearing Many Things."

Interestingly, in some traditions--notably the Japanese, where he is Bishamon and one of the Seven Lucky Gods--the "many things" he hears are specifically the Buddha's teachings. This may explain why in all traditions he is considered the chief of the Four Kings.

His folk-religion name, however, is Mo-Li Shou, the last character meaning "long life" or "old age." In some temples Duo Wen may be seen carrying a pagoda or stupa, which would tie in with his attribute of "long life," the stupa being associated with the Buddha's body and thus with physical health.

More often, however, he carries an umbrella, which, though it can be used as protection from the elements, can also cause darkness, bringing consternation to the enemy. In the directional scheme, he is the protector of the North.

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