The Far-Seeing Heavenly King

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on March 13, 2017.)

The red-faced Guang Mu with his serpent at
Longxing Temple, Zhengding, Shijiazhuang, Hebei

You may have heard it said that "There are no gods in Buddhism." That is not strictly true. There are gods, though they are not objects of worship, as in theistic religions.

A case in point is the "Four Heavenly Kings," the temple guardians usually found in their own hall, ranged in four corners around the Mi'le Fo or "Laughing Buddha." We have met them in a group before, but let's meet them one by one.

The first, often found in the front left of the hall (though the arrangement may differ) is called in Sanskrit Virupaksha, known in Chinese as Guang Mu, "The One with Broad Perception," indicating  his ability to see widely (or far). This is a fitting attribute, as his character is based on that of a Hindu god named Varuna, "Lord of the Cosmic Order"--one who would naturally see widely.

He is also called Mo-Li Hai, a name which associates him with the sea. It is not surprising, then, that he is often seen holding a snake. In his Indian manifestations, he is the lord of the Nagas, the snake creatures; but in China, snakes and dragons are associated with the sea and the power of water in general.

Varuna was later replaced in the Hindu pantheon by Indra, who, among other things, also controls storms. In the Indian epic The Ramayana, the hero Rama (unsuccessfully, at first) appeals to Varuna to allow him to cross the sea, another indication of this figure's sea/water associations.

In Buddhist temples, Guang Mu is usually seen with a red face (though this, also, may differ). Also, each of the kings has a direction; he is the protector of the West.

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