The Four Heavenly Kings can often be seen in Buddhist temples. If you’ve ever travelled to temples in Asia, you might have seen them before, but you probably had no idea about the symbolism that they represent. Recently, I heard a talk from Buddhist Master Jing Kong, and after understanding what the Four Heavenly Kings symbolize, I just had to share it!
The Four Heavenly Kings are the protectors of dharma, which we can think of as the proper and good teachings passed down by enlightened people such as the Buddha. Each king holds a different object, which symbolizes a different teaching. Their teachings explain how to have a good life and a prosperous society.
The West King
The West King’s name is Guang Mu (廣目天王)in Chinese and Virūpākṣa in Sanskrit. The meaning of his name is “wide seeing”. He holds a dragon/snake in one hand and a pearl in the other hand.
The snake symbolizes constant change, just as a snake can shed its skin. Therefore, the lesson is to pay more attention to the people around us when interacting with them to maintain harmony. For example, when we talk to others, we should pay close attention to their facial expressions to see if what we are saying is of interest or of bother to them. If they are keenly interested, we can talk more. If they look uninterested or offended, we should stop talking.
The pearl represents eternal principles that never change. Examples include treating others with respect, sincerity, love, and humility. In summary, the West King teaches us to follow eternal principles while adapting to the ever-changing circumstances of the current world.
The East King
The East King’s name is Chi Guo (持國天王) in Chinese and Dhṛtarāṣṭra in Sanskrit. The meaning of his name is “supporting the country”. He holds an instrument called the pipa, which is similar to a lute.
This does not mean the East King likes music. Rather, the pipa teaches us that in handling matters and relationships, we need to follow the middle way (中道). The strings on a pipa must be just the right amount of tightness for the musical note to play properly. Similarly, when we do things in life and for others, we must not overdo things nor under-do things. For example, when cooking food, we must not overcook nor undercook. When teaching others, we must not be overly strict nor overly lenient. When doing things, we can’t rush nor be too slow. The examples of endless, and so we should always remember to follow the middle way.
The South King
The South King’s name is Zeng Zhang (增長天王) in Chinese and Virūḍhaka in Sanskrit. The meaning of his name is “progress”. He holds a sword.
The sword represents wisdom, which can cut through ignorance and scattered thoughts. The South King holding a sword symbolizes the desire to grow our wisdom daily, which requires us to study and practice the proper teachings left behind by the past sages. It also requires us to reduce our scattered thoughts and cultivate inner peace and concentration. Extended further, the South King can also mean to not be lazy and to seek progress in life, whether that be in our wisdom, virtues, talents, or work.
The North King
The North King’s name is Duo Wen (多聞天王) in Chinese and Vaiśravaṇa in Sanskrit. The meaning of his name is “More Sensing”. He holds a large umbrella.
The umbrella represents shielding oneself from pollution to maintain a pure and proper heart. Modern society has many negative influences teaching people to be greedy, arrogant, and selfish. The North King is not saying to stay indoors and avoid contact with the polluted world, but rather to maintain purity of mind in our interaction with the outside world. For example, we might see a commercial telling us how buying their product will make us happier. If we can see the commercial and maintain a peaceful mind that is not moved by greed, then we have shielded ourselves from the pollution. If instead, we buy it when we don’t really need it, then we’ve fallen prey to the outside pollution.
To give another example, maybe we see others littering on the street. If we can maintain a peaceful heart and not judge them nor copy their bad act, then we’ve shielded ourselves. Clearly, this requires daily cultivation, hence why the North King is the final one.
Maitreya Bodhisattva can be found inside the Hall of Heavenly King. We can see that he is laughing with a big smile and he has a big belly. Both of these traits are also symbolism.
The big laughing smile teaches us that learning Buddhism should be joyful. If you become more joyful as your learning progresses, then you are doing it right. It you become less joyful, then you’re doing something wrong. A common example is that when we learn about standards for being a good person in Buddhism, we should only apply those standards onto ourselves, not others. If we start judging others for not meeting such standards, then we become unhappy, and we’re applying Buddhism wrong in our lives.
Another meaning of the big smile is that we should give others joy whenever we can. Emotions are contagious, and giving others a joyful smile is a great gift. When others see us joyful, they will naturally want to learn from us. So before trying to teach others, we should first practice and experience joy from practice. When others see our joy, they will naturally be interested.
The big belly teaches us tolerance. In China, it is believed that those with big bellies tend to have more tolerance, patience, and steadiness. Tolerance is the key to harmony in society, where there are so many different people and groups, each with their own beliefs and habits. We should respect all people equally, which will help us maintain a peaceful and calm heart. If everyone respects each other equally, then we will have peace and prosperity in the world.
The next time you visit a temple and see statues of the Four Heavenly Kings or Maitreya Bodhisattva, you’ll know to remember the teachings related to their symbolism! If we can keep their teachings front of mind and practice them, then we can surely have a good life and prosperous society.