The common Japanese motif of the “Fudō Myōō” (lit. the immovable wisdom king, an on’yomi of the Chinese name) is a truly fearsome one, depicting a blue-skinned wrathful pot-bellied man, sitting in a lotus position, nearly always armed with a fiery double-edged sword and a lariat. This figure is one of a Buddhist deity prominent in East Asian schools of Buddhism, particularly Vajrayana or Tantric/Esoteric Buddhism, which centers around the transition from Buddhist thought into enactment in individual life.

Known in Sanskrit as Acala, this particular motif is neither demon nor strictly a protector. Instead, the Fudō Myōō represents one of the wrathful incarnations of Buddha, an aspect of the greater concept Buddhahood, especially in Esoteric Buddhism. While present in different Buddhist sects around the world, Fudō Myōō is especially popular and significant in Japanese Buddhist sects, where he has been worshipped and revered in his own right through statues and carvings throughout Buddhist sites in Japan.

When irezumi art first took off following the growing popularity of woodblock art during the Edo period (1600-1868), many of the first designs and motifs the Japanese have since come to be known for were of ancient myths and contemporary tales alike, ranging from the popular Chinese novel released at the time, Suikoden (Water Margin), to powerful imagery and stories in both Japanese and Chinese mythology, such the tales of the young Kintarō wrestling a giant earthquake-causing carp, or the two koi ascending the rapids of the Yellow River on the path to dragonhood.

Buddhist motifs were also popularized for their striking imagery and the use of color in traditional Buddhist art, although there is no documentation for exactly when the motif of the Fudō Myōō specifically became popular, nor when irezumi artists began incorporating Buddhist imagery into their body art. While there were warrior monks in Ancient Japan, and some likely called upon the figure of Fudō Myōō to guide them, that tradition died before irezumi art took off.

What is the Fudō Myōō?

Fudō Myōō (Acala) is one of five prominent deities in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism known as the Five Great Wisdom Kings, each of whom represent the wrathful manifestation of the Five Wisdom Buddhas. The Fudō Myōō represents the wrath of Buddha’s most primordial, celestial, and inconceivable form, the Vairocana, the Wisdom Buddha who sits in the center of most mandalas representing the Five Buddhas, and stands for an all-encompassing understanding of Dharma, or the “right way” of living.

The Vairocana (known in Japanese as Dainichi Nyorai), is also considered the celestial or primordial form of “the” Buddha (SiddhārthaGautama). Surrounding the Vairocana are four other Wisdom Buddhas each representing a cardinal direction. Mandalas within the school of Esoteric Buddhism imported by the Japanese monk Kukui include, alongside the central Vairocana, the following Wisdom Buddhas:

·         Amoghasiddhi, the Northern Buddha, protecting against envy, representing summer, and the wisdom of preparation and practice. Their wrathful Wisdom King is Vajrayaksa (KongōyashaMyōō).

·         Amitabha, the Western Buddha, protecting against selfishness, representing spring, and the wisdom of meditation. Their wrathful Wisdom King is Yamantaka (DaiitokuMyōō).

·         Ratnasambhava, the Southern Buddha, protecting against green, representing autumn, and the wisdom of mental calmness. Their wrathful Wisdom King is Kundali (GundariMyōō).

·         Akshobhya, the Eastern Buddha, protecting against aggression, representing winter, and the wisdom of reflection. Their wrathful Wisdom King is Trailokyavijaya (GozanzeMyōō).

The cardinal directions play a great role in Buddhist culture, mirrored in the Four Heavenly Kings, who are prominent in East and Southeast Asian Buddhist religion.

However, the Five Wisdom Buddhas and their respective protectors, the Five Wisdom Kings, are separate concepts, and play a greater role within Buddhist cosmology as each having their own respective “Pure Land” that one should aim to reincarnate into (the central, northern, western, southern, and eastern pure lands, respectively).

Another important element in the concept of the Wisdom Buddhas is the concept of the Two Realms, the first representing the early stages of the Vairocana within an earthly space (the Womb Realm), and the second representing the full manifestation of the Vairocana in a metaphysical space (the Diamond Realm*).

*Note: Diamond, in Buddhist texts, refers to the Sanskrit word vajra, a recurring word that represents the indestructability of diamond and the infinite power of lightning. It is also the name of a tool of deific immense power in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist legends, and a three-pronged club used in various Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist rituals. Compare it to Zeus’ thunderbolts, or Thor’s mjölnirthe power of lightning is a recurring theme in religions everywhere, especially Indo-European ones.

Both concepts developed independently within two separate sutras and were presumably combined later in the Shingon school of Buddhism. Shingon Buddhist temples feature the mandala of Womb Realm on the eastern walls of the inner precinct, while the Diamond Realm mandala is featured on the western wall, representing the path from a material world to enlightenment.  

Each Wisdom Buddha and respective Wisdom King plays a role in interpreting the virtues of Dharma, and the path towards enlightenment – where Vairocana embodies an encompassing understanding of the Way, for example, Acala represents a wrathful manifestation that seeks to destroy anything opposing a practitioner’s path to enlightenment, protecting them with fiery sword and rope. In some depictions, Acala would use his lariat to ensnare the Hindu gods, whose machinations seek to keep living things from transcending the cycle of life and death. Buddhists invoke Acala to give them strength.

It is then that Fudō Myōō’s prevalence in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism over other Wisdom Kings becomes apparent – he is the wrathful manifestation of Buddhism’s chief deity, if one could call it that – the Vairocana, more so than any single figure, is considered the nature of reality itself, omnivalent and existing within all. In that sense, Fudō Myōō is his right hand.

So significant is Fudō Myōō that he appears as the first of the Thirteen Buddhas worshipped in the Shingon sect.

The Signs of theFudō Myōō

Fudō Myōō is an incredibly distinctive figure, and prevalent in several other Japanese Buddhist schools aside from the Shingon, such as Zen Buddhism, Tendai Buddhism, Shugendo Buddhism, and the powerful Nichiren sect. His distinctive features are critical to a “proper” depiction, and differentiating him from the other Wisdom Kings through the following:

·        Being surrounded by a world of flame.

·         Having a young pot-bellied, unpleasant appearance.

·         His skin is a terrible black-and-blue, or blue-green. He is sometimes depicted as red (Akafudo).

·         His hair is knotted seven times and hangs off his left shoulder, and he is crowned with a lotus blossom.

·         Strong, stern wrinkles, like waves in the sea.

·         His left eye is closed or squinted, but right remains open.

·         He bites his right upper lip, and his left lip protrudes.

·         His mouth is shut – teeth pressed together.

·         His right hand wields a straight sword with a vajra-shaped (three-pronged) pommel. His sword is sometimes enveloped in flame and/or a Japanese dragon.

·         His left hand carries a rope or noose.

·         He stands or sits on a throne made of stone (banjakuza).

·         His facial expression is contorted in fierce anger.

·         The legendary bird Garuda perches on his halo or is said to be the origin for his everlasting flames.

·         He has at least two boy servants (Kongara-dōji and Seitaka-dōji) to either side of his feet, or near his throne.

While Buddhism at its core emanates from the teachings of the real-life historical figure Siddhārtha Gautama, over the course of roughly four decades, its many sects and legends are the result of countless reiterations of many different parables and tales, compiled in several important texts such as the Pāli Canon. Though Buddhism is inherently pacifist, it has plenty of violence in both its tales and history.

Many of the concepts within Buddhism, such as the eight-fold path towards enlightenment, led to the blossoming belief system surrounding Buddhahood, with Gautama being one of many enlightened ones, who each reached Nirvana and escaped the cycle of rebirth through Dharma.

Fudō Myōō’s striking appearance, significance as the Buddha’s own wrathful enforcer of the Dharma, and guiding flame to those who seek enlightenment, made him a particularly popular motif for Japanese Buddhist sculptors and artists alike, including – at some point – ukiyo-e and irezumi artists.