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Shaka Nyorai

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LL 130.jpg

The Japanese word Nyorai (如来 thusly come?) is the translation of the Sanskrit and Pali word Tathagata, the term the historical Buddha used most often to refer to himself.[1] Among his Japanese honorifics, it is the one expressing the highest degree of respect. Although originally applied only to Buddha himself, with the advent of Mahayana Buddhism Tathāgata (and therefore Nyorai) came to be used for all those who have achieved enlightenment, entities which occupy the highest of the four ranks of the Japanese Buddhist pantheon. Their rank is accordingly called the Nyorai-bu (如来部, or Nyorai category).

The Buddhist honorific Nyorai is the Japanese translation of Tathāgata, a Sanskrit and Pali compound word whose exact meaning is uncertain. It was widely used in Indian religions other than Brahmanism as a term of respect for religious figures of exceptional stature, but it ended up being used only by Buddhism. Sanskrit grammar offers two possibilities for breaking up the compound: either tathā (thusly) and āgata (come) or tathā (thusly) and gata (gone), and Buddhist commentaries offer as many as eight different interpretations of its meaning.[1] The most widely accepted is “one who has thus (tathā) gone (gata)” or “one who has thus (tathā) come (āgata)”, signifying that Buddha himself was no more than one in a long series of persons in the past and future to achieve enlightenment, and teach others how to do the same.

In translating Tathāgata as Nyorai, however, the interpretation made of the two components was slightly different. The first half was assumed to mean "reality as it is", and was translated with the kanji (如?), which means roughly "as it is".[2] The second (āgata) was assumed to be simply the past tense of the verb "to come", and translated literally (, to come). The Japanese word's meaning is therefore "he who came from tathata (the ultimate nature of all things)" to lead human beings to salvation.

His raised left hand represents that he is calling us to come to him in our search for salvation. His right hand rests palm open on his lap. He grasps his thumb with his four fingers, this position represents that the Buddha is holding on tightly to those who have come to him for protection. He is holding them tightly to himself, therefore, they will not wander away into error and danger.

Purpose and Vow
Over 2500 years ago, a young prince was born in north India and his name was Gautama, Siddhartha (completed goal). His family belonged to the Sakya clan and when after his years of religious quest, he became Enlightened, he then came to be called the Sage (Muni) of the Sakya clan, or Sakyamuni. This is the title of the historic Buddha Sâkyamuni who was the founder of Buddhism.

Early in life Siddhartha was impressed with the suffering of this world and with the suffering that we experience because of old age, sickness, and death. He left the householder?s life and searched out religious teachers who could teach him the meaning of life. For six years, Siddhartha practiced painful austerities but with no religious result. He discovered that self torture and total self-denial were useless in the search for understanding. Instead of attempting to totally control his body, he then began to control his mind. One morning while seated under a large Bodhi Tree, he attained supreme wisdom and understanding and became an awakened being, or Buddha. After his enlightenment experience, he devoted the rest of his life to wandering from place to place, preaching to all who would listen to him. The Buddha died at age eighty.

Alternative translations

Nyorai is not the only existing Japanese translation of tathāgata, as another was created based on a different interpretation of the original Indian term. If the compound word is interpreted as composed by tathā, meaning "as it is", and gata, meaning "gone", the translation is Nyokyo or Nyoko (如去, gone as is), an interpretation adopted by other strands of Buddhism, for example Tibetan Buddhism. In this case, the term means "he who has gone to tathata" through meditation and satori.
Important Nyorai
Main article: Buddhahood

In Japanese the historical Buddha is called Shaka Nyorai (釈迦如来?, or Shakyamuni Tathāgata). Originally the honorific Tathāgata was used exclusively for Buddha himself however, with the advent of Mahayana Buddhism, it came to be applied to entities called buddhas which, like him, were men who had achieved enlightenment.[3] Although strictly speaking buddhas are not gods, they are represented as if they were.

Buddhas in Japan are called Nyorai and they occupy the top of the four ranks of the Japanese Buddhist pantheon, called Nyorai-bu (如来部), literally "Nyorai category". The Nyorai-bu is followed in order by the Bosatsu-bu (bodhisattva), Myōō-bu (Wisdom Kings), and ten-bu (Deva). The most important Nyorai of the Japanese Buddhist pantheon (apart from the historical Buddha, Shaka Nyorai) are Amida Nyorai (Amitābha), Dainichi (or Birushanabutsu) Nyorai (Vairocana), and Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru). Other common Nyorai are Ashuku Nyorai (Akshobhya), Fukūjōju Nyorai (Amoghasiddhi), Hōshō Nyorai (Ratnasambhava), Miroku Nyorai (Maitreya), and Tahō Nyorai (Prabhutaratna). Although this category includes only Indian deities, because of the honji suijaku theory some were believed to have ties with Japanese kami. Amaterasu for example was considered another appearance of Dainichi Nyorai.
Nyorai iconography in Japan.

Statues and portraits of a Nyorai are common in Japan, and a characteristic iconography makes them easy to recognize. Distinguishing one Nyorai from the other is however difficult, as most are externally almost identical, and differ just in details.

Statues of Shaka Nyorai can show him sitting, standing or lying down (entering nirvana). The others can be standing or sitting. With the exception of Yakushi Nyorai, all statues are empty-handed and their fingers make a mudra. To the contrary, Yakushi Nyorai's right hand always holds some object, either a sphere or a small jar, while the other makes a mudra. Dainichi Nyorai's hands make a characteristic mudra (the fingers of his left hand hold his right hand's index, see photo). Excepted Dainichi Nyorai, who is represented with some body ornamentation like a bodhisattva, all statues wear just a simple robe without body ornamentation, signs of priesthood. This is because they represent someone who has reached enlightenment. The robe can cover one or both shoulders. The head has a round protuberance on top with the hair divided in tight curls. Both features are exclusive characteristics of this rank, but the curls can be missing.

The progressive idealization of the Buddhas brought to the attribution of non-human or superhuman characteristics. Consequently, a Nyorai's body must have 32 primary characteristics, among them webbed fingers, very long arms, long earlobes and a 3 meter aura, plus 80 minor ones. For practical reasons, only some, for example long earlobes, are actually present in any given statue.

Sometimes Nyorai statues can form a group, as in the case of the Sanzebutsu (三世仏 lit. three worlds buddhas?). Amida represents the past, Shaka the present, and Miroku the future.

The Go-Dai-Nyorai (五大如来 Five Great Nyorai?) is a group of five important Nyorai, usually composed of Dainichi Nyorai, Amida Nyorai, Ashuku Nyorai, Hōshō Nyorai, and Fukūjōju Nyorai. They appear often, both as a group of statues and as painted figures in mandalas. Each Nyorai has a fixed position oriented in the cardinal direction he is traditionally associated with. Several different groupings of the Go-Dai-Nyorai are in use, but in all of them Dainichi Nyorai is in the center. The following is one of the most common.

Fukūjōju Nyorai


Amida Nyorai

Dainichi Nyorai

(principal deity)
Ashuku Nyorai

Hōshō Nyorai


Sometimes a group consists of a single Nyorai flanked by minor figures like bosatsu or myōō. For example, in the Yakushi Sanzon (薬師三尊 Yakushi Triad?), shown in the photo at the top of the page, Yakushi Nyorai is flanked by Nikkō Bosatsu and Gakkō Bosatsu, two deities one rank below him.

Nômaku Sammanda bodanan baku (Jpn.)

Namah samanta-buddhânâm bhah (Skt.)

Homage to all the Buddhas! bhah