Most Japanese Buddhist temples have gates at the entrance. In some cases, these gates perform the standard function: indicating the entrance to the temple precinct. In other cases, the gates are larger, more elaborate, and also serve a secondary function: they house the temple’s nio or kongōrikishi, guardian statues who protect the temple and its treasures. (Gates with nio in them are also often known as “niomon”).
The statues stand guard inside enclosed bays at either side of the gate:
This particular niomon is located at one of Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temples, Sensoji.
In most cases, one of the statues in a nio pair will have an open mouth, while the other’s mouth is closed. The statue with the open mouth is said to be vocalizing the sound ‘a,’ (अ in Sanskrit):
While the one with its mouth closed is vocalizing “ɦūṃ” (Sanskrit: हूँ):
Together, they produce the sound “Aum” (ॐ) Sanskrit for “the Absolute,” indicating completion.
An interesting fact about nio: practitioners of Nio Zen Buddhism meditate on (and sometimes practice) the nio’s postures and facial expressions in order to develop courage and the strength to withstand difficulties.
Have you ever seen these guardians at Japanese temples?