Zao Gongen (蔵王権現)

Zao Gongen is a venerable entity worshipped in Buddhism in Japan. It is an original Buddha of Japan without origins in India, and is known as the principal image of the main hall (Zao-do) of Kinpusen-ji Temple, in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture.
Gongen means 'god or Buddha which appears in a temporary figure.'


There is a tradition that EN no Ozunu (practitioners of Shugen-do (Japanese mountain asceticism-shamanism incorporating Shinto and Buddhist concepts) around the seventh centuries) transformed to Zao Gongen during ascetic training at Mt. Kinpu in Yoshino. It is considered to be combined with Shaka, Kannon (Deity of Mercy) and Miroku (Maitreya), and the three statues of Zao Gongen, which have almost the same figures, are enshrined as the principal image at Zao-do in Yoshino.

Historical process

EN no Ozunu himself was a legendary figure and it is not clear when the statue of Zao Gongen began to be shaped actually.

At Ishiyama-dera Temple in Shiga Prefecture, 'the statue of Kongo Zao' (a deity of fierce aspect) and 'the statue of Shitu-kongo-shin (Shu-kongo-shin)' (Buddhist guardian deity) were enshrined as Kyoji, Attendant figures, of the principal image, Nyoirin Kannon (the Bodhisattva of Compassion). According to Shoso-in Monjo (documents of Shoso-in (Treasure Repository)), these statues were made in 762 and the names of both Kyoji were 'Shinno' (God-King), so that the name of 'Kongo Zao' was seen in a record from the Heian period for the first time. The original of these statues does not exist now but Shingi (a wooden core) of the 'Kongo Zao statue' still exists, and its figure with the right hand and right leg high up is similar to later Zao Gongen statues.

Bronze Plaque with Line-engraved Zao Gongen' (in Soji-ji Temple of Nishiarai-taishi Shrine, Tokyo Prefecture) (National Treasure) which was excavated at Yoshino, is a bronze plaque with line-engraved Buddhas including Zao Gongen and has an inscription of 1001, so that it is suggested that the iconography of Zao Gongen had been established before around this time.

According to the theory of syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism, it was considered to be the same god as the Emperor Ankan, so that at the time of separation of Buddhism and Shintoism in the Meiji period, many shrines which had enshrined Zao Gongen other than Head Temple Kinpusen-ji Temple determined the Emperor Ankan as Saishin, an enshrined deity.

In addition, the Zao Mountain Range, a member of the one hundred biggest mountains of Japan, which lie on the border between Yamagata Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture, has been the subject of mountain worship from ancient times so that mountaineering ascetics who believed in Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation of Kukai, came to practice ascetic training around the middle of the Heian period. The name originated from the fact that Zao Gongen was transferred from Zao-do in Yoshino and enshrined in both Kattadake-jinja Shrine on the top of Mt. Zao and Kattamine-jinja Shrine at the foot.

It is said that Kattamine-jinja Shrine was a temple literally named Kinpusen-ji Temple of Shugen-do which was a mixture of Shinto and Buddhism before the Exclusion of Buddhism in the Meiji period. In addition, it is said that Zao Gongen of Kattadake-jinja Shrine and Kattamine-jinja Shrine face to Kinpusen-ji Temple of Mt. Omine and Mt. Yoshino.

Going further into the past, the following theory has become influential recently.

The origin of 'Zao Gongen' is appeared that the Emperor Jinmu, considered as the first emperor, subverted Yamato (Wakoku) and Nagasune-hiko, the king of Yamato, was killed then Abi-hiko, his brother, escaped to Tohoku to establish the Tohoku Dynasty and enshrine Nagasune-hiko.
It supports the theory that the flower of bamboo hat for Hanagasa-odori in Yamagata Prefecture is 'cherry' and it is originally a festival to celebrate 'Zao Gongen' and that the sacred tree for Zao faith is 'cherry.'

If we search around Mt. Zao or its northern area carefully, a lot of 'Zao Gongen' can still be seen even now, such as a wooden historical Zao Gongen statue with a height of 4 meters enshrined and hidden in a warehouse.

Major Zao Gongen in Japan

Kimpusen-ji Temple (Yoshino-gun, Nara Prefecture) - the standing wooden statues of Zao Gongen (important cultural properties)

Features of statue

Features of Zao Gongen statues are similar to those of Myo (warlike and wrathful deities) statues of Esoteric Buddhism, and they usually show Funnu-so (an angry expression, boiling with anger), lifting the right hand and right leg high up and putting the left hand on the hip. The most obvious characteristic from the point of view of iconography is to lift the right leg high up so that the whole statue is supported only by the left leg. (There is also a statue with both feet on the ground such as the statue at Koryu-ji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture).

The principal image at Oku-no-in of Sanbutsu-ji Temple (Nageire-do) in Tottori Prefecture (Heian period, important cultural property) is one of the representative works.

[Original Japanese]