Guardian Spirits

The rise of the cult of gohō dōji, guardian or servant spirits in the form of boys, was a particular medieval Japanese phenomenon vividly captured in both narrative accounts and visual representations.

In illustrated scrolls (emaki) of this period, we often see strange-looking boys attacking malevolent spirits, acting as mediums in possession and exorcism rites, or appearing as attendants and saviors of monks or other practitioners of Buddhism. Frequently they served as attendant spirits of esoteric deities, such as Acalanātha (Fudō Myōō), Sarasvatī (Benzaiten), and Vaiśravaṇa (Bishamonten). More generally, these child guardian spirits were personally attached to priests and hermits who had acquired power and holiness through their practice of austerities.

Gohō dōji belonged to the larger family of guardian deities (gohō zenshin).  These deities were turbulent or fierce deities, who were often local deities or demonic beings such as yakṣa-s, rākṣasa-s, or nāga-s, and were initially opposed to Buddhism but after their conversion became protectors of the dharma. Such deities or beings possessed the ambivalent character of Śaiva and Buddhist tantric deities: the more terrible and dangerous they were, the more powerful were the protection and benefits given to their worshippers. It was the dangerous power of these local deities that was harnessed to protect against and to destroy obstacles, both inner and outer. In addition to protecting the buddhadharma against its enemies and delivering punishments, they also rewarded believers and provided worldly benefits (genze riyaku), often becoming deities of happiness and prosperity (fukujin).

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