Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia

Guardians of Eternity

the two guardians

Guardian Figures, F1949.20–21


What is it made of? Wood
Where was it made? Japan
When was it made? 1185–1333


Don’t get too close! These two large, wooden guardian figures once kept watch over the Buddha and his followers outside a temple in Japan. Their size, active poses, and bulging muscles illustrate their power to drive away evil. At more than seven feet tall, these larger-than-life sculptures stand above most people! How would you feel standing next to one of them? Try it out by visiting the Freer Gallery of Art, where the figures stand guard in the corridor.


Did you notice how one figure has his mouth open and the other’s is closed? The open-mouthed sculpture is saying “ah,” the Japanese sound for the beginning of the alphabet. The closed-mouthed guardian is saying “om,” which is the alphabet’s last sound. Together, the guardian figures are thought to demonstrate that the realm of the Buddha is infinite.


The guardian figures were originally painted, but their color has since worn off. Imagine what they would have looked like hundreds of years ago. Share aloud what colors you think the sculptures originally had. How would color make the figures seem different? What do you think would happen if these two figures came to life?


Today, inspired by figures like these guardians, Japanese artists continue to create stylized graphic novels known as manga. Draw your own guardian that would make a great protector. You might even try modeling your figure out of clay. Give your guardian a name, and write down two adjectives that best describe it. What would you want your guardian to protect?

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