the online database of Japanese folklore



Translation: deva, celestial, god
Alternate names: tenbu, tennin, tenshu
Habitat: Tendō, the realm of heaven in Buddhist cosmology
Diet: not required, but some of them do eat and drink for pleasure

Appearance: Ten are a race of celestial beings in Buddhist cosmology. They inhabit Tendō, the highest of the six realms of existence in Buddhist cosmology. They are the most powerful celestial beings in existence, and rank below only the buddhas and bodhisattvas in Buddhist hierarchy. Many ten are revered as gods in Japan.

In general, ten resemble humans in appearance. They are often depicted with brightly colored skin, fearsome expressions, and gargantuan in size. Many ten have multiple forms, incorporating them have animalian body parts, or multiple heads and limbs. They often emit light from their bodies, and are capable of great magical feats. Ten are usually depicted wearing flowing robes or decorative armor and weapons. Specific ten are often identifiable in artwork using unique iconography, such as the animals they ride or the objects that they carry.

In a general sense, the term ten can refer to any of the inhabitants of Tendō. Sometimes all celestial beings in general–including the ashura, who do not dwell in Tendō–are included in this term. Other times, ten refers only to specific celestial beings–such as those who are worshiped as gods–while excluding the less powerful inhabitants of heaven.

Behavior: Ten are superior to humans in every way. They are stronger, longer lived, and in general much happier than humans. They can fly, they don’t require food (although some choose to eat and drink). They live in societies, and lead lives that are similar to human lives, just on a much larger scale and with far greater passions.

Despite their godlike existence, ten–like humans–eventually grow old, die, and are reincarnated. Their state of extreme bliss and power inevitably gives way to suffering. In some ways, the great passions they experience can serve as a distraction to enlightenment. They are susceptible to corruption and temptation by evil spirits. They can be overcome with feelings of pride or jealousy. As a result, after they die they might be reborn into a much worse state of existence. In this way, ten are still considered inferior to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, who have broken free from the cycle of rebirth.

Interactions: Ten are invisible to humans, except to those who have focused their mind so much that they are able to see all things as they truly are. Such people are said to have tengen–the heavenly eye. Such enlightened people can see beings from other planes, like ten, and hear their voices.

Origin: The Japanese word ten is analogous to the Sanskrit word deva, and the Buddhist devas all have Japanese counterparts in the ten. Part of the reason for Buddhism’s widespread popularity across East Asia can be attributed to its tendency to absorb local religions and customs and reinterpret them in Buddhist terms. In Buddhist mythology, the devas were originally worshipped as gods in India, but were so impressed with the Buddha’s power and compassion that they swore allegiance to Buddha as protectors of the faith. Thus, the gods of Hinduism were adapted into Buddhism early on. When Buddhism entered China, it syncretized with Chinese folk religion, and Chinese gods were interpreted as versions of the same beings found in Indian religions. Similarly, when Buddhism came to Japan, many Shintō kami were interpreted as local manifestations of buddhas and devas.

Among the ten that are the most well known in Japan are the shichifukujin (“seven lucky gods”)–Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Fukurokuju, Jurojin, Hotei–and the shitennō (“four heavenly kings”)–Jikokuten, Zōchōten, Kōmokuten, Tamonten.

Alphabetical list of yōkai