the online database of Japanese folkore

Zennyo Ryūō

善女竜王
ぜんにょりゅうおう

Translation: Dragon Queen Zennyo; lit. “virtuous woman dragon queen”
Alternate names: hassai no ryūjo (eight-year-old dragon girl), Seiryū Gongen

Appearance: Zennyō Ryūō is a young female dragon who is worshiped as a rain goddess. She sometimes appears in the form of a large serpent riding a cloud and wearing a small golden snake like a crown. At other times, she is depicted as a female or male human wearing ancient Chinese imperial clothing.

Behavior: Zennyo is the daughter of Shagara Ryūō, one of the eight great dragon kings. She is wise, clever, and aware of the deeds of all sentient beings in the universe. She is eloquent, virtuous, compassionate, and merciful. At a very young age, she understood all of the teachings of the Buddha and became enlightened.

Interactions: Zennyo is worshiped at several shrines and temples, including Shinsenen and Kongōbuji on Mount Kōya in Wakayama. Both institutions are connected to Kūkai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and a highly influential monk who was the first to worship Zennyo in Japan. At Daigōji in Kyōto she is worshipped as Seiryū Gongen.

Origin: Zennyō is described in the Lotus Sutra as the eight-year-old daughter of Shagara. During a discussion about how anyone who practices the Lotus Sutra can become a buddha in a single lifetime, she is presented as an example of one such being. Her diligent study of the sutra allowed her to instantly achieve buddhahood. This claim was met with skepticism by many. It was believed that women were unclean and impure, and thus could never attain enlightenment. On top of that, Shakyamuni was only able to attain that stage after a long period of difficult, incessant religious practice; surely a young girl could not reach enlightenment at all, let alone faster than the Buddha himself. But Zennyō proved them wrong by changing herself into a man, perfecting all of the spiritual practices, preaching the dharma, and instantly attaining enlightenment before their eyes. As they witnessed her become a buddha, the onlookers rejoiced, and understood that salvation was attainable by anyone.

Legends: The most famous story about Zennyō Ryūō is recorded and expanded upon in several histories, such as Konjaku monogatarishū and Taiheiki.

In 824 CE, during the reign of Emperor Junna, there was a great drought. The emperor asked the rival abbots Shubin of Saiji Temple and Kūkai of Tōji Temple to pray for an end to the drought. Shubin went first. He prayed and performed rituals for seven days, but only a few drops of water fell, and only over the capital. Next, Kūkai went. He performed the Shō’u kyōhō rainmaking ritual for one week, but not a single drop of rain fell.

Kūkai thought this was strange, so he investigated. He discovered that Shubin had grown jealous of Kūkai’s fame and had used a magical spell to capture all of the dragon gods in a water bottle. Shubin was responsible for the drought. However, one dragon god was a bodhisattva, and thus too powerful to be captured by Shubin’s magic: Zennyō, who lived in a lake in northern India.

Kūkai continued praying for two more days, this time to Zennyo Ryūō. A 2.7 meter long serpent wearing a 24 centimeter long golden snake as a crown appeared and slithered into the pond at Shinsenen. Suddenly the sky grew dark and rain began to fall. It continued for three days and nights, raining all across Japan. The drought was over.

Alphabetical list of yōkai