Upon entering a Buddhist practice center, we first see the Hall of Heavenly Guardians. In the center of the hall is Maitreya Bodhisattva. To his left and right are four Heavenly Guardians or Dharma Protectors. Maitreya Bodhisattva, called the “Happy Buddha,” is represented by the image of the historical monk Budai, a manifestation of this Bodhisattva. His big smile says, “Want to learn Buddhism? Be happy and greet all with a smile.” His big stomach symbolizes great tolerance and equality.
Only by emulating his generosity, patience, and serenity can we learn and practice Buddhism.” Therefore, Maitreya Bodhisattva sits facing the door telling all who enter, “only those who can accomplish this are eligible to learn Buddhism.”
Standing beside Maitreya Bodhisattva are the four Heavenly Guardians or Dharma Protectors. They are symbolic guardians of the practitioners of the Buddhist way. Whom do they protect? They protect us by reminding us to educate ourselves and to safeguard the proper knowledge, which we should learn. Each guardian portrays a different aspect of thought or action.
The Eastern Dharma Protector symbolizes responsibility and safeguards the territory. This means that all of us are responsible for ourselves, our family, society, and the country as a whole. How do we fulfill this responsibility? If each of us performs our duties well and fulfills our obligations, then we support each other and ourselves as well. In this way, society will be harmonious and the country will be prosperous and powerful.
The Southern Dharma Protector symbolizes progress and teaches us diligence. It is not enough to just meet our responsibilities. We need to make progress with each passing day for no progress means we regress. He emphasizes the importance of constantly cultivating and developing our virtue, conduct, wisdom, and ability, as well as constantly improving in the performance of our duties and our standard of living. From this, we can see that Buddhism is progressive, always leading the times.
The Western Dharma Protector symbolizes comprehensive vision and knowledge gained through exposure to the world. He represents the need to open our eyes to observe nature and humanity, to refine what we see and learn, and to distinguish good from ill.
The Northern Dharma Protector symbolizes comprehensive study and learning. Both teach ways of practice and how to achieve our goals in fulfilling our responsibilities and self-improvement. As the ancient Chinese have said, “To read ten thousand books and to travel ten-thousand miles.” Reading is the means for accomplishing the fundamental knowledge. Traveling ten thousand miles is to learn from observation. Through travel we see advantages of others and learn from them.
We also see their shortcomings, which can in turn serve as a warning to us so that we constantly improve ourselves. In this way, we can build a prosperous society and a safe country. In doing so, we safeguard the Dharma. So, the images of the Bodhisattvas and Dharma Protectors remind us to be diligent in the pursuit of our goals and responsibilities. Thus, we can see that Buddhism is neither a religion nor superstition.
The Four Dharma Protectors hold various objects to symbolize different aspects of the Dharma.
The Eastern Dharma Protector of Managing the Nation holds a lute, which symbolizes the principle that we need to refrain from acting with undue haste but should keep to the middle path. It is like playing a lute, if the strings are too loose, it cannot be played. If they are too tight, they will break. We need to be responsible in discharging our duties and do things in a proper, balanced way.
The Southern Dharma Protector of Growth holds the sword of wisdom that cuts away all troubles and worries.
The Western Dharma Protector holds a dragon or snake that is twining around him. The dragon or snake symbolizes change. Today, everything is constantly changing, only when we can see the truth will we be able to interact with ease and serenity.
The Northern Dharma Protector holds an umbrella, which symbolizes protection from all the pollution that surrounds us. While learning, we need to safeguard our pure mind and quiet heart from becoming polluted. Furthermore, we need to understand the true reality of life and the universe, to have the wisdom and ability to properly interact with all people and situations.
All of this can be learned from visiting the Hall of Heavenly Guardians. If we regard the Protectors as deities with magical powers who will protect us if we burn incense, prostrate, and offer flowers and fruit while praying for protection we will be sadly mistaken. This is superstition.
All the facilities, images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas and any offerings made are teaching tools designed to inspire our mind and wisdom. They also serve to remind us of the importance of being enlightened instead of deluded, virtuous instead of deviated, pure instead of polluted. These are the three principles of Buddhist teaching and practice.
Therefore, everything in a practice center serves as a teaching aid. Even the offerings are educational. A container of water symbolizes the Dharma. The water is clean symbolizing that our minds need to be as pure as the water. It is calm without a single ripple, symbolizing the tranquility in our hearts. It is to have purity and equality of mind.
Flowers symbolize the “cause” as the blossoming of flowers results in the bearing of fruit. Flowers symbolize the Six Paramitas. Fruits are not offered to the Buddha or Bodhisattvas to eat. They remind us that if we want the sweet fruit or the good result, we must cultivate and accumulate good deeds, the cause. Thus, everything we see in the center is a teaching aid. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas neither smell nor eat, they want for nothing.
We also see lamps, which symbolize wisdom and brightness, as well as incense sticks, which symbolize self-discipline and meditative concentration. You will not see anything in the cultivation and lecture halls that do not symbolize some teaching some aspect of the Buddha’s teaching.