The Four Heavenly Kings - Shitenno

The Four Heavenly Kings are a common sight in Japanese temples. Each of them is standing on a demon.

The Four Heavenly Kings, 8th Century, Todaiji Temple, Nara, Japan
















Horus has placed your enemy under your feet, that you might live. -- Egyptian Pyramid Texts
Stamp under the feet, everything that is not Him, this is the way of reaching the Beloved.
-- Rumi (13th c. Sufi mystic and poet)

The beloved is a symbol the Sufis often use for the state of Presence. In order to reach the state of presence, one needs to have the same desire for this state, as the lover`s desire to be together with his beloved. Rumi is saying that one reaches presence by stamping under the feet everything that is not presence. Having thoughts about the past or future, judging someone for doing something one thinks is strange or wrong, being in a state of fascination while watching TV or a movie or thinking one is better than somebody else, are examples of things that are not compatible with being present. Being present is the simple state of being aware of oneself in one`s environment.

Gurdjieff explained that man has four different brains or centers, the emotional, intellectual, moving and instinctive brain. The emotional brain is a function through which we experience emotions related to people and impressions. The intellectual center is a function that manifests as thought and reason. The moving center is a function that enables one to move in one`s environment and design things. The instinctive center takes care of the functioning of the human body, such as heart beat, growth of the body, activity of the senses, distribution of energy, and so on. It is the only center that is fully developed when one is born; the other three centers have to be educated.

Each center is further divided in three parts; a mechanical part, an emotional part and an intellectual part. One can see which part is functioning by looking at the level of one`s attention. The mechanical part functions automatically without the need of paying attention to what it is doing. It can be seen as the memory bank of the center. Once one has learned a new language, one doesn’t have to pay attention anymore to the meaning of the words, they come out automatically. Once one has learned how to ride a bicycle, one doesn’t need to pay attention to staying balanced, and one can talk with a friend while riding it. The emotional parts function with attention, but it doesn’t take an effort on our part to sustain this attention. The attention is sustained by the interest in the subject. Examples are playing video games or enjoyment in playing a sport. The intellectual part functions with attention but it requires an effort to sustain this attention. Examples are studying for an exam, learning to drive a car or creating a piece of art.


Picture cards from the common deck of cards

The different parts of centers are symbolized by the picture cards of the deck of playing cards, which originated from the Minor Arcana of the Tarot cards. The Tarot deck of cards contains symbols of knowledge about a human being in relation to the struggle of awakening the God within. The kings symbolize the intellectual parts of centers. The queens symbolize the emotional parts, and the jacks, the mechanical parts. The Four Heavenly Kings are symbols of the four kings of centers. The four kings of centers represent intentional action, thoughts or emotions, when one`s attention is connected with what one is doing. Each of them has a sword, symbolizing that they can control the lower parts, the jacks and queens, when they interrupt efforts to be present.

The remembrance of God in the heart is the sword by which we combat our enemies. -- Sufi wisdom

The many `I`s going round and round in one`s head, Dutch painting, 15th Century

When one is only functioning from the jacks of centers, one is so to speak, on automatic pilot. Because one`s attention is not connected to what one is doing in the moment, one is usually in imagination and one cannot be present. Being in imagination means that one is listening to the many I`s going round and round in one`s head, without awareness of oneself or what one is doing; in other words one is in a state of psychological sleep. In the state of being present, one is aware of what one is doing and at the same time aware of oneself. When one functions from a queen of one of the centers, the emotional part of a center, attention is directed to something outside of oneself, but there is no self awareness, because one experiences a strong sense of attachment to what one is doing. One is in a state where one`s identity is attached to the activity one is performing, and therefore one gets a sense of 'I' from it. This sense of 'I' is the lower self. It is opposite to the state where the God within is present.

Feel your reality, in the stillness, in the quietness, when there is no mind, no thoughts, no words.
Who are you then? You just Are. -- Hindu text
I am not this body, I am not this mind, I am not these emotions, I simply observe, I am the eternal witness.
-- Zen master

According to Buddhist thought, the Four Heavenly Kings discern and punish evil and encourage the aspiration for enlightenment.

The lower self is always engaged in inspiring your imagination to pursue evil thoughts, every moment striving to cast you down into the pit. -- Lahiji (18th c. Persian poet)

Evil refers to the many I`s that keep us in the state of sleep. Only when the Kings of centers are functioning can we become aware that we are not present and only then can we begin an effort to awaken the Higher Self. It is also said that the Four Heavenly Kings listen to the Buddhist teachings and protect the place where the Buddha expounds them. In Hinayana Buddhism, Buddha symbolizes the part in us that wishes to awaken. (In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha symbolizes prolonged presence, or the Higher Self)

Within our mind there is a Buddha. -- Huineng (6th Partriarch of Zen Buddhism)

The kings of centers, symbolized by the Four Kings, listen to ideas about awakening, try to understand them, and protect the part in us that wishes to awaken. The Four Heavenly Kings were originally Gods from Hinduism, and were incorporated into Buddhism. Incorporating a God from one religion into another is not an uncommon phenomenon because a God is a symbol for a particular characteristic in a human being, the part in him that tries to awaken his Divine nature, his Higher Self.

All deities reside in the human breast. -- William Blake (19th c. English painter and poet)
There are definitely no 'gods' or 'demons' outside of yourself.-- Padmasanbhava (1st patriarch of Tibetan Buddhism)

In all esoteric traditions a man`s animal nature or lower self, is symbolized by an animal or a demon. Because Gods and demons are symbols, we often see the same imagery in esoteric traditions that are separated in time and place.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Simeon holding Jesus and St. John the Baptist, Chartres cathedral, France

The Four Heavenly Kings, Todaiji temple, Nara, Japan















In this image from the Chartres cathedral we see the same imagery as with the four Heavenly Kings: each figure is standing on a demon. Like the four Heavenly Kings, these four figures also have the same face, symbolizing they represent different psychological aspects in one person. Simeon is holding the child Jesus. Like Buddha, Jesus also represents the part in us that wishes to awaken and is educated with the tools and knowledge to do so. It is called the ruling faculty or steward, which controls one`s inner household and awakens the God within, the master of the house.

Man is compared to a house in which there is a multitude of servants but no master and no steward. The house can be got ready for the arrival of the steward who will, in his turn, prepare it for the arrival of the master.
-- Gurdjieff (20th c. Fourth Way spiritual teacher)
And the Lord said, "Who then is that faithful and wise steward, who his lord shall make ruler over his household ? -- The Bible, Luke 12:42
Seeing and hearing, emotions, desires, and opinions are all internal thieves. But if the inner mind is awake and alert, sitting aloof in the middle of it all, then these plunderers change and become members of the household.
-- Hong Zicheng, Caigentan (16th c. Chinese philosopher)
A man's foes shall be they of his own household. -- The Bible, Matthew - 10:36

The steward springs from the king of hearts, which is symbolized by Simeon in the Chartres image.

Buddha taking seven steps after his birth, Zhong Hua Monastery, Lumbini, Nepal

The child Jesus teaching in the heart, Antonius Wierix,16th C.


My heart is a beautiful Mary with a Jesus in the womb.
-- Rumi
That baby is born in the heart and is reared and grows there. The heart like a mother, gives birth, suckles, and rears child of the heart. The child of the heart is taught inner wisdom.-- Al-Jilani (12th c. Sufi)


In the scriptures of all esoteric traditions, the steward is symbolized by the religious founder. Certain events in their lives as described in the scriptures are therefore not to be taken literally, but are symbols for characteristics of the steward.

While crossing the mental sea, be bold in Jesus, for He is within you, in your heart.
-- Hesychios of Jerusalem (Philokalia, Greek Orthodox Christian text)
Unless you realize that your own mind is the Buddha, you will be deceived by the multitude of conceptual thoughts. -- Padmasambhava

Horus with the Egyptian Sun God Ra in the night bark,
The Papyrus of Ani

This blessed human form is like a sturdy boat, with the guru at its helm and the wind in its sails, on which one may cross this ocean of samsara.
-- The Uddhava-Gita (Hindu text)
The ship is your heart. Guard it. -- Macarius the Great (Philokalia, Greek Orthodox Christian text)

When I say Moses, you will misunderstand me, if you think I refer to something in the past. The light of Moses is here and now, inside you. -- Rumi
Visualize your guru, sitting in the center of your heart, and forget Him never. -- Milarepa (11th C. Tibetan Yogi)

Christ asleep in a boat, Illuminated manuscript, Cologne, 12th century
When Christ is absent, the ship is tossed by the waves of this world, and by numerous tempests. -- St. Augustine (5th c. Christian saint)
Like a crew of angels
on a shattered bark at sea.
In front the mast is lost,
in back the rudder, too.
Drifting about as the wind blows,
tossed high and low with swelling waves.
How will you ever reach the shore?
More effort, don’t just sit there like a stiff.
-- Han Shan (9th c. Chinese poet)


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