heavenly gods and benevolent deities ［諸天善神］ ( shoten-zenjin): Also, Buddhist gods, protective gods, tutelary gods, guardian deities, etc. The gods that protect the correct Buddhist teaching and its practitioners. Gods who function to protect the people and their land and bring good fortune to both. Heavenly gods and benevolent deities is a generic term for the Buddhist pantheon that includes Brahmā, Shakra, the four heavenly kings, the Sun Goddess, the gods of the sun and moon, and other deities. Many of these gods and deities were traditionally revered in India, China, and Japan. They became part of Buddhist thought as Buddhism flourished in those areas. Rather than primary objects of belief or devotion, Buddhism tends to view them as functioning to support and protect the Buddha, the Law, or Buddhist teachings, and practitioners.
The “Introduction” (first) chapter of the Lotus Sutra describes a scene in which the heavenly beings or gods gather to hear the preaching of the sutra. The “Peaceful Practices” (fourteenth) chapter of the sutra says, “The heavenly beings day and night will for the sake of the Law constantly guard and protect [those who practice as the sutra teaches].” In the Lotus Sutra, the gods are regarded as the guardians of those who embrace the sutra. In The Treatment of Illness, Nichiren (1222–1282) writes, “The fundamental nature of enlightenment manifests itself as Brahmā and Shakra, whereas the fundamental darkness manifests itself as the devil king of the sixth heaven” (1113). Here the gods are viewed as manifestations of the Buddha nature in one’s life. The Golden Light Sutra reads: “Though this sutra exists in the nation, its ruler has never allowed it to be propagated. In his heart he turns away from it, and he takes no pleasure in hearing its teachings. . . . In the end, he makes it impossible for us [the four heavenly kings] and the other countless heavenly beings who are our followers to hear this profound and wonderful teaching. He deprives us of the sweet dew of its words and cuts us off from the flow of the correct teaching, so that our majesty and strength are drained away. . . . And once we and the others abandon and desert this nation, then many different types of disasters will occur in the country, and the ruler will fall from power.” This passage may be interpreted as indicating that the gods gain their strength from the Buddhist Law, and that they are the inherent functions of nature and society that protect those who uphold that Law.