Friday, February 11, 2011


Color ink painting of Sakra
(Image: Source unknown)

According to the Buddhist tradition, the 9th day of the first Chinese lunar month is the Birthday of Sakra (帝釋尊天聖誕 Dishi Zuntian Shengdan). Sakra (帝釋尊天 Dishi Zuntian) is the king of gods and ruler of the Trayastrimsa Heaven (忉利天 Daoli Tian), also known as the Heaven of the Thirty-three (三十三天 Sanshisan Tian), one of the six heaven realms in the Heavens of Desire (欲界天 Yujie Tian) according to Buddhist cosmology.

The god Sakra in the Buddhist tradition is a deity derived from the ancient Indian Vedic tradition (forerunner of Hinduism) where the name is an epithet of Indra (因陀羅 Yintuoluo), king of all gods and lord of heaven. He is also the god of weather and war in the Vedic tradition.

Indian painting of Indra (Sakra)
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In Buddhist art, Sakra is often shown together with Brahma (the creator god in the Vedic tradition) paying their respects to the Buddha. In Buddhism, both Sakra and Brahma are considered gods that support and protect the Buddhist Law. The two gods are often depicted giving the Buddha his first bath when he was born, requesting the Buddha to deliver Buddhist teachings on behalf of other sentient beings, and escorting the Buddha when he traveled to and from the heaven realms to teach the Dharma (Buddhist teachings).

The gods Sakra (center) and Brahma (right) paying respects to Lord Buddha
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Lord Buddha teaching the Abhidharma in the Trayastrimsa Heaven with an audience of gods
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Due to the Chinese Buddhist interpretation and identification of Sakra with the Jade Emperor (the king of gods in the native Chinese Taoist religion), Sakra’s birthday is also observed on the same day as the Jade Emperor’s birthday (lunar 1/9) (see the previous post about the Jade Emperor found here).

It should again be noted that Buddhists do not worship or venerate gods per se, because gods are not enlightened beings. From the standpoint of Buddhism, the veneration or taking of spiritual refuge under ordinary gods and spirits is improper because Buddhists only follow enlightened beings like the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. However, it is considered acceptable and proper to offer thanksgiving to those gods that give their support and protection of the Buddhist Law (see a previous post dealing with this topic called “The Buddhist View of Gods and Spirits” which can be found here).

Therefore, on this day, followers of the Chinese Buddhist tradition usually conduct a ceremony called Making Offerings to the Buddhas and Vegetarian Thanksgiving to the Heavenly Deities (供佛齋天 Gongfo Zhaitian). The ceremony is held to thank 24 heavenly deities (Lords Sakra and Brahma plus other gods) for their role as Dharmapalas (protectors/defenders of the Buddhist Law).

Ceremony - Making Offerings to the Buddhas and Vegetarian Thanksgiving to the Heavenly Deities

The 24 heavenly deities included in this ceremony are listed as follows:

1. Lakshmi (大功德尊天 Da Gongde Zuntian)
2. Saraswati (大辯才尊天 Da Biancai Zuntian)
3. Brahma (大梵王尊天 Da Fantian Zuntian)
4. Sakra/Indra (大帝釋尊天 Da Dishi Zuntian)
5. Dhritarashtra, Guardian King of the East (東方持國尊天 Dongfang Chiguo Zuntian) 
6. Virudhaka, Guardian King of the South (南方增長尊天 Nanfang Zengzhang Zuntian)
7. Virupaksha, Guardian King of the West (西方廣目尊天 Xifang Guangmu Zuntian)
8. Vaishravana, Guardian King of the North (北方多聞尊天 Beifang Duowen Zuntian)
9. Marichi (大摩尼支尊天 Da Monizhi Zuntian)
10. Maheshvara/Shiva (摩醯首羅尊天 Moxi Shouluo Zuntian)
11. Vajrapani/Guhyapati (金剛密跡尊天 Jingang Miji Zuntian)
12. Panchika (散脂大將尊天 Sanzhi Dajiang Zuntian)
13. Skanda (大德韋陀尊天 Dade Weituo Zuntian) (General Skanda/Weituo)
14. Bodhidruma/Bodhivrksa (菩提樹王尊天 Putishu Wang Zuntian) (Bodhi Tree King)
15. Prithvi (堅牢地神尊天 Jianlao Dishen Zuntian)
16. Hariti (訶利帝喃尊天 Heli Dinan Zuntian) [Note: Both 16 and 19 seem to be derivations of Hariti]
17. Surya (日宮太陽尊天 Rigong Taiyang Zuntian) (Sun God of the Solar Palace)
18. Chandra (月宮太陰尊天 Yuegong Taiyin Zuntian) (Moon God of the Lunar Palace)
19. Hariti (鬼子聖母尊天 Guizi Shengmu Zuntian) [Note: Both 16 and 19 seem to be derivations of Hariti]
20. Dragon King of the Sea (娑竭羅王尊天 Suojieluo Wang Zuntian)
21. God of the Stellar Palace & Lunar Mansion (星宮月府尊天 Xinggong Yuefu Zuntian)
22. King Yama (摩羅王尊天 Yanmoluo Wang Zuntian) [mentioned in a previous post found here]
23. Kinnara King (緊那羅王尊天 Jinnaluo Wang Zuntian) [mentioned in a previous post found here]
24. Thunder God (雷神大將尊天 Leishen Dajiang Zuntian)

[List compiled and translated by Harry Leong. All errors are my own.]

Text © 2011 Harry Leong


  1. Thanks for this very informative post. I want to know more about the offerings to Sakra on the 9th day of the lunar new year. I have seen many rituals among the Chinese in the Philippines. Can you point me to any English or Chinese books that give further details about Sakra in the Chinese Buddhist tradition? My email is --Ari Dy


  2. It is interesting and a little sad to see how Indra/Sakra was at a time held in such high regard and then redused to such a low level. In Hinduism and Buddhaism. While he is still in high regard among modren Heathens today (Followers of the Norse, Viking religon) We know him as Thor.

    1. Actually, Sakra is still held in very high regard in the Buddhist tradition because of his role as a great deva and protector of the Dharma. However, in the system/scheme of Buddhist cosmology, devas are not enlightened/awakened beings that have transcended the afflictive emotions and mental traits that bind all living beings to samsara, so they are considered inferior to the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Equating the deities of the Buddhist or Vedic traditions to the deities of other religious traditions is certainly an arguable matter amongst different adherents. Thank you for your input and have a happy holiday season!