Closest to the Gods

 RLST 30, Term Paper, by Vered Arnon


In 1986, Masami Kurumada released a manga series called “Saint Seiya”, also known as “Saints of the Zodiac”. He drew heavily on Greek mythology and Japanese cultural ideals to create his characters and plotlines. But his character Virgo Shaka takes inspiration from Buddhist lore instead. Shingon Buddhism, Vijnanavada Buddhism, and the life of the historical Buddha, are all sources from which Virgo Shaka’s persona is put together.

In order to understand Virgo Shaka, his storyline must be explained. Who is this character whom the others say is “the man closest to the Gods”? How does he enter the story, what function does he play, and how does the author draw on Buddhism to create him? 


Shaka is a carefully constructed parallel of the historical Buddha. The historical Buddha was called “Sakyamuni”, meaning “sage of the Sakya clan”. The Japanese transliteration of “Sakya” is “Shaka”, and the historical Buddha is refered to by the Shingon school as “Shaka Nyorai”, one of the thirteen Buddhas who assist people during their lifetime, and after death guide them to the realm of enlightenment. The objective of Shingon Buddhism, is to dedicate oneself to helping people, and realise in this lifetime that oneself is the Buddha. Virgo Shaka’s name denotes that he is the Buddha, and he is in fact aware of this, as evinced by his behaviour and statements throughout the manga. When Shaka was very young, he saw how much humans suffer, and decided to dedicate his life to eliminating suffering. He left his home, and decided to discipline himself and study the techniques of destroying evil. He trained with a master in the Ganges basin, until his abilities surpassed his master. Then he went off on his own and discovered secrets that no one else knew, and became the most powerful person on Earth. This is like the well-known story of the historical Buddha, who left his luxurious life behind in order to find the answer to human suffering, and after realising he wasn’t learning much from his masters, went off on his own and found enlightenment.

Shaka makes his first appearance early on in the series. He travels from his home in the Ganges Basin, where he has been training as a warrior, to a place called Death Queen Island where one of the main figures of the series, Ikki, is experiencing vital character-development. The leader of Death Queen Island is a brutal tyrant who perpetuates evil in the world, and Shaka has come to destroy him. Ikki has killed the tyrant before Shaka arrives. Ikki challenges him to a duel, and Shaka refers to him as “Sun Wu-Kong on the palm of the Buddha”. This reference is from Journey to the West, a very popular Buddhist novel. The novel developed from legends of Hsuan Tsang’s journey to India to bring Buddhist scriptures back to China. Shaka’s reference to Ikki as the monkey, first of all defines himself as the Buddha, and reminds Ikki that he is small and insignificant in the face of the powers that he does not understand. Ikki is angry, but Shaka declines to fight him, telling him that despite the evil in Ikki’s eyes, he sees goodness burried in Ikki’s heart. He makes Ikki forget the encounter, but first he tells him that if Ikki lets the evil around him take control of his soul, and ever comes before Shaka as an enemy, then Shaka will have no choice but to kill him.

Other characters in the manga say of Shaka, “although he is like a God, he still has a weakness. He is too compassionate.” In accordance with Buddhist doctrines, the driving force in Shaka’s life is his compassion and his desire to help everyone in the world escape from suffering. Since this is an action manga, of course this desire manifests as his dedication to fighting for justice against the forces of evil. But unlike most of the characters, Shaka’s objective is never to destroy his enemies, but to teach them the effects of their past actions, so that they can reform. The idea that one acquires “bad karma” and must repent one’s actions, is a concept prevalent in Japanese Buddhism, described in many stories by the monk Kyokai, who was influenced by Kukai, from the Shingon school of Buddhism. As soon as individuals repent and have faith in the Buddha, they are able to overcome their sins.

Shaka’s fighting techniques reflect Vijnanavada doctrine. The Vijnanavada school of Buddhism, also known as the “School of Consciousness” or the “Mind Only School”, asserts that all of reality is an illusion created by the mind. Shaka uses mind-games against his opponents. He ensnares his adversaries in elaborate illusions, usually having to do with their memories and deepest fears. He is also capable of obliterating their five senses, one by one. According to Vijnanavada doctrine, the five senses are empty, and their perceptions are the result of the dellusion that objects exist.

The Vijnanavada school maps out the structure of consciousness. At the very bottom, are the five senses. Above them, is the level that assembles data into a complete picture. Above that is the sense of “I” which filters the incoming data. There is no self, though, despite the phenomenon of consciousness. The top level is the collection of karmic seeds and impulses, called the “storehouse consciousness”. It is the ultimate illusion, resting on, and built by, all of the other levels. This is not just the structure of consciousness, but also the structure of reality and the structure of delusion, since according to Vijnanavada doctrine, everything is an illusion created by the mind.

Shaka executes all these techniques by forming different mudras with his hands. Mudras are a concept common to various Buddhist schools, including Shingon Buddhism. They are a component of the esoteric practise of Shingon. Mudras are hand positions that channel the body’s energy in different ways.

The primary mudra that Shaka uses is the Dhyana Mudra, the “gesture of meditation”. Both hands rest on the lap, one on top of the other, with the palms facing upwards, and the tips of the thumbs touching each other. This is the position that Shaka assumes when he is resting, or when he is creating illusions without directly engaging in confrontation with his adversary. When he is using this mudra, Shaka is usually depicted sitting cross-legged on a lotus flower. Mudras and lotus flowers are both important to Shingon Buddhism, but this imagery is common in Buddhist artwork depicting the Amida Buddha of the Pure Land School. However, the text of the mangas does clearly state that Shaka is supposed to be a parallel of Shaka Nyorai, and not Amida Nyorai. Since Pure Land Buddhism is extremely popular in Japan, perhaps the author was just using imagery that he knew his readers would immediately associate with Buddhism in general.

Another mudra that Shaka uses is a combination of the Abhaya Mudra and the Varada Mudra. The Abhaya Mudra is the “gesture of fearlessness”, and is formed by raising the right hand, with the palm turned outwards. The Varada Mudra is the “gift bestowing gesture of compassion” and is formed by extending the right hand downwards with the palm facing outwards. Shaka lowers his left hand, rather than his right hand, to form both mudras at once.

Sometimes, instead of the Abhaya Mudra, he uses the Vitark Mudra, which is like the Abhaya Mudra, but the tip of the forefinger touches the tip of the thumb. This is the “gesture of debate”, and symbolises the explanation of the Buddha’s teachings. Shaka uses these mudras when he is striding towards his opponent, after confrontation has been initiated. The symbolism implies that when Shaka attacks, he is not fighting like most warriours, but rather he is teaching his opponent, and imparting valuable lessons.


Finally, when Shaka is engaged in combat, his hands usually form the Dharmacakra Mudra. This is the “gesture of teaching”, and is formed by holding both hands before the breast, tips of the index fingers touching the tips of the thumbs, palms facing each other. The symbolism of this mudra further emphasises that Shaka is not an ordinary warrior, and his method of fighting is spiritual and metaphysical.

When Shaka encounters Ikki for the second time, Ikki has come before him as an adversary, so Shaka needs to test him and make sure he understands compassion and understands the results of his past actions, his karma. If Ikki hasn’t learned, and he’s let evil destroy the goodness in his heart, then Shaka will be obliged to kill him. Luckily for Ikki, he has matured a lot since Death Queen Island.

First Shaka tells Ikki to pray to him, and beg forgiveness for all his past transgressions (of which Ikki has very many). Ikki refuses to do so, and finds himself standing on the palm of the Buddha. He recalls the encounter on Death Queen Island, which Shaka had blocked from his memory until now. Ikki responds by asking Shaka if he is indeed the reincarnation of Shaka Nyorai himself.

Using his web of illusion, Shaka takes Ikki through each of the six levels of Hell. These six levels of Hell are a Buddhist concept. Depending on a person’s level of positive karma, after death one will be reincarnated again, in the place which best suits them both for punishing their past actions, and for giving them the challenges they need to further advance their spiritual state. Ikki recognises that everything he is experiencing is merely an elaborate illusion. He wraps his arms around Shaka and they both disappear, along with the “reality” that Shaka had created. Since Ikki is motivated by his love for his little brother and his desire to save his little brother’s life (compassion), rather than his previous hatred towards the world and his desire to destroy as much as possible, Ikki passes Shaka’s test, and Shaka returns them both to this plane of existance. Now Ikki will dedicate himself to compassion, and fight for justice to help ease other people’s suffering. Through this incident, Shaka cleanses the last traces of evil from Ikki’s soul.

When Shaka faces his final battle on Earth, he takes his opponents to a beautiful garden with twin Sala trees. When the historical Buddha finally reached full enlightenment and left this world, he is said to have laid down beneath twin Sala trees. Shaka has been invincible until now. But he allows his adversaries to kill him, because now it’s time for him to move on to a higher metaphysical level. One of the secrets that he has always known, is that death is not the end of all things. The doctrine of non-duality is pervasive through all Buddhist schools. Life and death are not two opposing things.

Right before he dies, Shaka writes the words “Asraya Consciousness”. Asraya paravitti is a Vijnanavada concept. It describes the process of replacing the levels of consciousness described earlier, with equivalent levels of awareness. Reality is an illusion constructed by the mind, but once one realises that there is no self, then the limits of reality fall away, and things like life and death become irrelevant. The structure rests on the five senses, but there are no real objects, nor is there real perception… and so on, up through the levels, one recognises that everything is fundamentally empty, and what have seemed to be phenomena, are merely dependant arisings. As a person increases one’s awareness and one’s wisdom, one is able to do this. This, according to the Vijnanavada school, is the process of attaining enlightenment.

Shaka’s death is deeply mourned in the story, just like the historical Buddha. But gradually the other characters understand what he meant by “Asraya Consciousness”, and they too strive to follow the path that he took, and increase their own wisdom and awareness.

While it is strange to think of the reincarnation of the Buddha being a twenty year old young man who wears golden armour and fights in a cosmic battle of good versus evil, the parallels are very clearly drawn. Using details from various Buddhist traditions, Kurumada created a very compelling character, who really can be called “the man closest to the gods”.  


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