The devotional cult of Yakushi Nyorai (Medicine Buddha) was one of the first to develop in Japan after Buddhism’s introduction to the Japanese archipelago in the mid-sixth century. Concrete evidence of his worship on Japanese soil dates from the late seventh century during the reign of Emperor Tenmu. Originally venerated solely by ruling sovereigns and court elites for their own personal benefits (to cure life-threatening illnesses), Yakushi would later become the central deity in eighth-century rites to ensure the welfare of the entire realm. By the early ninth century, the deity was also called upon to placate vengeful calamity-causing spirits.
During the Heian period (794–1185), Yakushi’s cult spread to all regions of Japan, evidenced by an explosive increase in the production of Yakushi images in the ninth and tenth centuries. Hundreds of extant Heian-era Yakushi statues, an exceedingly high number compared to surviving sculptures of other Buddhist deities, attest to his prominence in those days. Most of these Yakushi icons, says scholar Yui Suzuki, were enshrined in large temples of imperial or aristocratic lineage, but some were installed in private sanctuaries and humble monastic settings far removed from the capital, suggesting that Yakushi worship had already spread to the lower classes..
According to the texts dedicated to him, he was a Boddhisatva who made
twelve vows upon becoming a Buddha. The twelve vows are:
To illuminate countless realms with his radiance, enabling
anyone to become a Buddha just like him.
To awaken the minds of sentient beings through his light of
To provide the sentient beings with whatever material needs
To correct heretical views and inspire beings toward the
path of the Bodhisattva.
To help beings follow the Moral Precepts, even if they
To heal beings born with deformities, illness or other
To help relieve the destitute and the sick.
To help women who wish to be reborn as men achieve their
To help heal mental afflictions and delusions.
To help the oppressed be free from suffering.
To relieve those who suffer from terrible hunger and thirst.
To help clothe those who are destitute and suffering from
cold and mosquitoes
Most of the time, Yakushi Nyorai is depicted seating, draped
in simple robes . His right hand is often held up, palm open
and facing the viewer, with fingers slightly curled. This is
the mudra (hand gesture) of Semui-in, meaning of “fear
In his left hand, he very often holds a small jar said to
contain medicine or a magical emerald capable of healing.
When in temples, his statues are often surrounded by others.
Most of the time, it is flanked by statues of the twelve
heavenly generals, each representing one of his vows. Other
times, Yakushi is also flanked on the left by the Nikko (sunlight)
Buddha and on the right by the Gakko (moonlight) Buddha.
He is very popular in the Kansai area of Japan as it is where
Buddhism first took hold in Japan, and he was one of the first Buddhas to
come to Japan. Older temples, especially in the Tendai and
Shingon traditions, are dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai.
It is not uncommon for worshippers to rub the statues of Yakushi Nyorai
while praying for healing. They usually rub the corresponding
area on the statue and then rub their own afflicted area. It is said to
You will find Yakushi Nyorai outside of the Todai-ji Temple in Nara.