Standing beside Mi Le Pu Sa (the God of contentment and happiness) are the four Heavenly Guardians or Dharma Protectors. They are symbolic guardians of the practitioners of the Buddhist way. Whom do they protect? They protect us by reminding us to educate ourselves and to safeguard the proper knowledge, which we should learn. Each guardian portrays a different aspect of thought or action [scroll down to see photos].
The Eastern Dharma Protector (holding a lute) symbolizes responsibility and safeguards the territory, which means that all of us are responsible for ourselves, our family, society and the country as a whole. If each of us performs our duties well, fulfilling our obligations, we support each other and ourselves as well.
Why lute: To get beautiful music from the lute, the strings on it must not be too tight, nor too loose. It is the middle way we must tread when performing our duties.
The Southern Dharma Protector (holding a sword) symbolizes progress and teaches us diligence. He emphasizes the importance of constantly cultivating and advancing our virtue, wisdom and knowledge, and to improve performance in ourselves and our duties. This is similar to Confucian ideas of daily self-improvement.
Why sword: In China, a sword is a symbol of wisdom (慧剑). Wisdom is like a sword that can remove all our delusions, defilements, and worries in one strike.
The Western Dharma Protector (holding a dragon or snake) symbolizes comprehensive vision and knowledge gained through exposure to the world. He represents the need to open our eyes to observe nature and man, to refine what we see and learn, and to distinguish good from ill.
Why dragon and snake: In China, a dragon represents infinite and sudden changes. Only when we realize this can we live in ease and serenity.
The Northern Dharma Protector (holding an umbrella) symbolizes comprehensive study and learning. Both teach ways of practice and how to achieve the goals in responsibility fulfillment and self-improvement. As the ancient Chinese have said: "To read ten thousand books and to travel ten-thousand miles." We read to gain more knowledge and travel to observe more effectively. We will then be able to improve ourselves and to perform our duties most effectively.
Why umbrella: It symbolizes protection, protecting us from the pollution around us.
Today, people visit the Hall of Dharma Protectors to burn incense, prostrate and offer flowers and fruit praying for protection and safety. This is superstition. All the facilities, images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas and any offerings made are teaching tools designed to inspire our mind and wisdom. They also serve to remind us of the importance of being enlightened instead of deluded, virtuous instead of deviated, pure instead of polluted. These are the three principles of Buddhist teaching and practice.
Photo source: http://www.phys.uni.torun.pl/~duch/zdjecia/03Singapore/Swiatynie/index.html
The Western and Northern Heavenly Kings
The Eastern and Southern Heavenly Kings