Ep. 027: Heng and Ha, the Fiercesome Temple Guardians

Come meet Snorter and Blower!

Approaching the gate of a fair-sized Chinese Buddhist temple, we look to either side and see two prodigious figures glaring down at us threateningly. These are the two temple guardians, Heng and Ha. Come meet them on this episode of--


The Mountain Gate at Guangxiao Temple, Guangzhou

The two colossal guardians are housed in the shanmen or Mountain Gate, the passage between the mundane world (often on a literal mountain) and the sacred precincts. In busy downtown temples, the gate may still be named from this tradition, though there's not a mountain to be seen.

A Pair of Opposites

Closed-mouthed Heng and open-mouthed Ha in the Mountain Gate at Puyou Temple, Chengde, Hebei

Looking closely at those two guardian figures, we see that one has his mouth closed, and the other's mouth is open.

The one with the closed mouth, Heng, is passive, reluctant to participate. He is Yin, the dark side in the familiar image of Yin and Yang. The open-mouthed one, Ha, is active, shouting out in full voice. He, then, is Yang, the active principle. Yin and Yang are the primordial pair of opposites, from which come distinctions of darkness/light, moon/sun, female/male, etc.

This concept is embedded in one of the oldest documents of Chinese culture, the Dao De Jing, foundational text of Daoism. Verse 42 of the Dao tells us (in part):

From the Dao arose the One;
From the One arose the Two;
From the Two arose the Three;
From the Three arose the 10,000 things (that is, everything in the world).

Briefly explained, the Dao is the primordial principle, which exists in unity ("the One"); this splits into the well-known pairs of opposites, symbolized by Yin and Yang ("the Two"); the relationship between Yin and Yang is "the Three"; and that interplay gives rise to everything that is.

So it has been proposed that the way to the Dao is to reverse the process: move back from the myriad of things to the perception of their interplay; thence to the Two; and passing these, back to the original Unity and the Dao.

Concretely, then, passing between the pairs of opposites represented by Heng and Ha brings us to the Buddha, the last step before going back to the Dao--or "Enlightenment."

What Mircea Eliade Said

A notable feature of the Mountain Gate is that, often, it has a high wooden threshold. There may have been a practical reason for this in earlier times, in temples and other buildings, including homes: it would keep out vermin and the dust of the street, discourage snakes, and so on.

The high threshold in the Mountain Gate, Daming Temple, Yangzhou, Jiangsu

The great scholar of religion Mircea Eliade has written eloquently on the spiritual significance of thresholds:

The threshold that separates the two spaces [between the inside and outside of a church, in his example] also indicates the distance between two modes of being, the profane and the religious. The threshold is the limit, the boundary, the frontier that distinguishes and opposes two worlds--and at the same time the paradoxical place where those worlds communicate, where passage from the profane to the sacred world becomes possible.

These figures have their analog in Western culture. The Roman god of gates and doors, of beginnings and transitions, and of ports (which after all means "doors") at which journeys begin and end, is the two-faced god Janus, familiar in the name of the month of January, the beginning of the year. His two faces were said to be looking toward the past and the future--perhaps one of our most heartfelt pairs of opposites.

In the same passage, Eliade continued:

The threshold has its guardians--gods and spirits who forbid entrance both to human enemies and to demons and the powers of pestilence. It is on the threshold that sacrifices to the guardian divinities are offered. ... The threshold, the door ... [hold] great religious importance, for they are symbols and at the same time vehicles of passage from the one space to the other.

Whether fierce Generals or traditional Door Gods, these pairs are not there to hinder, but rather to oversee and perhaps even facilitate the passage from one state of being to another, from The World and all its sorrows to the place of peace, tranquility, and even enlightenment. She who can pass successfully between them can ultimately meet the Buddha.


Western-style lions in front of a hotel in Shenzhen, Guangdong. Closed mouth and baby represent yin; open mouth and ball depict yang.

If you've ever traveled in China, or even visited a Chinatown in other countries, you may have noted the ubiquitous lions outside of banks, hotels, and government buildings. When properly done, these will also be opposites, with one mouth closed and the other open. The open-mouthed lion may also have--well--a penis, when the other does not. (I have even--rarely--seen the closed-mouth lion with "lady parts"!) Likewise, the male may be resting a forepaw on a round ball--the outer world--while the female has her foot on a baby lion (sometimes upside down), symbolizing the home and inner things.

Now, Heng and Ha are often found in front of temples in Japan. In fact, so important are they that the gate, though sometimes called sanmon (the Japanese reading of the characters for shanmen) is often called the Ni-O Mon, or "Two Kings' Gate." I also saw the Generals replaced not only by lions in Japan, but in one memorable case by cranes!

(Most properly, the "Ni" of the Ni-O Mon references the Confucian virtue sometimes translated "benevolence" or “compassion," so this is the "Benevolent Kings' Gate"; nevertheless, it's popularly accepted as meaning "two," which is a homophone of "benevolence" in Japanese. The Japanese and Chinese love those significant puns!)

Closed- and open-mouthed cranes replace the Ni-O ("Two Kings") at Kakurin-ji ("Crane Woods Temple"), Katsuura, Tokushima, Japan

The Japanese have a quaint interpretation of the facial expressions of the "Two Kings." They call the one with the open mouth Agyo (ah-shape) and the other Ungyo (un-shape). "Ah" and "un" are the sounds of the first and last letters of the Japanese syllabary. So they embrace everything, "from A to Z" as it were.

Furthermore, pronounced together, they make Aun, the Japanese way of pronouncing the Sanskrit syllable "Aum" or "Om," the primordial sound.

What Joseph Campbell Said

Ni-O at Horyu-ji, Nara, Japan (The figures at Todai-ji, mentioned in the text, are behind chicken wire to keep out the pigeons, making photos unsatisfactory. But they are magnificent.)

In Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell has written of those "two gigantic, marvelously threatening military figures," the Ni-O found at Japan's Todai-ji, home of the Great Buddha of Nara. "In the Buddhist view ... what is keeping us out of the garden [of Eden] is not the jealousy or wrath of any god, but our own instinctive attachment to what we take to be our lives." This attachment, and not any angel with a flaming sword, is what prevents us from returning to "the garden," he says. Then,

What is symbolized in our passage of the guarded gate [of Todai-ji] is our abandonment of both the world so known and ourselves so known within it: the phenomenal, mere appearance of things seen as born and dying, experienced either as good or as evil, and regarded, consequently, with desire and fear. Of the two big Buddhist cherubim, one has the mouth open, the other, the mouth closed -- in token (I have been told) of the way we experience things in this temporal world, in terms always of pairs-of-opposites. Passing between, we are to leave such thinking behind.

(Another way to see the Generals, alluded to by Campbell, is that Heng is Fear, shutting things out; while Ha is Desire, open to anything.)

If we want to return to The One, then, we shall have to pass through these opposites. They are more than just guards with swords; they are the emotional baggage we carry from struggling in the world between wealth and poverty, happiness and despair, love and anger, wisdom and ignorance.

Heng and Ha

White-faced Heng and yellow-faced Ha in the Mountain Gate at Guangxiao Temple

Now let's go back to China and take a closer look at these Two Generals, the inspiration for Japan's Two Kings. Each one stands in a dynamic martial arts pose, and each holds a formidable-looking weapon--as if about to pounce on the visitor who, by carefully treading the Middle Way, will at last reach the Buddha.

Their proper names are Zheng Lun and Chen Qi, but they are known more colloquially as "Snorter" and "Blower." They say General Heng--Snorter--is able to snort white light from his nose with the sound of a great bell, confusing and debilitating his enemies. General Ha--Blower--on the other hand, can store up yellow smoke in his insides and devastate his enemies by blowing it out of his mouth. The Generals' powers are sometimes reflected in the colors of their faces: Heng's may be white like the light he snorts; and Ha's, yellow, like the smoke he blows.

The Story of Snorter and Blower

[Note: The Romanization of Chinese can be confusing; many different Chinese characters are written with the same Roman characters. In this story, the "Zhou Dynasty" and "King Zhou (of the Shang Dynasty)" are written as two entirely different words in Chinese.]

The following story is retold from a 16th-century Chinese novel, Investiture of the Gods.

Jiang Ziya (Wikipedia)

"...and so, Prime Minister, we beg your assistance in protecting our temples from these marauding bands."

Jiang Ziya, advisor to King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty, was tired. He had spent a long day hearing petitions, and hadn't he been 72 years old when he came to work for this king's father--now designated King Wen--many years before? In the intervening years he had been responsible for designing the strategies with which this new dynasty had overthrown the Shang Dynasty of his former boss, the evil King Zhou. King Wu had rewarded him with a dukedom, and hearing these appeals was part of his responsibilities.

"Yes, Venerable," he answered the monk. "We will take your concerns under advisement. We regret that the times are still somewhat unstable, but you can look forward to safer and more prosperous days soon." With a nod to his attendants, he rose and exited toward his chambers.

As he walked the corridors, he wondered: Had he done enough for the people? After twenty years of serving the wicked king, he had found that position untenable. He had feigned madness and disappeared to while away his days fishing in the River Wei. There, as the prophecy had foretold, he had been found by Wen, King Wu's father, and gone into his service. Had he done right to abandon the poor suffering people of Shang in running away like that?

But in numerous instances King Zhou--called by some in later days the "Nero of China"--had proven himself an intolerable monster, and the enmity of the king's equally-wicked wife Daji had made it impossible for Jiang to do anything about Zhou's excesses. An evil nature had caused Zhou to lust after Nuwa--creator goddess of humankind--who for this sacrilege sent seductive female spirits to bewitch Zhou into neglecting his duties, hastening his downfall. And wasn't his legacy reflected in the very name given after his death--"Zhou," denoting the crupper, a loop of leather that helped keep a saddle in place? Its placement under the tail made it subject to the worst indignities a horse could dish out. Furthermore, after his death, Zhou had had the audacity to beg mercy of the gods and request a place in their pantheon. In their cruel humor they had granted his request, finding for him a most suitable position: he was styled the God of Sodomy.

In any case, thanks to the victory of the Zhou Dynasty over the Shang, Jiang Ziya was now in a position to do great good. Still thinking of the monk's request, his head touched his pillow and he fell into a deep sleep.


Heng and Ha, Guoqing Temple, Tiantai, Zhejiang

But his work was not yet finished. In a dream, he was back in his seat, hearing requests. The first petitioner was a familiar-looking giant of a man, with a firmly clamped mouth and an unusually wide nose with large nostrils. Jiang Ziya listened patiently--for as long as he could.

"Your Grace," the petitioner began through clenched teeth, "I am Zheng Lun, and have acquired great skill under my master, the Daoist magician Du E in the far western reaches of the Kunlun Mountains, where the Jade Palace of the mythical Yellow Emperor Huang-Di can be found, and the abode of Xi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the West.

"My Master taught me this: I can expel from my nostrils two great beams of white light, accompanied by a sound as of a great bell, which first brings confusion to my enemies, then annihilates them body and soul, taking away their lives in this world and the next.

"I perfected my other fighting skills, and drilled my Black Crow troops until they were flawless. Under your former master, King Zhou of Shang, I served Su Hu, the Duke of Jizhou. Though I was Chief Superintendent of Supplies for the armies of Shang, I nevertheless achieved great victories on the battlefield. In one notable battle, I defeated Chong Heihu, 'The Black Tiger.' At first his golden axes seemed a match for my battle bars, but finally I discovered the source of his power, a red gourd on his back. I snorted the white bolts from my nose, and striking the gourd, knocked him from his horse, winning the day.

"But my fortunes turned, and I was captured in a night raid by the Kingdom of Zhou and brought to--"

"Me!" interrupted Jiang Ziya. "You were brought to me. Did you think I had forgotten you, Zheng Lun? I was going to behead you for your stubbornness, until Su Hu convinced you that King Zhou had lost the Mandate of Heaven and you agreed to join us. Seeing your value as a warrior, I gladly accepted you into the army of King Wu of Zhou."

"For which I am grateful, Your Grace," the giant replied. "I was happy to serve as Superintendent of Army Stores and oversee five corps of your army. But, as you know, one day I met a most unfortunate end."

"Yes, I recall. In fact, I see your former nemesis waiting to be heard. Bring forth Chen Qi!" he called to the guards of the audience room.

The figure who entered was equal in size and strength to the one who had previously spoken. But where his mouth had been closed and his nostrils great, this one's mouth gaped open in a ferocious silent roar.

"Your Grace!" he bellowed. "I am Chen Qi, loyal servant to King Zhou of Shang and Provider of Food for his armies, until my death in battle with this one"--here he indicated Zheng Lun with a dismissive gesture--"who was taught by the same Master as I, and served the same king, until he turned tail and ran to the other side."

"My side, may I remind you," said Jiang Ziya mildly.

"Nevertheless, he was a turncoat, and I was honored to face him in battle, I for Shang and he for Zhou, until it became clear that we were equally matched, and neither could best the other. My power, as you recall, is to develop a yellow gas in the depths of my belly, and blow it out at my opponents, wiping out whole ranks with my power. Until that day..."

As Chen Qi spoke, Jiang was reviewing the ferocious battle in his mind's eye. The two gargantuan warriors had unhorsed each other, and traded magical blow for magical blow, until fate intervened. "As I recall, you were struck by--"

"Nezha!" roared Chen Qi.

"Yes, the Third Prince," Zheng Lun interjected, laughing.

"Third BRAT is more like it!" Chen Qi shouted. "Even his father Li Jing, the Pagoda-Bearing Heavenly King, was sorry he was born, and burned down his temple! Nezha zipped up on his Fire Wheels and stabbed my shoulder with his Fire Spear! Treacherous!

"And then Huang Feihu, the so-called 'Yellow Flying Tiger'--another traitor to the Shang--finished me off with a spear to the belly."

"Huang had good reason to defect," Jiang Ziya reminded him. "Your king had lusted after his wife, who--tired of fending him off--committed suicide rather than submit to the evil ruler's advances. This was too much for the Tiger, and we welcomed him as a righteous man, with his family."

"Nevertheless!" bawled Chen Qi. "This one here did not defeat me in single combat! It took three of them!"

"Nevertheless," Zheng Lun echoed, "You died."

"And so did you, shortly thereafter!" Chen Qi retorted. "You didn't escape the field with your life, either!"

"But it took magic greater than yours to best me," Zheng Lun said. "Jin Dasheng, the ox spirit, produced bezoar--that yellow stone commonly found in the gut of cows. He drew up a large chunk, the size of a bowl of rice, and spat it with great force directly onto my nose. After all the snorting I had done, my poor nose couldn't stand the strain. I fell before him, and with his sword he struck me at the waist, splitting my top half from my bottom."

"Bygones," said Jiang Ziya, waving his hand. "Now tell me: why are you two here before me?"

Both of the titans spoke at once. "I have come seeking a position," they chorused. Looking at each other for a shocked moment, they both burst out in colossal laughter.

As the echoes of their mirth subsided, the tired Prime Minister said, "I will see what I can do for you. Now I really do need some sleep..." And the dream faded with the dwindling sound of the two giants' amusement.


In the morning, Jiang Ziya called together his staff. "Let it be known," he said, "that the two great warriors Zheng Lun and Chen Qi, known to all as Snorter and Blower, are to be carved in wood in all their ferocious splendor, weapons raised, one with his mouth closed, the other with his open, and placed on either side of the gates of any Buddhist temple seeking our protection, where they will ward off evil doers and shield the faithful."

And so it was done, and Heng and Ha preside over many temple entryways to this day.

Well, that's it for this episode. See you next time. Until then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: It's Dharma Day! We'll take a look at some of the differences between Mahayana Buddhism (found mainly in East Asia) and Theravada Buddhism (found mostly in South Asia).