Name in Japanese: びんずる
One of the more perplexing sights at some of Shikoku’s temples is the bright red figure sitting grinning on the veranda. In some cases the grin is almost a leer. Often the lacquer appears to have been rubbed off in places by frequent touching.
This personage is Binzuru, the Japanese embodiment of Pindola Bharadvaja. Pindola is an Arhat, one of the spiritually accomplished followers of the original Buddha, who asked them to remain in the world for eternity to propagate the Dharma, or Buddhist law. Originally there were four Arhats, one for each point of the compass, but their number subsequently increased. Some temples have up to five hundred images of the multifarious followers of the Buddha, who are also referred to Arhats.
Pindola was a master of occult and psychic powers, including healing. He was able to quell evil spirits. Nevertheless he was proud of his powers and sometimes used them simply to impress people, for which the Buddha once rebuked him. He was also a drunkard, hence his bright red colour. This reflects the tendency of Japanese to flush red when they drink alcohol.
In Japan, Binzuru is the most popular of the Arhats, to the extent that often he’s the only one depicted. Believers offer him red and white bibs, and knitted caps to watch over the health of their children. It’s customary to touch the part of the statue that corresponds to an ailment of your own, hence the worn parts on the lacquer. In his left hand, Binzuru holds a pot of medicine. Of course this isn’t normal medicine – it’s the spiritual healing of the Dharma.
Binzuru sits on the veranda outside the temple as a result of his personal failings. Once the Buddha asked Binzuru to go to the home of a wealthy family to exorcise evil spirits that had taken up residence there. The Buddha strictly enjoined Binzuru to behave himself. Binzuru drove out the spirits, and in gratitude, the rich man offered him a celebratory drink. Not wishing to be rude, Binzuru accepted and was soon drunk. Taking advantage of his weakness, the evil spirits returned.
As punishment, the Buddha forbade Binzuru from coming near him. Chastened, Binzuru listened to the Dharma from outside the Buddha’s tent. Before the Buddha died, he forgave Binzuru and ordered him to stay in the world and cure people of disease. So Binzuru still sits outside the temple, healing people and easing their suffering. If appearances are anything to go by, he still likes a drink.