Buddhism and the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Yesterday, I finally completed the game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the Nintendo Switch after taking almost a year off from it. It was satisfying to finally complete the game, and I had a terrific time. One of the fascinating things about Breath of the Wild was the subtle (and not to subtle) references to Japanese culture and religion.

For example, a common features of the game is the presence of “shrines” across the land. These shrines provide riddles and challenges to the player, and serve a dual purpose of creating places that you can teleport to easily, as well earning rewards for completing the puzzles. Interestingly, these “shrines” are called hokora in Japanese (祠) which just means roadside shrines. You can find them all over the place, in the countryside, and even in bigger cities. Near my wife’s parents home in the suburbs of Kawasaki, Japan, we frequently pass by this road-side shrine (hokora) of the Bodhisattva Jizō, a.k.a. the Earth-Store Bodhisattva:1

Jizo statue in a roadside shrine in Kawasaki, Japan, near Musashi-Nakahara station.

Hokora are not exclusively Buddhist though. In fact, the majority of them enshrine Shinto kami instead, such as this one I found in the Yushima ward of Tokyo venerating the kami Inari:

With centuries of Shinto religion and Buddhism co-existing, the lines have often blurred in popular religion thus one can find road-side shrines for Buddhist deities as well as Shinto kami.

Another, more obscure aspect of Japanese religion that appears prominently in Breath of the Wild are the mummified sages that are housed in each shrine:

Of the dozens and dozens of shrines in Breath of the Wild, each one contains a mummified sage, but the poses and appearances vary quite a bit. This is just a few screenshots I took to give an idea of what they look like.

These mummies are very likely inspired by a real set of mummies found in medieval Japan. As far back as the 8th century, but especially in the Edo Period (later banned by law in the late 19th century), a number of Buddhist monks in Japan undertook an extreme form of ascetic practice to become a sokushinbutsu (即身仏) or “A buddha in this body”. These mummies, totaling only 24, have been enshrined in Buddhist temples, primarily in northern Niigata and Yamagata Prefectures (among a few other places). A partial list below:

(rough translation)
Temple Currently EnshrinedModern PrefectureYear of their death / transcendenceAge
Kōchi Hōin (弘智法印)Saishōji (西生寺)Niigata136382
Possibly Tanzei (弾誓上人)Amidaji (阿弥陀寺)Kyoto161363
HonmyōkaiHonmyōji (本明寺)Yamagata168361
Arisada Hōin (宥貞法印)Kinhisayama Nukishuji (金久山 貫秀寺)Fukushima168392
Shungi (?) (舜義Myōhōji (妙法寺)Ibaraki168678
Zenkai (全海)Kannonji (観音寺)Niigata168785
Shinnyōkai (真如海上人)Dainichibō (大日坊)Yamagata178396
Myōshin Hōshi (妙心法師)Yokokuraji (横蔵寺)Gifu181736
Courtesy of Wikipedia Japan

The idea is that, according to Japanese Wikipedia (the English article has many misleading comments) is that such ascetics hoped to transcend birth and death entirely by entering into a very deep state of meditation, where their body effectively shuts down, yet they dwell in the Tuṣita Heaven with the next Buddha, Maitreya (Miroku 弥勒 in Japanese). Because Maitreya resides in this heaven preparing for his eventual descent to earth many eons from now,2 some devout Buddhists have sought to be reborn in his heaven realm so they can dwell among him, usually through prayer or devotional acts, but in some extreme cases through ascetic practices to transcend the mundane body. Other reasons may exist for particular monks to have undergone this practice as well, however.

For such ascetic monks, the practice involved isolating oneself and subsisting on a diet of certain tree bark and nuts. The resin in these trees slowly preserves the body, while also causing the body to lose more and more fat (since the monk is not consuming any), and a regimen of chanting and meditation. If successful, the monk in question would “die” in such a dignified pose, and yet from the perspective of esoteric Buddhism (namely Vajrayana / Mikkyō) they are not actually dead but in a deep, deep state of meditation. The concept of “becoming a buddha in this very body” (sokushin jōbutsu 即身成仏) is something intrinsic to esoteric-Buddhist schools, and isn’t really found elsewhere.

Such mummies, by the way, are not exclusive to Japan and are found in places like medieval China and Tibet as well.

Needless to say, it’s fascinating how such an obscure religious-historical fact can show up in a modern, hit video-game, and chances are most players would never know it. 😜

P.S. Speaking of Jizo and video games, anyone who’s played the original NES game Super Mario 3, may remember the “Tanooki Statue” form:

That statue is a actually a “Mario version” of Jizō Bodhisattva. You see a similar statue in Mario Odyssey as well:

Jizō Bodhisattva on the left, Mario on the right.

1 Whenever I pass by that Jizo shrine on the way back and forth to the train station, I always try to give a subtle bow with my head. Being a foreigner, I stand out quite a bit in Japan anyway, so I try not to make things worse. Every once in a while, I see offerings that people leave under it: flowers, BOSS Coffee (which I also happen to love), and other such treats.

2 Cult leaders and frauds sometimes claim to be Maitreya. Don’t be fooled. Maitreya will not appear until the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) are long, long gone and forgotten, and buddhas appear countless eons apart from one another.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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