The existence of demons and monsters is often crucial to a religious system. These scary Buddhist monsters don't exist just to spook you, they symbolize vile and evil aspects of human nature. Buddhists believe every human being posses Buddha nature, and can achieve enlightenment, but also that humans are inherently predisposed to giving in to their basest desires, such as greed, ego, lust, and anger. Scary demons from Buddhism typically embody impure thoughts and desires that lead to negative behavior, though some are simply frightening reminders to do only good things.
The world is full of things both good and bad. The same applies to monsters in Buddhism. Some of the monstrous creatures on this list are benevolent, while other Buddhist demons are troublemakers with evil intentions. One thing they all have in common: supernatural abilities and otherworldly appearance, which makes them terrifying.
Beyond being fearsome fictional characters, these weird Buddhist demons are central to the belief system of many Buddhist sects, which gives them the power to influence human behavior. Depicted in archaic scriptures and passed along generation to generation, Buddhist demons will scare the sh*t out of you, no matter your religious affiliations.
Mara’s fearsme appearance and evil character live up to his title, Lord of Death. The personification of evil and temptation, Mara, according to some scriptures, tempted and attacked Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, just before he achieved enlightenment. Mara holds the distinction of being one of the oldest Buddhist demons, and one of the first non-human beings to appear in Buddhist writings. Buddhism was originally atheistic, and evolved to incorporate tales of gods and demons after the Buddha's death, and in the words of his acolytes.
When Mara met Siddhartha, he attempted to use his power of delusion to bring about the Buddha's spiritual death, with the help of his daughters Desire, Fulfillment, and Regret. When that failed, Mara called his army of demons to attack Siddhartha. Generally speaking, Mara opposes religion and is capable of inflicting coma and illness on humans.
Rakshasas, demonic man-eaters, come from Hindu cosmology. Because the historical Buddha was from India, a number of ideas from Hinduism informed Buddhism at its inception. Rakshasas appear in the Maha Samaya and Alavaka, ancient Indian Buddhist texts, in the latter of which Buddha convinces the demon to give up its evil ways and strive for enlightenment.
Traditional Hindu and Indian Buddhist rakshasas posses black magic, and have long, toxic fingernails, in addition to their human-devouring obsession. They are hardly your garden variety fearsome brute; some Rakshasa were very clever and deceitful. Some stories also mentioned Rakshasas attempting to munch not on gods as well as mortals. Beyond India, rakshakas appear in numerous forms, as you'll see throughout this list.
The jikininki ("people-eating ghosts") of Japanese Buddhist mythology fall under the umbrella of hungry ghosts, but exhibit enough unique characteristics to command their own place on this list. They are described in texts as disgusting-looking evil spirits. The most well-known tale of these demonic spirits comes from Kwaidan, an anthology of Japanese ghost stories complied by Greek/Irish traveler and writer Lafcadio Hearn.
Jikininki were greedy and selfish people, who, upon death, were cursed with the desire to eat human corpses. Tragically, they have the consciousness to understand what they are, and loathe themselves for being such sickening creatures. Jikininki terrorize the living: Japanese scriptures assure us they are so terrifying and distasteful to look at, the sight of them cripples limbs in fear and disgust.
Yama is one of the eight dharmapalas, wrathful protectors of Buddhism. Despite Yama’s role as one of the good guys, he looks terrifying. As the King of Hell, Yama judges the dead wearing a crown of five skulls, which accentuates his association with death and naraka (hell). Yama created old age, disease, and deterioration to teach humans the value of life and encourage them to behave well while they're alive, and, as such, represents impermanence. People who do not heed his warnings will face eternal suffering.
Yama is a prevalent figure in many Asian countries, making appearances in Tibetan and Southeast Asian Buddhism and Japanese, Korean, and Chinese mythology. He's of Hindu origin.