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 possesses 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 an 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 from generation to generation, Buddhist demons will scare the sh*t out of you, no matter your religious affiliations.
The jikininki ("human-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 best-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 remains. 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 that they are so terrifying and distasteful to look at, the sight of them cripples limbs in fear and disgust.
Oni are ogre-like demons from Japanese Buddhism. Depicted as horrendous, giant beasts, Oni have brightly colored skin (usually blue or red), different numbers of horns, toes, fingers, and, sometimes, eyes. They wield massive iron clubs (kanabo), and their spirits are reborn from dead souls with an ax to grind - those who perished in famines or epidemics, jealous women, or wicked people condemned to a tormented afterlife in a Buddhist hell. They dole out punishment to wicked people, and serve the demon lord Enma.
The powers of the Oni are tremendous - they can reattach body parts they lose in fights, fly, change form at will, and inflict disease, insanity, and death as they see fit. Intelligent and extremely nasty, Oni revel in causing societal breakdown, and eat and drink to excess. Their favorite food is human flesh.
Mara’s fearsome 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 passing.
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 comas 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 possess black magic and have long, toxic fingernails, in addition to their human-devouring obsession. They are hardly your garden-variety fearsome brute; some rakshasa are very clever and deceitful. Some stories also mention rakshasas attempting to munch on gods as well as mortals. Beyond India, rakshasas appear in numerous forms, as you'll see throughout this list.