Excellent piece here at Immanent Frame by Brian Lowe about Buddhist Gods, pandemics, and political power:
But these gods did not only protect. They also observed and reported transgressors, who would in turn be punished. The celestial realm was itself a moral surveillance state patrolled by the four heavenly kings. This is expressed in iconography from ancient Japan, including a set of images enshrined in Tōdaiji’s Precept Platform Hall. Two of the Four Heavenly Kings gaze off in the distance surveilling people; one holds a brush and a scroll to record the acts of humans and report them up the heavenly hierarchy. The other two carry swords and stand with fierce bulging eyes. They will either protect or punish depending on one’s actions. This idea also appears in one of the origin stories of Japanese Buddhism from the temple Gangōji, which may date to the Heian period (794–1185), in which the female sovereign Suiko prays for the four kings to protect the realm but cautions that future rulers will be visited by “great calamity and great shame” if they fail to promote Buddhism.
In this Buddhist imaginaire, the virtue of the ruler is utterly transparent. If epidemics or disasters strike, it means the sovereign was to blame. For this reason, rulers in antiquity constantly lamented their own shortcomings. Emperor Shōmu responded to various disasters including the aforementioned smallpox epidemic with repeated edicts stressing that such crises emerged from his lack of virtue and that “the fault is not with the people.” He echoed this sentiment in his aforementioned 741 vow for the provincial temple network: “I with meager virtue have unworthily born this weighty appointment [as emperor]. I have yet to spread governance and civilization. In waking and sleeping, I’m filled with shame . . . Recently, the year’s crops are not prospering and pestilence repeatedly spreads. Shame and dread mix together, I just toil away and blame myself.”