An ornate stupa from Manbulsa Temple. In front are tiny red capped baby statues and statues of all Twelve Spirit Generals including the Monkey, Dragon, and Rat.
Hello Again Everyone!!
At some of the temples in Korea the very first thing to greet you, in one form or another, are the twelve zodiac signs. They may take the shape of statues, sculptures on pagodas, or hall paintings. However, the way they appear and the meaning behind them are highly unique and original to Korean Buddhism.
A statue of the dog spirit from Gwangcheonsa Temple.
While the zodiac signs are known as the zodiac signs in the west, they are known as the “Twelve Spirit Generals” in Korean Buddhism. Each of the Twelve Spirit Generals are distinguished by their own Sanskrit names. They are:
1. Rat Spirit: Catura
2. Ox Spirit: Vikarala
3. Tiger Spirit: Kumbhira
4. Rabbit Spirit: Vajra
5. Dragon Spirit: Mihira
6. Snake Spirit: Andira
7. Horse Spirit: Manera
8. Sheep Spirit: Sandila
9. Monkey Spirit: Indra
10. Rooster Spirit: Pajra
11. Dog Spirit: Mahoraga
12. Pig Spirit: Kinnara
A row of all Twelve Spirit Generals from Haedong Yonggungsa.
These zodiac signs have a long history in many cultures. In China, the zodiac signs took the shape of local animals that were familiar to the local people from the original Indian meanings. Traditionally, in Korean society, these zodiac signs were related to the New Year. Koreans would put up paintings/drawings on the inner or outer walls of their homes or businesses to protect against evil spirits for the year to come. Also, people would make their New Years resolution according to the zodiac sign for that upcoming year. So if it was the year of the tiger, they would pray to be courageous.
The Twelve Spirit Generals have animal faces and human bodies. The human bodies are clad with armour or ordinary robes of the aristocrats, while the faces (obviously) represent one of the twelve zodiac signs. In addition to the armour they wear, the twelve are usually shown with weapons of some sort. These weapons help to underscore their role as the protectors of the Buddha’s teachings, the land, as well as sentient beings. However, the Twelve Spirit Generals aren’t just armed with power and dominance; instead, they are also armed with compassion and virtue through Yaksa-bul (The Medicine Buddha).
The chicken spirit with a sword in hand from Gwancheonsa Temple.
In Korean Buddhism, the Twelve Spirit Generals are depicted as incarnations in the teachings of Yaksa-bul. And because Yaksa-bul is not only the Medicine Buddha, but he’s also the Buddha of the Pure Land of the Eastern Paradise, Yaksa-bul is also committed to relieving beings from suffering, pain, and disease. In addition to relieving people from the ailments of life, Yaksa-bul is also committed to helping people overcome their ignorance through enlightenment. That is why Yaksa-bul promised to fulfill the “12 Great Vows.” These vows state:
Yaksayore-bul from Pyochungsa Temple.
1. I vow to radiate brilliant light on myself and all beings in this infinite and boundless world.
2. I vow to make my body like pure crystal, brightening up the world and enlightening all beings.
3. I vow to grant all sentient beings with the inexhaustible things they require.
4. I vow to lead those who have gone astray back to the Mahayana path.
5. I vow to enable all sentient beings to observe the “three sets of pure precepts” for spiritual purity and moral conduct.
6. I vow to restore the bodies of the physically disabled.
7. I vow to relieve all physical and mental pain and enable the attainment of the “supreme enlightenment.”
8. I vow to help women become men in their new rebirth.
9. I vow to free all beings from the entrapments of false teachings so that they will walk the Buddha way.
10. I vow to save those in prison and the victims of tyrants and evil.
11. I vow to save all sentient beings who suffer from starvation and thirst.
12. I vow to provide beautiful clothes to those too poor to afford them.
In accordance with this promise, Yaksa-bul directed the Twelve Spirit Generals to uphold these vows. So not only do the armour clad and weapon carrying generals act as protectors, but they also act as teachers.
A set of three, the tiger, mouse, and dragon, from the Twelve Spirit Generals at Yongjusa Temple.
These Twelve Spirit Generals appear at Korean Buddhist temples in a variety of different places. One such place is when you first enter a Korean Buddhist temple. They appear in statue form in fierce postures. Like all forms of these twelve figures, they have a human body and a zodiac face. Situated where they are, they act as protectors of the Buddhist teachings. Two of the better examples of this can be found at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan, and Yonjusa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.
A close-up of the horse spirit from Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.
Another place these Twelve Spirit Generals can appear is in paintings. These paintings can appear inside our outside temple shrine halls. Such is the case at Seonjisa Temple in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do, where the Twelve Spirit Generals act as protectors to the Buddha and Nahan that are situated inside the main hall at the temple.
A painted rendering of the monkey spirit from Seonjisa Temple.
Yet another place these twelve teachers and protectors can appear is on the side of a pagoda. The twelve will appear at the base of the pagoda, three figures on each side of the four sided face of the pagoda. In this case, the Twelve Spirit Generals can act either as a protector of the Buddha’s remains that are traditionally housed inside the pagoda, or they can act as a beacon for the teaching of the Buddha to shine forth on the world. One of the finest examples of this can be found at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.
Either way, this list of the three places that the Twelve Spirit Generals figures can appear at a Korean Buddhist temple is not exhausted. These twelve teachers and protectors can appear nearly anywhere at a temple.
Two more of the Twelve Spirit Generals. This time, the pig spirit stands at the entrance at Gwangcheonsa Temple.
Another of the stoic statues at Gwangcheonsa Temple. This one is the sleek looking snake spirit.
So the next time you’re at a Korean temple, and you see the set of zodiac looking figures or paintings, know that the Twelve Spirit Generals are there not only to protect the Buddha’s teachings, but they’re also there to help guide you in the teachings of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).