A look at Dokseong, the Recluse, the Korean shaman deity of long life and good fortune.
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One of the more common shaman deities you’ll find around a Korean Buddhist temple is Dokseong, The Recluse. He is sometimes situated alone in a shrine hall, or he is together with Chilseong (The Seven Stars) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) to form the shaman “Holy Trinity.” So who exactly is this shaman deity, and why is he so prominently featured at Korean temples?
A look at one of the most vibrant murals of Dokseong found at Songnimsa Temple.
There seems to be a consensus amongst scholars that Dokseong was a Nahan (a disciple of the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul). One suggestion along these lines is that Dokseong was one of Seokgamoni-bul’s four original disciples known as the “Pindola.” These Pindola were ordered by Seokgamoni-bul to remain on earth until the future appearance of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) as a form of punishment for carelessly performing miracles. As a result, Dokseong will be on earth for the next 5,679,997,989 years.
A mural of Dokseong found at Beopjusa Temple.
However, while a fair amount is known about Dokseong’s Buddhist origins, very little else is known about this deity, like how he became such a prominent figure in both Buddhism and in shamanism. In Buddhism, he is one of three deities that is a permanent fixture at temples. And in shamanism, like Buddhism, he’s one of the most important objects of worship.
Uniquely, and unlike Yongwang, Chilseong, and Sanshin, it would seem as though Dokseong was absorbed by the indigenous Korean shamanism, and not vice versa, as is the case with the three other shaman deities.
Alongside Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong is also considered a Heavenly deity. Heavenly deities are known to give long life and general good fortune if you pray to them.
So what does this better known shaman deity look like? Since Dokseong has Buddhist origins, he appears with a shaved head. Additionally, he wears monk clothing, and he sometimes appears with a halo around his head. Also, he will have a larger shaped head. In a painting, Dokseong will appear with a mountain at his back.
You can see the halo and monk clothing on this Dokseong wood etching that’s found at Okryeonam Hermitage.
Dokseong almost always appears in the Samseong-gak (The Three Stars Hall) shrine hall alongside Chilseong (The Seven Stars) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) to form the shamanistic “Holy Trinity.” Customarily, the statue and mural depicting Dokseong will be situated on the far right of the altar with Chilseong taking up the central spot on the altar with Sanshin on the far left. The Samseong-gak shrine hall is usually situated to the left rear of the main hall. The positioning of this hall behind the main hall highlights its importance in modern day Korean Buddhism.
A look inside the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Samyeongam Hermitage. You can see the Chilseong mural in the centre with Sanshin to the left and Dokseong to the right.
The Samseong-gak shrine hall at Geumjeongam Hermitage. You can see the Korean writing that says 삼성각 above the entrance to the hall.
And a look inside the hall at Geumjeongam Hermitage, and to the right, at Dokseong.
Occasionally, Dokseong will be housed in his own shrine hall, but this is the exception more than it is the rule like at Cheontaesa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. And just as rarely, Dokseong will appear alongside Chilseong if a temple has a hall solely dedicated to Sanshin.
And a look inside the shrine hall at Cheontaesa Temple, where Dokseong sits all alone upon the altar.
Finally, Dokseong, The Recluse, can appear inside the main hall at a temple. Like Yongwang, Chilseong, and Sanshin, Dokseong appears in the popular “Shinjung Daenghwa” painting. This painting is known as the most Korean of Buddhist paintings because it depicts a wide variety of Korean shaman deities that protect the Dharma.
A look at one of the more impressive Shinjung Daenghwa murals at Dongrimsa Temple. You can see Dokseong to the right and below the winged Dongjin-bosal (The Bodhisattva that Protects the Buddha’s Teachings).