A statue of Yongwang, the Dragon King, at Cheonbulsa Temple.
Hello Again Everyone!!
When you visit a Korean temple, you can see a wide array of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on display in various shrine halls spread throughout the temple grounds. You can also see various deities with shaman origins, like Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Recluse), and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) either housed in a shrine hall collectively or individually. Another of the deities with shaman origins that you can spot is Yongwang, the Dragon King. So who is he, and why is he at a Korean Buddhist temple?
An outdoor shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang at Cheontaesa Temple.
The idea of Yongwang, the Dragon King, comes from the long held belief that there is a world beneath the sea. And in this world, Yongwang rules over it in his Dragon Palace. Interestingly, there’s a Sanskrit equivalent to Yongwang in ancient India, and this ancient god goes by the name Magaraj. These two deities have similar characteristics and traits.
Yongwang is an indispensable deity to Korean shamanism. Alongside Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, Yongwang is one of the Earthly deities. These Earthly deities are responsible for procuring descendants, national security, health, and rain.
A look at Yongwang over a pool of water, which is symbolic of his Buddhist meaning.
And with the absorption of shamanism into Buddhism through the centuries in Korea, not only did Yongwang occupy a place of importance in the Buddhist pantheon, but his meaning was re-interpreted and re-defined. As a Buddhist deity, Yongwang is in charge of the rain, water, and he also controls storms. He’s also thought to protect the Dharma, as well.
So what exactly does this lesser known shaman/Buddhist deity look like? While not as prominently represented as the famous triad of Korean shaman deities (Chilseong, Dokseong, and Sanshin), Yongwang has unique features that allow him to stand-out. For one, he’s usually depicted as a regal figure with fierce looking eyes. He’s older in age with bushy white eyebrows, beard, and a moustache. Furthermore, he’s dressed in a royal robe with a crown on top of his head; and sometimes, he’s seated in a throne.
The bushy browed and white haired Yongwang from Donghaksa Temple.
Another way that you can identify Yongwang, the Dragon King, is that he’s always in the presence of a dragon or dragons. Sometimes he’s situated next to them, and sometimes he’s riding one of them. If he’s riding one of them, this act symbolizes his dominance over them.
One of the accompanying dragons behind Yongwang at Cheonbulsa Temple.
Sometimes, but rarely, you can also identify Yongwang with an unknown female figure. She too is depicted in traditional Korean clothes, with a small crown, riding (or alongside) a dragon. This figure can also be a Buddhist figure dressed in Chinese-Indian style clothing, and she is veiled. Whether it’s one female figure or another, it’s unknown whether she’s the queen of Yongwang or the Dragon King’s consort.
You can usually find Yongwang in one of two locations in a Korean Buddhist temple. One is in, or around, a shrine hall; while another is in paintings.
In the main hall, you can usually spot a painting with numerous figures in it. In Korea, this popular painting is known as the “Shinjung Daenghwa,” which roughly translates into English as the Guardian Painting. This painting depicts a variety of shaman deities that are believed to protect the Dharma. Alongside Yongwang in this painting is the centrally located, and sometimes multi-armed and faced, Dae Yejeok Geumgangshin. Below him is Dongjin-bosal, who is the wing helmeted Bodhisattva that protects the Buddha’s teachings from enemies. Surrounding these three can be Sanshin, various spirit generals, and Cheseok Cheonwang and Daebeom Cheonwang at the top of the painting. In total, there can be either 24, 39, or 104 deities in this painting. The “Shinjung Daenghwa” painting is known as the most Korean of the Buddhist paintings at a temple because it depicts indigenous shaman deities that were common in Korea before the introduction of Buddhism to the Korean peninsula.
Just below Dongjin-bosal (the one with the winged helmet) to the right is Yongwang from Banyaam Hermitage.
Another place you can find Yongwang, the Dragon King, is in a “gak,” or shrine hall, amongst the buildings at a Korean temple. He is usually housed with the other shaman deities (Chilseong, Dokseong, and Sanshin) inside the temple grounds to the rear of the main hall. However, he can also be found in a shrine hall called a “Yongwang-dang” next to the water supply at a temple or hermitage. Having him situated next to the water supply harkens back to his shamanistic origins of health, as well as the Buddhist symbol of water.
The shrine hall solely for the purpose of housing Yongwang at Baekunam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple.
The open shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang at Cheontaesa Temple.
And just outside the Yongwang shrine hall at Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.
So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, keep your eyes open for this lesser known, and lesser seen, Buddhist deity with shaman origins. You can find this bushy browed, regal looking figure almost anywhere, either in paintings or in shrine halls, all around the temple grounds.