Gwaneum-jeon: Hall of Avalokitesvara

Picture 161Gwanseeum-bosal with his one thousand hands and eyes to help people at Girimsa Temple.

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One of the most popular halls you’ll find at a Korean temple is the Hall of Avalokitesvara (or Gwaneum-jeon, in Korean). This hall is dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. So who is Gwanseeum-bosal, and why is she so important to Korean Buddhism, and where does she appear in Korean temples?

The Sanskrit name for Gwanseeum-bosal is Avalokitesvara. Avalokitesvara, in Chinese, translates as either “one who observes/regards the sounds of the world,” or “the unimpeded observer.” In Korea, Gwanseeum-bosal translates as “the hearers of cries.” Either way, Gwanseeum-bosal was born from a ray of light emanating from Amita-bul’s right eye. As a result, Gwanseeum-bosal is closely related to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) and assists those who request access to the Pure Land. Gwanseeum-bosal is thought to be the Bodhisattva manifestation of Amita-bul, and is often depicted to the left of Amita-bul as an assistant that brings enlightenment (a freedom from suffering) to sentient beings. That’s why Gwanseeum-bosal is also referred to as the Bodhisattva of Compassion because she responds to the cries of those in need of help.

Picture 152

A seated Gwanseeum-bosal from Naewonam Hermitage.

Gwanseeum-bosal is one of the easier Bodhisattvas to identify. In India, Avalokitesvara (Gwanseeum-bosal) is clearly a male; however, in Korea, she more closely resembles a female, even though in some paintings she sports a small moustache. The reason for this transition from male to female is that emotions like compassion in Korea are thought to be feminine; and therefore, female. The most common representation of Gwanseeum-bosal in Korea is the one where she has a thousand hands, and eyes in each so as to reach out to those in need of help.


A Gwanseeum-bosal from inside Suwolseonwon Temple in Busan.

Also, Gwanseeum-bosal can either have eleven or nine heads, which represent her all-understanding and accepting nature. In her eleven-headed form, the three heads to the left embody anger; the three to the right represent a serene smile; the three at the back bear an expression of compassion; the largest one at the front exudes a balance of serenity; and the eleventh one at the very back is laughing, which is a sign of her wisdom. There is also a miniature Buddha statue at the top of her head, this is a sign of the emanation of Amita-bul’s wisdom.


A better look at the nine faces of Gwanseeum-bosal.

However, Gwanseeum-bosal can be depicted in 33 different incarnations. These 33 different forms occur so as to help save the different needs of sentient beings. Sometimes, Gwanseeum-bosal can appear seated or standing with a crown adorning her head. Also, Gwanseeum-bosal can be holding any number of objects in her hands. One such object is a bottle. This bottle is said to be filled with ambrosia for quenching the thirst of sentient beings, while also washing away their troubles. And in her other hand she can hold a willow spray. This willow spray represents her ability to sprinkle “sweet dew” on the needy. The willow, which has long been considered to have medicinal value, also symbolizes her role as a healer. In paintings, she is often depicted near water, which suggests her closeness to her paradise, Botala. In these paintings, Gwanseeum-bosal wears white clothes, and like other Bodhisattvas, she sometimes wears jewelry, including a regal crown.

Picture 274

Gwanseeum-bosal giving a helping hand to someone at Unmunsa Temple.


Gwanseeum-bosal saving a soul with a willow spray in his hand at Botaam Hermitage.

Inside the Gwaneum-jeon hall, it is very common to have either a statue or painting of Gwanseeum-bosal by herself with 1,000 arms and eyes or seated with a crown. And the Gwaneum-jeon hall usually appears at larger temples like at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju or at Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.


A painting of the merciful Gwanseeum-bosal from Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

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The solitary and serene Gwanseeum-bosal from the Gwaneum-jeon Hall at Tongdosa Temple.

 In smaller temples where Gwanseeum-bosal is in the main hall, the hall is called Wontong-jeon, or Hall of Perfect Interpenetration, in English. Temples such as Haeunjeongsa Temple in Busan, or Naewonam Hermitage near Beomeosa Temple in Busan both have Wontong-jeon halls.


Gwanseeum-bosal from the Wontong-jeon hall at Haeunjeongsa Temple in Busan.

Another way in which Gwanseeum-bosal is represented inside a temple hall is in a triad of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In Korea, it is very common for Gwanseeum-bosal to be in a triad with Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) as the central figure with a flanking Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Gwanseeum-bosal. Such examples of this triad can be seen at Samyeongam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do near Tongdosa Temple, or Jijangam Hermitage in Busan near Beomeosa Temple. Another popular one, as was mentioned before, is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) to be in the centre. Usually, he is flanked by Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Gwanseeum-bosal. This triad can be seen at Samyeongam Hermitage in near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.


Inside the main hall at Banyaam Hermitage. Amita-bul is in the centre with a flanking Jijang-bosal and Gwanseeum-bosal.

Depending on the status of the hall, whether it’s the main hall at the temple, Wontong-jeon, or it’s another hall at a larger temple, Gwaneum-jeon, the altar will be vastly different in design. If it’s a Wontong-jeon hall, the altar will be ornate and elaborate. The canopy can be the Treasure Palace Type where the canopy appears to be a separate structure. The canopy is painted red and there are usually cranes flying around it. Also, there will be assistants next to the statue of Gwanseeum-bosal. Inside this hall there will be a guardian painting as well as a Yeongsan Assembly Painting. There can also be paintings of Gwanseeum-bosal in various acts of compassion at the front of the temple like at Gyemyeongam Hermitage near Beomeosa Temple in Busan.

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Two, of the four, paintings of Gwanseeum-bosal on the main altar at Gyemyeongam Hermitage. If you look closely you can see Gwanseeum-bosal near her water paradise, Botala.

If the hall is a Gwaneum-jeon hall, the interior will be a bit less elaborate. There might or might not be a canopy. Also, the size of the hall will be much smaller as it’s not the main focal point of the temple. There will probably still be the beautiful paintings surrounding Gwanseeum-bosal up near the ceiling of the interior. The ceiling might be decorated with various incarnations of Gwanseeum-bosal like at Tongdosa Temple.

Picture 280

Inside the simple, but beautiful, Gwaneum-jeon hall at Unmunsa Temple.

The outside of the hall, once again, can be painted in a variety of ways depending on the status of the hall. If the hall is a Wontong-jeon hall, it will have intricate woodwork done up in the eaves. Around the hall there might either be the Palsang-do paintings (The Eight Scenes of the Buddha’s Life) or the Ox-Herding Paintings.


The Wontong-jeon main hall at Haeunjeongsa Temple in Busan.


The compact, but stately, Wontong-jeon hall at Naewonam Hermitage.

The exterior design of a Gwaneum-jeon hall can vary. Usually, there are paintings of Gwanseeum-bosal in various acts of compassion either lending a supporting hand or comforting those in need. It can also be adorned with no paintings at all. However, the intricate woodwork done on the eaves and lattice of the hall can be equal to that of the elevated Wontong-jeon hall. Also, there might also be paintings up in the eaves of saints or landscapes like at Bulguksa Temple.


The plainly decorated Gwaneum-jeon hall at Bulguksa Temple.

A unique feature of Gwanseeum-bosal is that she’s prayed to a lot at Korean temples. As a result, not only are there halls dedicated to her, but there are also numerous statues and shrines outside and around the temple buildings. The statues range from being simple to complex in design. A beautifully big statue exists at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple by the sea in Busan. Another beautiful one appears at the remote Seokbulsa Temple in Busan.


 The beautifully massive Gwanseeum-bosal that overlooks the temple at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.


The central rock icon of Gwanseeum-bosal at the remote Seokbulsa Temple in Busan.

So the next time you’re at a Korean temple look around for the majestic appearing Gwanseeum-bosal. She is extremely popular, and as a result, she’s very easy to find on paintings, altars, or statues.


Sometimes you’ll really have to look carefully like at Golgulsa Temple in Gyeongju. This cave shrine hall is also dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal.


A look inside the cave shrine hall and the stone Gwanseeum-bosal that sits at the centre of the altar.

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