Muryangsu-jeon: The Hall of Immeasurable Life

Picture 809The massive 15 metre tall Amita-bul statue at Gakwonsa Temple.

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Another hall that you’ll commonly find at a Korean temple, either as the main hall or a hall amongst many, is one dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light and the Western Paradise). This hall is called by various names such as Geurak-jeon (Hall of Ultimate Bliss) or Bogwangmyeong-jeon (Limitless Light Hall); however, the most common name for this hall is Muryangsu-jeon: The Hall of Immeasurable Life.

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The Geurak-jeon hall at Tongdosa Temple.

 Amita-bul was born from the meditation of the first Buddha. That’s why he’s known as Nirmanakaya. Amita-bul vowed to save all beings who call on him. That’s why, presently, you can hear the mantra repeated over and over again in this hall: Namu Amita-bul. This mantra roughly translates into English as, “Believe in what Amita-bul said and follow his teaching/praying words.” Amita-bul aids people by allowing them to enter his Pure Land (Sukhavati), where there is no hindrance in achieving enlightenment. In India, where Buddhism originated, people felt relief from the extreme heat when the sun reached the western sky. Similarly, Amita-bul’s paradise came to be associated with the west. In fact, in Korean temples, the front of Muryangsu-jeon hall faces the east so that worshippers can bow to the Buddhist statues that face the west.

In Korea, the belief in Amita-bul began in and around the 6th and 7th century. The reason that a lot of people started to worship Amita-bul during the Three Kingdoms Period (Baekje, Silla, and Goguryeo) in Korean history is that many people were dying at this time due to war and diesease. As a result, people prayed for the souls of those that died to enter paradise. Presently, next to the main hall (Daeung-jeon), Muryangsu-jeon Hall is the second most common hall to find at a Korean temple.  Correspondingly, Amita-bul continues to be an object of deep veneration by Buddhist devotees in Korea.

Beomeosa

The beautiful Amita-bul as he appears at Beomeosa Temple in Busan.

Amita-bul is one of the more difficult and complex Buddhas to differentiate because he looks so similar in appearance to Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). The easiest way to identify him is that Amita-bul sometimes wears red. However, there are other ways to differentiate Amita-bul from others. And the easiest way to do this is through the mudra (ritual gesture) that Amita-bul is displaying, which reflects the many deeds that he vowed to accomplish. Most notably, the mudra of Amita-bul are only hand gestures in Korea. In total, there are nine variations of Amita-bul’s mudra. These mudras are never assumed when standing; but instead, only when he’s seated. To give Amita-bul’s mudras some background, there are nine places in the Western Paradise to be reborn. Each of these places has a hand gesture (mudra) depending on how well they practiced Buddhism during their lifetime. These places in the Western Paradise are divided into three different ranks and three different grades. That’s why Amita-bul’s mudras are known as “Amita-bul’s Nine Grade Mudras.” The gesture for the top rank (high grade, high life) has the back of the right hand on the palm of the left with the tips of the thumbs touching.

Jik

The highest mudra rank of Amita-bul with his palms and thumbs touching. You can see this statue at Jikjisa Temple.

For the next mudra, high grade, middle life, the pose is the same as the first. The only difference is that the middle fingers are curled. And for the third, high grade, low life, the pose is the same as the first two, but the ring fingers are curled. For the second grade, middle grade, high life, both hands are raised to the chest with the palms pointed outwards. The index fingers on both hands touch the thumbs. For the second mudra in this grade, middle grade, middle life, the pose is the same as the previous, but the middle fingers are touching the thumbs. For the third mudra in this grade, middle grade, low life, the pose is the same as the previous two, the only difference is that the ring fingers are touching the thumbs. In the third and final grade, the lowest grade, there are new mudras altogether. In the first, low grade, high life, the right hand is placed to the chest with the palm facing outwards. The left hand rests on the lap. The index fingers touch the thumbs. In the second mudra of this grade, low grade, middle life, the pose is the same as the previous, but this time the middle fingers touch the thumbs.

Samyeongam

The second lowest of Amita’s Nine Grade Mudras. You can see that the middle finger is touching the thumb in both hands. You can see this statue at Samyeongam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple, in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

And finally, in the last mudra, low grade, low life, the ring fingers touch the thumbs. If all these Amita-bul mudras seem difficult to differentiate, they are! But slowly, and if you look close enough, you’ll notice the slight differences.

Another way to differentiate Amita-bul from the other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, besides his red appearance or the pose he is striking, is in the triad he’s in. On the altar of the hall, Amita-bul will appear with his two assistants: Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Great Power). These two will flank the central Amita-bul. Gwanseeum-bosal embodies Amita-bul’s compassion and is said to rescue anyone in distress and calls out for her help. Daesaeji-bosal, on the other hand, shines the light of Amita-bul’s wisdom on all sentient beings, providing them with limitless strength.

Seoknam

In the centre of this triad is Amita-bul. And on either side of him are Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Great Power). This triad can be seen at Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Inside a Muryangsu-jeon hall, Amita-bul will appear with Gwanseeum-bosal and Daesaeji-bosal on the altar. The painting behind the triad of statues depicts a scene of an assembly in the Western Paradise ( Pure Land). Other altar paintings can include the Nine Grades of Rebirth in Sukhavati or Amita.

Garamsa

A better look at the painting of the Assembly Scene in Western Paradise. This beautiful altar painting is at Garamsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Because there is such a strong belief in Amita-bul in Korea, the overall interior of this hall will almost always be as elaborate and ornate as the central hall dedicated to Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). The altar itself is decorated with floral patterns and Biseon. The canopy above the triad is adorned with carved dragons and carved birds of paradise that lead the way to the Western Paradise. It must be remembered that this hall symbolizes the idealized version of the Western Paradise: Sukhavati. And as a result, it is elaborately decorated inside the Muryangsu-jeon hall for Amita-bul. Perhaps the most spectacular Geukrakbo-jeon Hall is at Eunhaesa Temple near Daegu with its ornate altar and canopy, the floating heavenly birds of paradise, and the the Amitayeorae murals that date back to 1750 hanging next to the altar.

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The impressive altar inside the main hall at Eunhaesa Temple with the Amitayeorae paintings on either side of the triad of statues with Amita-bul in the centre.

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 A look up at the equally ornate canopy with a dragon-head staring down at you with a bed of florals patterns decorating the ceiling above.

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And just one of the birds of paradise suspended from the ceiling of the main hall at Eunhaesa Temple near Daegu.

 Like the inside, the exterior of the hall can be highly decorative. Like all Korean temple’s, the hall has a wooden name tablet written in Chinese characters.

Banya

The beautiful exterior of The Hall of Immeasurable Life at Banyaam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple.

The walls of the hall can be decorated with any number of murals like the baby monks playing at Samyeongam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

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The baby monks at play at Samyeongam Hermitage.

It can also be painted with elaborate paintings of the Buddha’s life (Palsang-do) like at Garamsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. There can also be beautiful scenic paintings of Biseon or floral lattice work like at Anyangam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple.

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The gorgeous lattice work at Anyangam Hermitage.

They can also be decorated with playful murals like the ones at Seoknamsa Temple in Eoyang, Gyeongsangnam-do, which has a painting of playful monkeys, as well as a person being tempted by life.

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The playful monkey painting that adorns the Muryangsu-jeon Hall at Seoknamsa Temple.

And there is even a fading painting of the Dragon Ship of Wisdom that leads the souls of the dead to Amita-bul’s Western Paradise painted on the back of the Geurak-jeon hall at Tongdosa Temple.

Tong

The fading, but beautiful, painting of the Dragon Ship of Wisdom painted to Geurak-jeon hall at Tongdosa Temple.

And because Amita-bul is so popular in Korean Buddhism, he can have a statue or monument set up for this Buddha. Perhaps one of the better known are the massive Amita-bul statues at Manbulsa Temple in Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do. There is a mammoth 15 metre long bronze Amita-bul that is lying down with a gold cloth draped over it. There is also a crowing 33 metre tall gold Amita that sits on the crowning hill at the temple. In addition to this beautiful statue at Manbulsa Temple, there is an even more beautiful statue of Amita-bul crowning the heights at Gakwonsa Temple in Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do.

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The 33 metre tall golden Amita-bul at Manbulsa Temple.

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The beautiful green Amita-bul that crowns the heights at Gakwonsa Temple.

So the next time you visit a Korean temple, you’ll have to look carefully at the mudras of Amita-bul to find the Buddha of Infinite Light and the Western Paradise. He’s almost always there, so keep a keen eye open for him!

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And one last look at the Amita-bul that stands a massive 15 metres in height at Cheontaesa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

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