Hello Again Everyone!
Paintings of The Eight Scenes of the Life of Buddha (or Palsang-do in Korean), can be found either on the exterior walls of a temple’s main hall, or on the interior of the Palsang-jeon (Eight Pictures Hall, in English) like at Beopjusa Temple or Beomeosa Temple. These paintings range in their complexity and sophistication, but something that they all have in common is that they depict the same eight scenes, and they all have Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) as their central figure.
Originally, the Palsang-do paintings were first created over 2,000 years ago. And since Siddhartha Gautama first attained enlightenment and became Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), there has been a continual interest in him. These paintings were first created to satisfy people’s interest in the Buddha.
In total, there are eight paintings in the set, as the name of the paintings indicates. They span the entire lifetime of the Buddha from conception to death. The eight states are: 1. The Announcement of the Imminent Birth, 2. Birth, 3. The World Outside the Palace, 4. Renunciation, 5. Asceticism, 6. Temptations, 7. Enlightenment, 8. Death.
Here is a bit more information about what each painting looks like and correspondingly represents.
1. The Announcement of the Imminent Birth:
The white elephant is a sacred sign of good luck in India, where the Buddha was born. In this painting a white elephant appeared to Queen Maya in a dream. The white elephant entered through her right ribs and entered Maya’s womb. The significance of the white elephant is that it was a symbol that the Queen would conceive a child who was both pure and powerful. A Brahmin was consulted to interpret the significance of the dream. The Brahmin said, “A great son will be born. If he renounces the world and embraces a religious life, he will attain perfect enlightenment and become the saviour of this world.”
In this painting, Maya is usually sleeping and a white elephant appears in a cloud.
The first picture in the series, “The Announcement of the Imminent Birth.” This painting is from a small temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do called Garamsa Temple. The series of Palsang-do paintings at this temple are some of the best in all of Korea. In this painting Queen Maya is asleep and dreaming. But what is she dreaming about?
The Buddha was born as a royal prince in 624 B.C.E. in a place called Lumbini (which was originally in northern India, but now lies in present day Nepal). He emerged from the right side of his mother both well developed and fully clothed. And he began walking immediately after his birth. Unfortunately, only seven days after Siddhartha’s birth, Maya, his mother, would die. However, Siddhartha Gautama lived a very happy and comfortable early life.
In some paintings, Maya is depicted as holding a fig branch. Also, in the royal palace scene, there are nine dragons washing the baby with earthly attendants.
3. The World Outside the Palace:
As Siddhartha Gautama grew older, he started to go outside the palace compound, and into the capital city, to see his father’s kingdom. Before this, Siddhartha didn’t know anything about suffering, sickness, or death; and in fact, his father sheltered him from it. It was during these capital city travels that he first saw sickness, old age, and death. As a result of seeing these different aspects of life, it left a deep impression on him. He realized that all living beings must experience suffering. He felt a deep compassion for others, and he wanted to find a way to free people from their suffering. This is why Siddhartha Gautama decided to leave his wife, child, and royal life behind for solitude and meditative insights about the human condition.
In simpler renditions of the painting, there is a single emaciated body that Siddhartha observes. In more complex paintings, you see the palace to the right and the suffering of the everyday people on the left.
In the fourth painting, Siddhartha Gautama’s father learns about Siddhartha’s intention of leaving the royal palace. So the king placed extra guards around the palace gates, as well as extra security around the palace. However, with the help from the Four Heavenly Guardian Kings (yes, those very same guards inside the second temple gate), Siddhartha Gautama was lifted over the palace walls on top of his white horse, Kanthaka.
In this painting, a white horse is painted, with his master on top, in flight over the palace walls. Sometimes, the assisting guardians will be painted, as is his faithful servant, Chandaka, who is hanging onto the white horse’s tail.
The fourth painting, “Renunciation”, from the historic Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do.
For six years Siddhartha Gautama studied and meditated to find the “truth.” As was customary for ascetics of his time, Siddhartha also punished his body by not taking care of his body’s needs such as eating enough food. In fact, he came very close to dying. Finally, he realized that this type of lifestyle wasn’t leading him towards enlightenment. He started to live a life of moderation, and to take better care of his body so that he could more successfully pursue enlightenment.
In this painting, the degrees of Siddhartha Gautama’s starvation are vast. He is usually bone thin and meditating under the shade of a tree.
The wintry fifth picture in the set, “Asceticism,” from Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do.
The demon Mara didn’t want Siddhartha Gautama to attain enlightenment because it would free people from their suffering. In order to break Siddhartha’s meditation, Mara sent forth his three daughters: Tanha (desire), Raga (lust), and Arati (aversion). When this didn’t work, Mara sent forth an entire army of demons. When this too didn’t work, Mara threatened Siddhartha Gautama with a sword and screamed, “Monk, what are you seeking while seated so low? Come out quickly! You are useless while sitting in that holy posture!” With the earth deity as his witness, Siddhartha answered, “I alone, below the heavens, can sit in this posture. Earth Spirit, you are my witness.” And with this said, Siddhartha changed his pose to the mudra (hand gesture) of opening his right hand and pointing his right index finger to the earth, while his left hand remained on his lap. This mudra is called “The Gesture of Touching the Earth.” Having defeated all temptations, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment.
In this sixth painting, three voluptuous women dance around Siddhartha as he attempts to attain enlightenment. In their hands, the three beautiful women hold mirrors. If you look close enough in these mirrors, you can see that they actually have demonic faces.
The sixth picture, “Temptation,” from Anyangam Hermitage, near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. If you look close enough at the mirror the Buddha is holding you can see the sisters demonic faces in it.
After attaining enlightenment at the age of 35, Siddhartha Gautama became Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And for the next 45 years the Buddha would teach anyone and everyone that would listen to how enlightenment could be achieved.
In this seventh painting, Seokgamoni-bul has a halo around his head. Furthermore, he has his disciples at his feet, as he preaches to them in Deer Park. And amongst his disciples there is usually an assortment of wandering deer. In more complex paintings, besides the disciples, there are also both celestial and worldly beings and structures.
The seventh picture from the Palsang-do set, “Enlightenment,” from Donghaksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do. Uniquely, these paintings have English explanations written under them.
Finally, at the age of 80, Seokgamoni-bul died between two Sala trees. As the Buddha lay down and died on his right side, a collection of earthly and celestial creatures gathered around his bier, such as dragons, tigers, and turtles, as well as his grieving disciples.
The eighth and final picture in the series, “Death,” is from Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeongsangnam-do. You can see the Buddha’s disciples around him, as well as a turtle to the left, and a dragon, white elephant, and tiger to his right.
Whether the Paintings of the Eight Scenes of the Life of Buddha (Palsang-do) are highly skilled or simplistic in their design, they tell a wonderful story about a life and a man who has inspired countless amount of people for two and a half millenniums: Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And whether you believe in Buddhism or not, these beautiful pieces of artwork are worth a first, or even a second, glance the next time you’re roaming around a temple’s main hall.