The Manja, or swastika, that adorns a hall at Beopcheonsa Temple.
Hello Again Everyone!!
I’m sure you’ve seen it everywhere at a Buddhist temple, whether it’s your first time at a Korean Buddhist temple, or it’s your 200th time, the swastika sign – 卍 – is quite prominent. For those of us from the west, the swastika sign, as we know it, has a more ominous feel to it, as it’s associated with people and ideas like Hitler, the Third Reich, and Nazism.
However, a closer look at the Nazi swastika, and the Korean Buddhist swastika, will reveal that they point in opposite directions. With all things, there are exceptions, but this tends to be the rule. First the Korean Buddhist sign looks like this:
However, while the Nazi swastika symbolized the ideas of racism and the Aryan race, the Korean Buddhist swastika refers to good fortune and auspiciousness. I know, quite the contrast.
So let’s delve a bit deeper into what the Korean Buddhist swastika means. First of all, I call it a swastika because that’s what we know it as coming from the west; however, in Korea, it’s actually called a “Manja.” The word “Man”, or 만 in Korean, represents the 卍sign, while “Manja” literally means “The letter Man.”
The first use of the Manja dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization that existed over 5,000 years ago. In Sanskirt, the Manja is called Srivatsalksana. And while there are four ways to express this Sanskrit word, the most common is “Srivatsa”, which literally means the shape of sea clouds where hair is curled, overlapped and intermingled. I know, it sounds a bit strange, but in context, it makes a lot more sense. Srivatsa, or Gilsanghwiseon (길상희선) or Gilsanghaewun (길상해운) in Korean, refers to one of the “Samsipisang” (삼십이상), which is just one of the thirty-two marks of excellence that existed on Seokgamoni-bul’s (The Historical Buddha) body. From his head to his toes, the Buddha was covered in these marks.
The feet adorned with the Manja symbol on the toes of the Seokgamoni-bul statue at Manbulsa Temple in Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do.
So where exactly can you find the Manja at a temple. Well, you can pretty much find it anywhere. In fact, even when you’re looking for a temple or hermitage either on a map or sign, the sign that they use is the Manja (swastika). As for the temple itself, well, you can pretty much find it on anything and everything. Some of the more common places are on top of the main hall’s roof. Another place is in the adornment of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas either as they are depicted in paintings or in stone statues.
The white Manja that adorns the chest of Chilseong (The Seven Stars) at Naewonsa Temple in Sancheong, Gyeongsangnam-do.
The Manja symbol that adorns the main hall at Daewonsa Temple in Sancheong, Gyeongsangnam-do.
So the next time you see a Manja (swastika) on a map denoting a temple, or you see it adorning the main hall or a stone sculpture at a temple, you’ll know that it’s a symbol of good fortune. And to a western mind, while this symbol has a long way to go to disassociate itself with Nazi German, it is slowly being reclaimed by Buddhism in East Asia; and Korean Buddhism, more specifically.