The Sweet Dew Painting – Gamno-do (감로도)

Yeongsanjeongsa

Two monks discussing the Gamno-do painting at Yeongsanjeongsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

The next entry about rarities to be found at a Korean temple or hermitage is the extremely hard to find Gamno-do painting. In fact, I’ve only ever seen it publicly displayed at three temples in my three hundred plus temples I’ve visited throughout Korea.

The meaning behind the name of the Gamno-do painting is a bit difficult to explain. “Gamno” relates to how the Buddha’s teachings fall to us like sweet dew, while “do” means painting. So the best name for the Gamno-do painting in English is the “Sweet Dew Painting.”

The Gamno-do painting depicts the Ullambana Sutra, or Bulseoluranbun-gyeong in Korean. Other names for this type of painting is “Gamnowang-do” or “Gamno-taenghwa.”

Unheungsa

A nun at Unheungsa Temple performing a ritual in front of the famed Gamno-do painting.

So what exactly does this complex painting look like? Where can you find it? And what is the meaning behind the complexity?

The Gamno-do painting is a painting that depicts the formal worship of ancestors and other spirits in a Buddhist context. The Gamno-do is a taenghwa altar painting that depicts the ritual offering of food to hungry ghosts to nourish or save those spirits of dead people that are suffering in hell. So the ritual for the dead is performed in front of this painting usually inside the main hall at a Korean temple. Specifically, the Gamno-do painting is used in the Sweet Dew Ceremony for the dead, where those remaining pray for the comfort of the deceased souls in the Western Pure Land, which is a form of heaven.

The Gamno-do really has two purposes. The first is to console the suffering spirits of the hungry ghost realm. The second purpose is to serve the living in their fear for the suffering and hunger in the afterlife as may be caused by greed in the present. It also provides people with a warning about their potential future, which causes a form of repentance. Ultimately, the object of the ceremony, and the Gamno-do painting that people worship in front of, is to nourish the greed of these ghosts, while assisting all to find peace in the Buddhists realm so that they don’t haunt the living.

Boseongsa

The upper portion of the Gamno-do painting at Boseongsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

The painting is usually horizontal in composition, and it’s typically composed in three sections. The top section consists of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) welcoming the sentient beings, along with five to seven other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. Amita-bul is sometimes called “King Gamno.” The Bodhisattva with a flagpole leads the dead to the Western Paradise, while Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) descend from clouds.

Boseong1

A pair of angry Agwi inside the Gamno-do painting at Boseongsa Temple.

The centre portion of the painting is dominated by one or two over-sized hungry ghosts called “agwi,” in Korean. These spirits are people who have died without the proper memorial rites being performed for them. These hungry ghosts have small mouths but giant bellies. They are breathing fire or fighting over food in front of the ancestral rites table. On the other side of these ghosts, monks are performing a ceremony for the spirits of the dead. Typically, they are chanting or playing Buddhist instruments like the drum, hand bell, or cymbals to comfort the spirits.

At the bottom of the painting is the third section. It displays a realistic and detailed display of the six realms of existence: the realm of hell, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras (deities), and heavenly beings. All are portrayed as though they were alive today.

Great examples of the Gamno-do painting can be found at Jikjisa Temple, Tongdosa Temple, Unheungsa Temple in Goseong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Yeongsanjeongsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do, and Boseongsa Temple near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Boseong2

The amazing and intricate Gamno-do painting at Boseongsa Temple.

2 thoughts on “The Sweet Dew Painting – Gamno-do (감로도)

  1. Very well-researched and informative article, it is difficult to find good information on the significance of Korean Buddhist paintings like this, thank you very much!

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