The Biseon (Apsaras) – Flying Angels

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An extraordinarily beautiful landscape painting of a Biseon at Anyangam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Flying around Korean temples you’ll see angel like figures fluttering about. What exactly are these figures, and why do they appear at Korean temples?

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The beautiful Biseon that offers up music on the Guardian Gates at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsannam-do.

Commonly, these angel figures appear painted on the temple walls, sculpted on temple bells, carved into stone lanterns, and artfully appearing on altars. These angel figures first originated in India, and were known as Apsaras. At first, they were beastly in appearance.  However, with the migration of Buddhism to China, these beastly creatures changed into graceful celestial figures. With the migration of Buddhism further east, into Korea, these Apsaras became known as Biseon (Flying Angels).

Biseon are identifiable by the long streamers, known as “floating/whirling sashes,” that flutter all about them in suspended animation. These streamers ride the wind and whirl about to propel them through the air. The streamers start at the head and create a circular shape around the head. These streamers flow in opposite directions. There are two different types of Biseon: the performing type (playing music); and the offering type (sprinkling flowers, offering fruit).

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The supernatural Biseon at Heungnyunsa Temple in Gyeongju. It sprinkles a magical dust in the air at the bell pavilion.

Biseon are celestial creatures that praise the Buddha while flying around in the air of the Buddha’s heavens, while sprinkling flowers, playing music, or offering fruit. The symbolism behind the Biseon, as it pertains to Buddhism, is that they don’t actually make noise or fly as a decorative painting. However, if one looks at them long enough, it almost seems as though they are actually flying or playing music. As a result, the conditioned world of the senses recedes towards the true world beyond perceived reality.

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The bell at Heungnyunsa Temple in Gyeongju is also decorated with two Biseon.  One is playing the harp while the other is offering up their flute playing.

There are numerous examples of these beautiful celestial creatures at Korean temples.  One of my personal favourites is at Jajangam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. As you walk behind the main hall at the hermitage, walking towards the yellow frog’s house, if you look up you’ll see a beautifully painted Biseon up on the eaves of the main hall riding a white crane while offering fruit. Another beautiful example is at Anyangam Hermitage also at the Tongdosa Temple complex. It is also adorning the main hall, and is one of the most beautifully refined paintings of a Biseon in all of Korea. Like the one at Jajangam Hermitage, the one at Anyangam Hermitage is also offering up fruit. It has a beautiful sunset landscape with seven white cranes accompanying it in the mythical air. Yet another beautiful example are the twin Biseon that float around playing music at the Guardian gates at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Finally, there is a Biseon flying up around the gables of the bell pavilion at Heungnyunsa Temple in Gyeongju. This supernatural Biseon is offering a rainbow sprinkling of magical dust.

As for beautiful depictions of Biseon on temple bells, one of the most beautiful is at Heungnyunsa Temple.  At the front of the bell, facing the courtyard, there are two large sized Biseon offering up their music.  The one on the left is playing the harp, while the one on the right is playing the flute.

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The beautiful Biseon adorning the main hall at Jajangam Hermitage.

So the next time you’re out at a temple or hermitage in Korea, and you see angelic figures, you’ll know that they’re Biseon, and that they’re paying homage to the Buddha by playing music or offering fruit.