The Flowers Adorning Temple Ceilings

AnyangamInside one of the flowery shrine halls at Anyangam Hermitage.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Whenever you walk into a Korean temple hall, one thing you might notice are the painted flowers adorning the ceiling. You might also see paper lanterns of purple and pink lotus flowers suspended from the ceiling. So why exactly are they there, and what do they mean?

JogyeamA fine example of a floral ceiling inside Jogyeam Hermitage.

In Buddhist scripture, in the introduction chapter to the “Lotus Sutra,” the writing describes a sermon by Buddha on Vulture Peak. As the Buddha finished his sermon, entitled “Infinite Meanings,” he then sat in the lotus position and meditated. No sooner had he started to meditate then white and red lotuses rained down from heaven. They fell upon the Buddha and all those that had gathered to hear the Buddha’s sermon.


The flowers that fall from the ceiling at Magoksa Temple.

There is also another Buddhist scripture, from the chapter “ The Parable of the Illusions City,” from the Lotus Sutra as well, that describes how heavenly beings made a lion seat under a bodhi tree for the Buddha. They did this so the Buddha could sit on it and gain supreme and universal enlightenment. And no sooner had the Buddha sat on this lion seat, did the Brahma kings cause numerous flowers to rain down from heaven. From the time of his enlightenment, to the time of his earthly death, flowers from heaven would rain down on him from time to time.


Yet another set of heavenly flowers that falls from the ceiling at Tongdosa Temple.


An extremely vibrant set of heavenly flowers from Banyaam Hermitage.

With this in mind, Korean temple ceilings are adorned with floral patterns for a couple of reasons. One reason is to symbolize the site of the Vulture Peak assembly where the Buddha preached to his community of followers. The second reason, and much like Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) gained enlightenment under a sky of flowers, so too can monks, nuns, and laypeople presently gain enlightenment in Korea.


A view of the cross-hatched sections inside the main hall at Sinheungsa Temple.


A look up at the unbelievably ornate floral ceiling inside the main hall at Eunhaesa Temple.

There are two ways that these floral patterns are depicted in Korean temple halls. The first is that a ceiling is typically divided into cross-hatched sections with a lotus flower painted in the centre. While a lotus flower is usually depicted, it isn’t always; instead, another colourful flower can appear. Another way that flowers are represented in Korean temple halls is purple and pink paper lotus flowers. These paper lotus flowers are usually suspended from the ceiling and hang at head height.

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The pink lotus paper lanterns are falling from the heavens above at Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.


A simplistic set of flowers that adorn the Nahan-jeon Hall at Cheontaesa Temple. To the far right is a large pink lotus lantern that has already descended from heaven.

So the next time you’re inside a temple hall, no matter the size or prominence, have a long look up at the ceiling. The flowers that adorn the ceiling are symbolically raining down on you, so you too can potentially gain enlightenment much like Seokgamoni-bul did.


One last look inside one of the shrine halls at Tongdosa Temple with an older looking dragon across one of the beams and another amazing set of heavenly flowers adorning the ceiling.

The Dragon Ship of Wisdom

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Perhaps one of the most beautiful paintings of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is at Tongdosa Temple.

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From time to time you’ll be able to see a beautiful dragon boat with passengers and two Bodhisattvas looking like the captains of the ship.  So what exactly does this painting symbolize in the world of Buddhism? And who exactly are the people and Bodhisattvas on the boat?

Well, the name of the dragon boat is called The Dragon Ship of Wisdom. And the purpose of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is that the ship transports the followers of Buddhism across the Sea of Samsara. In Korean, Samsara is known as Yoonhwi (윤회). Yoonhwi refers to the concept of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The word literally means “continuous flowing.” And it’s across these waters that the Bodhisattvas bring the passengers (followers of Buddhism) to the “other shore” where the Pure Land lies.

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This rather large painting of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom has the Western Paradise on display to the left with Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light) floating on a cloud.  This beautiful painting can be seen at Haegwangsa Temple near Busan.

The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is shaped like a dragon (go figure!?!). It has a dragon’s head for a bow, and a dragon’s tail for the stern. Usually, the dragon shaped ship is painted blue with a handful of occupants. Besides the passengers on the ship, there are two Bodhisattva figures at both the bow and the stern of the ship. At the bow of the ship is the Guide King Bodhisattva. He is responsible for leading the souls of the dead to Sukhavati. The Sanskrit word, Sukhavati, literally translates as Land of Bliss. This Land of Bliss refers to the Western Paradise of Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light). The other Bodhisattva on the ship is the Earth Stone Bodhisattva (or Earth Womb Buddha). She is devoted to saving all creatures in the Six Realms.

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The descriptive painting of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom crossing Yoonhwi. This one can be found at Pyochungsa Temple.

Usually, this mural can be found in one of two places inside the Korean temple grounds. It can either be found at the hall dedicated to Amita-bul or it can be found at the hall dedicated to the Bodhisattva of the Afterlife, Jijang-bosal.

One of the best examples of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is on the backside of the Geungnak-jeon Hall located at Tongdosa Temple.  Even though it’s a bit faded, you can still see the beauty of this painting as you first enter the lower courtyard at the temple. The shrine hall, understandably, is dedicated to Amita-bul. Another great example can be found  at Unmunsa Temple, in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do. Uniquely, there is only the Guide King Bodhisattva at the front of the boat.  Other good examples of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom can be seen at Pyochungsa Temple, Haegwangsa Temple, and Buseoksa Temple.

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This Dragon Ship of Wisdom can be found at Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do. Uniquely, this painting only has the Guide King Bodhisattva.

So the next time you see a dragon looking boat on the back side of a Korean Buddhist temple hall, you’ll know that it’s actually The Dragon Ship of Wisdom and that it’s busy transporting the souls of devotees across Yoonhwi to the Pure Land.


One last look at a Dragon Ship of Wisdom mural. This one can be found at Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do

The Monster Mask – Nathwi

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As a new segment to the blog, I will be writing more and more about the meaning behind the symbolic artwork, sculptures, pagodas, buildings, and so much more in the future. I thought it would help those that wanted to know a bit more behind the various meanings that adorn various Korean temples throughout the country.  So I hope you’ll enjoy this new segment.  So without further ado, here’s the first in the series.

If you look close enough at the temple paintings, you’ll probably notice a menacingly grotesque face staring back at you. To the uninitiated eye these faces appear to be nothing more than a monster mask.

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A Nathwi at Geumsuam Hermitage on the entrance gate.

These monster masks have wide noses with flaring nostrils, as well as whiskers, horns, and sharp teeth. With a broad and menacing grin they invite you to look at them. The monster masks actual name is Nathwi.  The name Nathwi can be divided into two parts: “Nat” meaning face in Korean; and “hwi” which is a Chinese character meaning multi-coloured. Specifically, they are divided into two different types of Nathwi looks: the first holds nothing in it’s mouth, while the second is holding either a lotus or vines in their mouths (this type is more common than the first type). In its mouth are lotus buds or foliage which differentiates it from a dragon that holds pearls in its mouth.

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Another Nathwi.  This one is on the front doors of the Daeungjeon Hall (Main Hall) at Pyochungsa Temple.

Historically, in India, a lion-like face called Kirttimukha (“Face of Glory” in Sanskrit), represented a wrathful side of Siva and is a protector of the faithful. Through Buddhist and Korean influences, these lion-like faces became monster like and colourful. And the purpose of the Nathwi, much like the lion-like faced Kirttimukha, is to protect a temple from evil spirits. If you look close enough at these Nathwi paintings or carvings, you can see they stare in a specific direction. If the Nathwi are by themselves, they usually stare straight ahead; but if there are two or more of them, they usually look in different directions. The diversity of the Nathwi gaze lets them protect every direction of the temple from potential evil spirits that might want to harm the temple or the people that are in it.

DSC04599The stone carved Nathwi at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

Great examples of the Nathwi artwork can be seen at Geumsuam Hermitage on the Tongdosa Temple compound.  Specifically, this Nathwi is painted on the backside of the entrance gate at the hermitage. The painted horned blue coloured Nathwi with vines coming out of its mouth is staring out over the hermitage courtyard protecting Geumsuam Hermitage from evil spirits. Another great painted example of the Nathwi is a similar looking creature on the front doors of the Daeung-jeon (Main Hall) at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do. This long horned Nathwi is a bit different than the one at Geumsuam Hermitage in that it does’t have any vines coming out of its mouth; however, it does an equally fierce job in protecting the Main Hall from evil spirits.  And finally, there is a beautifully carved stone sculpture of a Nathwi at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan. This fierce sculpture is placed on the entrance walls to the beautifully ornate alcove that houses stone sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas and a towering pagoda. The stone sculpted Nathwi protects all from evil spirits. And one more is at the famous Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. Above the Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”), a set of the famous stairs at the temple, just before you pass through the gate to the main courtyard, there is a blue Nathwi with his eyes staring down at you.

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The beautiful blue Nathwi that stares down at you as you pass through the gate above the Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”) at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

So the next time you see a Nathwi painting or carving, you’ll know that they’re there to protect you and not just to scare you!