Daeung-jeon: The Main Buddha Hall

TongdosaThe famous Main Buddha Hall, Geumgang Daeung-jeon, at Tongdosa Temple.

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In Korean temples, there are numerous halls within the temple complex dedicated to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The diversity of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas comes from Mahayana Buddhism. Within Mahayana Buddhism, they recognize hundreds of Buddhas (fully enlightened beings), as well as Bodhisattvas (an enlightened being, who out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to save others). Even though Mahayana Buddhism has hundreds of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the Korean practice of Mahayana Buddhism usually only worships a select few.


The famous main hall at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. The Main Buddha Hall dates back to the 1770’s.

The central figure to all forms of Buddhism is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And within most temples, he is the main statue occupying the Main Buddha Hall (or Daeung-jeon, in Korean). Daeung-jeon literally translates as “The Hall of the Great Hero.”“The Great Hero” is in reference to the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul, who was born the prince Siddhartha Gautama during the fifth century B.C.E. in northeastern India. The Main Buddha Hall can also be called Daeeungbo-jeon, which in English means “The Jeweled Hall of the Great Hero.”


The compact Main Buddha Hall at Beomeosa Temple in Busan.

As a rule, the Main Buddha Hall is in the centre of the temple complex. Inside the Main Buddha Hall, Seokgamoni-bul is the central statue on the altar. To his left is usually the Bodhisattva, Moonsu-bosal. Moonsu-bosal is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and the way he can be identified is that he usually either has a sword or a trident in his hand. To the right of Seokgamoni-bul is Bohyun-bosal. Bohyun-bosal symbolizes the teaching, meditation, and practice of the Buddha; and when alone, he is seated on an elephant. As for Seokgamoni-bul, the way that you can recognize him as the central Buddha in an altar triad, is that he’s usually expressing the mudra (ritual gesture) of “Calling the Earth to Witness.” This mudra recalls the story about the Buddha just after he gained enlightenment. He was challenged by Mara about his authority. He called the earth to witness his many good deeds in past lives, thus justifying his authority. The physical manifestation of this mudra is a seated Seokgamoni-bul having his right hand hanging over his knee, with palm inward, while his left hand still rests on his lap. Sometimes, the index finger of the right hand will be pointed to the earth, but usually the whole hand is pointed downwards towards the ground. The most famous statue of this mudra in Korea is at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju.


The world famous Seokgamoni-bul statue at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju.

In a “Jeweled Hall of the Great Hero,” the central statue again is Seokgamoni-bul. But he is accompanied by Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light), and Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha). Amita-bul can be identified by his mudra: The Knowledge Fist; whereas Yaksayore-bul can be recognized by the medicine bowl that he holds in his hand.

Picture 634

Inside the main hall at Magoksa Temple near Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do. In the centre is Seokgamoni-bul. To his right is Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) and to the left is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).

Still another Main Buddha Hall, the triad might be different. The central figure will still be Seokgamoni-bul; however, the Buddha’s that accompany him are different. On one side is Dipamkara (The Past Buddha), while on his other side is Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). You can recognize Mireuk-bul because he’s usually thin and in a reflexive posture. This triad represents what Mahayana Buddhism calls Trikaya. Trikaya represents the various ways in which the Buddha reveals himself to people, which all depends on their spiritual ability and capacity.

Mireuk and D Seoknamsa

The triad of Seokgamoni-bul flanked by Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) and Dipamkara (The Past Buddha) from Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeonsangnam-do.

Perhaps one of the most common triad is Seokgamoni-bul seated in the centre of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). This triad usually appears in smaller temples and hermitages as it encompasses perhaps three of the most popular figures in Korean Buddhism.

Jijang Gwanseeum Banyaam

The Seokgamoni-bul, Jijang-bosal, and Gwanseeum-bosal triad found at Banyaam Hermitage, near Tongdosa Temple, in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. 

Jijang Gwanseeum Jijangam

The same triad found at Jijangam Hermitage, near Beomeosa Temple, in Busan.

Any one of these three triads can appear in a Main Buddha Hall in a Korean temple depending on what that temple is trying to convey to its followers.

The altar that the triad sits upon is called a “sumidan” in Korean. This altar represents the peak of Mt. Sumeru, which is the peak where the Buddha is enthroned. Here, he emanates his light of compassion and wisdom. The interior of the hall is the most ornate out of any of the temple halls. Above the triad of altar Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is usually an elaborate canopy that features carved dragons holding pearls, carved birds of paradise, and other decorative motifs. And all around the altar are gorgeous floral patterns and Biseon (Flying Angels). Carved on the ceiling are various floral patterns, such as the lotus and/or peony. These floral patterns symbolize the “rain of precious flowers from heaven” described in the Buddhist scriptures. Usually flanking the main altar are two customary paintings. On one side is the Shinjung Daenghwa. This is the guardian painting that features Dongjin-bosal, who is the protector of the Buddhist teachings, at its centre. He is usually accompanied by twelve to twenty other figures. And on the other side is usually the Yeongsan Assembly Painting. This painting depicts the Lotus Sutra, where the Buddha espoused some of his most central doctrines. Of course, the interior of the Main Buddha Hall can differ depending on the taste of each temple, but usually the interior of the main hall has these similar attributes.

 Beomeosa Altar

The elaborate main altar inside the Main Buddha Hall at Beomeosa Temple.

As for the exterior of the Main Buddha Hall, it’s just as elaborate as its interior. The paintings that usually adorn the exterior walls are either the Ox-Herding Pictures, or the Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes of the Buddha’s Life). These paintings can either be in combination or by themselves. Also, they can either be simple in their design, or highly stylized. The main hall can also be adorned with various other paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Guardians, monks at work, floral patterns, animals, or the Dharma and Dazu Huike painting. In the eaves of the main hall there are usually painted depictions of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or saints. The wooden tablet nameplate is almost always written in Chinese characters above the temple’s front door. And finally, there are almost always wooden sculptures protruding out from under the roof of dragons and phoenixes.

Main Hall at Pyochungsa

The equally elaborate exterior of the Main Buddha Hall at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

In essence, the Main Buddha Hall is elaborately and ornately designed and decorated as a symbol of a cabin in the Dragon Ship of Wisdom of Buddhism that ferries the faithful that much closer to the Pure Land of Paradise.

So the next time you’re in the Main Buddha Hall looking around at all the beautiful artwork, remember that there’s a lot of symbolic meaning behind it, and it’s not just pure and simple beauty at its best.