The Guardian Mural – Shinjung Taenghwa (신중 탱화)


The elaborate Shinjung Taenghwa at Naejangsa Temple.

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In English, the Shinjung Taenghwa is called the “Altar Painting of Guardian Deities” or the Guardian Mural for short. This painting is a highly intricate painting that most people have seen if you’ve been to any temple or hermitage throughout the Korean peninsula. However, what is less known about this painting is all of its rich detail and meaning. So what exactly does a Guardian Mural look like? And more specifically, what is the meaning behind it all?

The Guardian Mural, or the Shinjung Taenghwa, is relatively large in size. It can either be a painting or a wooden-relief. They are always found inside a temple’s main hall; however, they can also be found in another temple hall, as well. The mural is typically placed above an altar with incense on the right-hand side of the hall, but they can really be anywhere. The Guardian Mural can feature anywhere from five to one-hundred and eight crowded figures. All figures inside the Shinjung Taenghwa are considered deities outside the core deities that are usually found at a Korean temple.


The Guardian Mural at Bogyeongsa Temple.

So who exactly are these figures, and why are they included in the Shinjung Taenghwa? The most domineering figure in the painting is the centrally located, and multi-armed, Dae-Yejeok Geumgangshin protective demon that comes from the Vajrayana (Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism) tradition.


The fierce Dae-Yejeok Geumgangshin at Hongryongsa Temple.


A stone relief of Dae-Yejeok Geumgangshin at Samgwangsa Temple.


The wooden-relief of Dae-Yejeok Geumgangshin at Sujeongsa Temple.

He stands above a figure with a winged helmet. This large figure is Dongjin-bosal (The Bodhisattva that Protects the Buddha’s Teachings). Dongjin-bosal is believed to be the son of Shiva in Hinduism. Buddhist legend states that after the Buddha’s death, a demon stole one of the Buddha’s teeth. Dongjin-bosal chased down the demon and retrieved the tooth from it. For this, Dongjin-bosal became a protector of both the Buddhist community, as well as the Buddha’s teachings. With the growth of Seon (Zen) Buddhism throughout North-East Asia, he was promoted from a deva to a full-fledged Bodhisattva. The wings on his helmet, which makes him easy to identify, are believed to come from Siberian shamanism. The wings signify an ability to fly up to the heavens or down into the deepest depths of hell. In addition to his winged helmet, Dongjin-bosal also wears a Chinese Tang Dynasty general’s uniform, while holding a large multi-bladed vajra sword.


Dongjin-bosal at Baekjangam Hermitage.


The multi-headed wooden relief of Dongjin-bosal at Wonhyoam Hermitage.

Flanking the two central figures of Dae-yejeok Geumgangshin and Dongjin-bosal are a pair of beautiful figures with red and white crowns. The one with the crown with the white orb on it is Wolgwang-bosal (The Moonlight Bodhisattva). The one with the red orb in his crown is Ilgwang-bosal (The Sunlight Bodhisattva). These four figures are then surrounded by an assortment of various guardian deities. They include folk deities and historical figures that can be shamanic, Taoist, Confucian, or even Hindu in origin. They are all believed to have volunteered to protect the Buddha’s teachings, the temple, and the Buddhist community with whatever spiritual force they can employ. These deities often include the most popular shaman figures like Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) and Yongwang (The Dragon King). They can also be heavenly spirits, earthly spirits, or dongja (attendants). On the bottom row of the painting is an array of military general spirits.

All of these deities in this mural are believed to reside in the realm of pleasure, but they can’t attain enlightenment. Often, you will see monks chanting the Heart Sutra in front of the Shinjung Taenghwa to help these deities attain a human form so that they can potentially attain enlightenment in their next lives. And just as frequently, you’ll see lay-people bowing in front of the guardian mural as a sign of respect and understanding.


The Shinjung Taenghwa at Daeheungsa Temple.

So the next time you’re at a temple and you see the Shinjung Taenghwa, which you will if you look close enough, have a look and give a bow or two of your own as a sign of respect for those spirits that protect both the Buddha’s teachings and the Buddhist community.

Hungry Ghosts – Agwi (아귀)


A couple of monstrous-looking Agwi.

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You’ve probably seen an Agwi, or Hungry Ghosts/Spirits, in English, a hundred times at a temple but just didn’t know exactly what it was supposed to mean or represent. So what is an Agwi? Where can you see one? And what are they supposed to mean?

An Agwi is a ghost or spirit that is perpetually hungry. They were a former human who now suffers from hunger and thirst as karma for their greed, selfishness, or jealousy (or a combination of the three), while they were alive. They have bulging eyes, open mouths, their giant bellies exposed, and they have hardly any clothing on their bodies. Their eye-brows are angry and rigid, while they are either bald or losing their hair. Additionally, they wear a lot of jewelry like ankle and wrist bracelets, and their ears are typically pierced by gold earrings. But probably the easiest way to identify them is that they have red wings behind their ears.


A couple of Agwi from an ancient painting at Seonamsa Temple.

Buddhist scriptures describe Agwi as beings with throats as small as needles and having bloated bellies. They are called “Preta” in Sanskrit, which in ancient India simply meant spirits of the dead. In East Asian Buddhism, Agwi are called “burning mouths” because when they put food in their mouths, the food bursts into flames so that the Agwi can’t consume the food.

The realm where the Agwi live is believed to be located far beneath the earth’s surface, but above hell. Agwi are reincarnated in one of the three evil destinies. This belief comes from the “doctrine of the ten worlds and their mutual possession.” Because they lived a past life as someone that consumed with insatiable desires or were tormented with relentless cravings, they have been reborn as an Agwi in one of the three evil realms.


A couple mischievous Agwi.

So who are these Agwi? Well, they were once humans. And technically, they could even be a deceased member of your family. A good example of this is a Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha), Mokgeollyeon (Mahakalika), who saved his own mother from the realm of hungry ghosts. Ceremonies are performed at Korean temples to “feed” Agwi. They are held by lay-people for their own deceased family members, or they can be held by monks for all those spirits that are suffering. This ceremony is typically held inside the main hall or the Myeongbu-jeon Hall in front of a Gamno-do painting. Typically, the ceremony involves chanting and the performing of Buddhist instruments like a drum, hand bell or cymbals, so as to comfort the Agwi.

So the next time you’re at a Korean temple or hermitage, have a look around to see if you can spot a suffering Agwi. They’re pretty easy to spot in a painting, but it can be very hard to find a painting that depicts them.

Revolving Scriptures Library Pillar – Yunjangdae (윤장대)


 Inside the Daejang-jeon Hall at Yongmunsa Temple. The Yunjangdae is to the left with the oldest main altar relief to the right.

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The Yunjangdae is one of the rarer things to see, or even find, at a temple or hermitage in Korea. So what exactly is its purpose? And what does it look like? In English, the Yunjangdae (윤장대) is known as the Revolving Scriptures Library Pillar. The Yunjandae is colourfully painted. It’s rooted into the ground with a rotating base. It can also be fastened to the ceiling with a spindle pole, as well. The design goes from slim to large from the base of the library pillar to the top. In the body of the Yunjangdae are multiple florally designed doors. And at the top of the Yunjangdae rests a colourful red canopy. In addition to all this, the Yunjangdae can also be adorned with dragons, Nathwi, or flowers.


 A closer look at perhaps the oldest Yunjangdae in all of Korea at Yongmunsa Temple.

So what exactly is the purpose behind the Yunjangdae? Well, the Yunjangdae is a spinning bookcase used in Buddhist ceremonies. It enshrines Buddhist scriptures and sutras inside. It’s believed by Buddhists that if you turn the Yunjangdae while attempting to gain positive karma that you’ll attain it without having to study all the Buddhist sutras. The reason you won’t have to read all the Buddhist texts is that by spinning the Yunjangdae, it’s like you’ve read through all of the sutras. This idea is similar to many Vajrayana (Tantric or Esoteric) Buddhist practices such as the prayer wheels in Tibet and Mongolian Buddhist beliefs.

Picture 407

 The colourful Yunjangdae at Gapsa Temple.

There are a couple great examples of the Yunjangdae. One such example can be found in the Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Gapsa Temple in Gonju, Chungcheongnam-do. Another, and perhaps the oldest in Korea, is the Yunjangdae found at Yongmunsa Temple in Yecheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do, which dates back to 1173 A.D.

The Founder’s Hall – Josa-jeon (조사전)


A look across at the Josa-jeon Hall at Samyeongam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple.

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This is yet another article on little known or seen things you might encounter at a Korean Buddhist temple. This time, I thought I would explain the Josa-jeon Hall at a temple. While you might have seen this hall before, it may not be all that clear as to what purpose it serves. So what exactly is this halls purpose and what does it look like? In English, the “Josa” means “patriarch” or “founder; while “jeon” means hall. So the best name, at least in English, for the Josa-jeon Hall is “The Founder’s Hall.”


The understated Josa-jeon Hall at Daeheungsa Temple.

The Josa-jeon Hall is smaller in size. It’s usually to the side of a temple complex. The exterior walls are either plainly painted or they have the Ox-Herding murals, the Shimu-do murals, adorning it. As for the interior, the hall enshrines formal portraits of that temple or the Buddhist school that the specific temple may focus on. It can also house portraits of great monks that either lived or taught at the temple, including major disciples. More specifically, it can also house monks who led in the reconstruction of the temple or in its revival. Typically, older temples have larger sized Josa-jeon Halls filled with these portraits. And they are far more prevalent at Seon school temples because this type of Korean Buddhism focuses on lineage.


Portraits of prominent monks at Miraesa Temple.

A lot of the hall’s meaning is wrapped around its name. But a lot of meaning can also be discovered in the portraits themselves. The portraits are usually paintings that are highly formal and created after the monk in the mural has died. The portraits can also be copies of copies, repainted through the centuries as a result of decay. In the portrait, the monk is dressed in full “gasa” (the monastic robe). They are usually seated on a wooden chair and holding a ritual instrument like a “bulja” (fly whisk), which denotes their office. Additionally, they can also be holding a “yeomju” (Buddhist rosary beads). In some modern portraits, photographs of the deceased monks may be used instead of a mural. And in some rare situations, a statue might be used instead of a painting or a picture.


The wall-to-wall murals found inside the Josa-jeon at Baegyangsa Temple.

Throughout the year, various ceremonies are performed at the Josa-jeon Hall. Brief chanting ceremonies are performed daily at the hall to show respect and veneration for past monks and masters. Larger ceremonies are held every year on days that are dedicated to a specific master, such as the day that they passed or the day they gained enlightenment. The reason that these ceremonies take place is so members of the seungga (Buddhist community) can show respect to former teachers from the temple.


The view of the Josa-jeon Hall at Miraesa Temple from a distance.

Some great examples of this type of hall can be found at Daeheungsa Temple, Miraesa Temple in Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Baekyangsa Temple, Seonunsa Temple, Samyeongam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple, and Seonamsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do.

Large Buddhist Banner Painting – Gwaebul (괘불)


 The large-sized Gwaebul painting at Tongdosa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.

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In yet another article on little seen or known items at a Korean temple or hermitage, I thought I would talk about the Gwaebul painting just in time for Buddha’s birthday.

The largest paintings in Korea are known as Gwaebul (괘불), which means “Large Buddhist Banner Painting,” in English. These paintings are extremely hard to find throughout Korea because they are usually only put on display once a year. So what do they look like and what is the meaning behind them?


 People bowing to the Gwaebul painting at Tongdosa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.

Throughout Korea, there are nearly one hundred known ancient Gwaebul. Most of these paintings were produced between the early 17th century and the late 19th century. The Gwaebul painting can sometimes be as large as 15 metres tall and 10 metres in width. The reason they can be so large is that they were created for outdoor usage in front of hundreds, or even thousands, of people. The painting is hung from tall poles in an outdoor ceremony on a special occasion. Most commonly, you can see them during Buddha’s birthday or the Vulture Peak Ceremony (Yeongsanje) in a temple’s main courtyard. Traditionally, the Gwaebul was only shown once every year. And at some temples, they were only ever put on display every ten years. When the Gwaebul isn’t being used for special ceremonies, they are rolled up and stored inside a temple hall. Most often, they are hidden somewhere in the main hall; and usually, under the main altar.


 A closer look at the face of Seokgamoni-bul front and centre on the Gwaebul painting.

Because the Gwaebul painting is so large, it’s filled with a lot of intricate details. Typically, a large Buddha is the dominating central figure in the painting. He is then surrounded by Bodhisattvas, Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha), and various guardians. They are often depicted in a scene from an important sutra. The central figure can either be Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise), or even Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) in some special cases. The earliest Gwaebul paintings often depict the Assembly on Vulture Peak, as they were meant to represent the Buddha in a contemporary world. In this painting, he is preaching the Lotus Sutra.


 The massive Gwaebul painting at Geumdangsa Temple.

Specifically, the Gwaebul at Geumdangsa Temple in Jinan, Jeollabuk-do, which dates back to 1682, was said to help end droughts. Legend states of this painting that villagers performed rituals in front of the Gwaebul and rain fell, which successfully ended a long standing drought in the region.

Great examples of the Gwaebul painting can be found at Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do, and the Gwaebul at Ansimsa Temple in Cheongwon, Chungcheongbuk-do that is National Treasure #297 and dates back to 1652.


 A closer look at the face of Gwanseeum-bosal on the Gwaebul painting at Geumdangsa Temple.

Korean Buddhist Temple Fish-Shaped Wind Chimes


A fine example of a fish-shaped wind chime from Gakwonsa Temple.

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One of the most beautiful decorative devices adorning a Korean Buddhist Temple are the melodious wind chimes that hang from the eave’s of shrine halls. And while these bronze wind chimes are absolutely beautiful, like everything at a Korean Buddhist temple, they have a special meaning. So what do they look like? And why do they adorn Korean Buddhist temple halls.


With a clear blue sky overhead, the fish-shaped wind chime blows in the breeze at Pyochungsa Temple.

When you first approach a temple, especially on a windy day, you’ll be able to hear a slight ringing in the air. And if you look up at the eaves of temple shrine halls, you’ll see the source of this beautiful music. Uniquely, a bronze fish clapper is attached to the bell.

So why exactly is the wind chime shaped like a fish? First, the wind that passes through the chime is likened to the condition of complete freedom from obstruction, which is highly symbolic of the goal for all Buddhists. Secondly, a fish’s eyes always remain open when asleep or awake. Similarly, the chimes ring day or night without end and without ever getting tired. This act is a symbolic reminder to monks to always remain diligent and alert on their path inside the Dharma. A third and final reason is that when the bell sounds it dispells evil spirits. As a side note, that’s why a lot of houses have these fish wind chimes near the entrance of their homes.


An up-close look at a fish-shaped wind chime from Jajangam Hermitage.


With an overcast sky overhead, the fish-shaped wind chime never rests at Beomeosa Temple.

Much like all artwork that adorns Korean Buddhist temple halls, the fish-shaped wind chime has so much more symbolic meaning than simply looking and sounding beautiful. So the next time you hear a ringing in your ear at a temple, you’ll know that this sound is a reminder to the faithful to remain ever diligent in their belief and the vanquishing of evil spirits.


Nearly a hundred fish-shaped wind chimes adorn the gorgeous granite pagoda at Samgwangsa Temple.

The Eight Scenes from the Life of the Buddha: Palsang-do

Picture 044A look inside the Palsang-jeon Hall at Beomeosa Temple in Busan. You can see two of the eight paintings flanking the statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).

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Paintings of The Eight Scenes of the Life of Buddha (or Palsang-do in Korean), can be found either on the exterior walls of a temple’s main hall, or on the interior of the Palsang-jeon (Eight Pictures Hall, in English) like at Beopjusa Temple or Beomeosa Temple. These paintings range in their complexity and sophistication, but something that they all have in common is that they depict the same eight scenes, and they all have Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) as their central figure.

Picture 149Just two of the paintings from inside the Palsang-jeon pagoda at Beopjusa Temple. The pagoda is the oldest wooden pagoda in all of Korea, and it houses the Palsang-do paintings.

Originally, the Palsang-do paintings were first created over 2,000 years ago. And since Siddhartha Gautama first attained enlightenment and became Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), there has been a continual interest in him. These paintings were first created to satisfy people’s interest in the Buddha.

In total, there are eight paintings in the set, as the name of the paintings indicates. They span the entire lifetime of the Buddha from conception to death. The eight states are: 1. The Announcement of the Imminent Birth, 2. Birth, 3. The World Outside the Palace, 4. Renunciation, 5. Asceticism, 6. Temptations, 7. Enlightenment, 8. Death.

Here is a bit more information about what each painting looks like and correspondingly represents.

1. The Announcement of the Imminent Birth:

The white elephant is a sacred sign of good luck in India, where the Buddha was born. In this painting a white elephant appeared to Queen Maya in a dream. The white elephant entered through her right ribs and entered Maya’s womb. The significance of the white elephant is that it was a symbol that the Queen would conceive a child who was both pure and powerful. A Brahmin was consulted to interpret the significance of the dream. The Brahmin said, “A great son will be born. If he renounces the world and embraces a religious life, he will attain perfect enlightenment and become the saviour of this world.”

In this painting, Maya is usually sleeping and a white elephant appears in a cloud.

1. GaramsaThe first picture in the series, “The Announcement of the Imminent Birth.” This painting is from a small temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do called Garamsa Temple. The series of Palsang-do paintings at this temple are some of the best in all of Korea. In this painting Queen Maya is asleep and dreaming. But what is she dreaming about?

1b. Garamsa
A white elephant of course. This painting is also from Garamsa Temple.

2. Birth:

The Buddha was born as a royal prince in 624 B.C.E. in a place called Lumbini (which was originally in northern India, but now lies in present day Nepal). He emerged from the right side of his mother both well developed and fully clothed. And he began walking immediately after his birth. Unfortunately, only seven days after Siddhartha’s birth, Maya, his mother, would die. However, Siddhartha Gautama lived a very happy and comfortable early life.

In some paintings, Maya is depicted as holding a fig branch. Also, in the royal palace scene, there are nine dragons washing the baby with earthly attendants.

2. GuryongsaThe psychodelic second painting, “Birth,” at Guryongsa Temple in the Buk-gu area of  Busan. I have never seen anything like this painting in all of Korea.

3. The World Outside the Palace:

As Siddhartha Gautama grew older, he started to go outside the palace compound, and into the capital city, to see his father’s kingdom. Before this, Siddhartha didn’t know anything about suffering, sickness, or death; and in fact, his father sheltered him from it. It was during these capital city travels that he first saw sickness, old age, and death. As a result of seeing these different aspects of life, it left a deep impression on him. He realized that all living beings must experience suffering. He felt a deep compassion for others, and he wanted to find a way to free people from their suffering. This is why Siddhartha Gautama decided to leave his wife, child, and royal life behind for solitude and meditative insights about the human condition.

In simpler renditions of the painting, there is a single emaciated body that Siddhartha observes. In more complex paintings, you see the palace to the right and the suffering of the everyday people on the left.

3.GwaneumsaThe third picture in the set, “The World Outside the Palace,” is from the little Gwaneumsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

4. Renunciation:

In the fourth painting, Siddhartha Gautama’s father learns about Siddhartha’s intention of leaving the royal palace. So the king placed extra guards around the palace gates, as well as extra security around the palace. However, with the help from the Four Heavenly Guardian Kings (yes, those very same guards inside the second temple gate), Siddhartha Gautama was lifted over the palace walls on top of his white horse, Kanthaka.

In this painting, a white horse is painted, with his master on top, in flight over the palace walls. Sometimes, the assisting guardians will be painted, as is his faithful servant, Chandaka, who is hanging onto the white horse’s tail.

4. Haeinsa

The fourth painting, “Renunciation”, from the historic Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do.

5. Ascetism:

For six years Siddhartha Gautama studied and meditated to find the “truth.” As was customary for ascetics of his time, Siddhartha also punished his body by not taking care of his body’s needs such as eating enough food. In fact, he came very close to dying. Finally, he realized that this type of lifestyle wasn’t leading him towards enlightenment. He started to live a life of moderation, and to take better care of his body so that he could more successfully pursue enlightenment.

In this painting, the degrees of Siddhartha Gautama’s starvation are vast. He is usually bone thin and meditating under the shade of a tree.

5. Unmunsa

The wintry fifth picture in the set, “Asceticism,” from Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

6. Temptation:

The demon Mara didn’t want Siddhartha Gautama to attain enlightenment because it would free people from their suffering. In order to break Siddhartha’s meditation, Mara sent forth his three daughters: Tanha (desire), Raga (lust), and Arati (aversion). When this didn’t work, Mara sent forth an entire army of demons. When this too didn’t work, Mara threatened Siddhartha Gautama with a sword and screamed, “Monk, what are you seeking while seated so low? Come out quickly! You are useless while sitting in that holy posture!” With the earth deity as his witness, Siddhartha answered, “I alone, below the heavens, can sit in this posture. Earth Spirit, you are my witness.” And with this said, Siddhartha changed his pose to the mudra (hand gesture) of opening his right hand and pointing his right index finger to the earth, while his left hand remained on his lap. This mudra is called “The Gesture of Touching the Earth.” Having defeated all temptations, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment.

In this sixth painting, three voluptuous women dance around Siddhartha as he attempts to attain enlightenment. In their hands, the three beautiful women hold mirrors. If you look close enough in these mirrors, you can see that they actually have demonic faces.

6. AnyangamThe sixth picture, “Temptation,” from Anyangam Hermitage, near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. If you look close enough at the mirror the Buddha is holding you can see the sisters demonic faces in it.

7. Enlightenment:

After attaining enlightenment at the age of 35, Siddhartha Gautama became Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And for the next 45 years the Buddha would teach anyone and everyone that would listen to how enlightenment could be achieved.

In this seventh painting, Seokgamoni-bul has a halo around his head. Furthermore, he has his disciples at his feet, as he preaches to them in Deer Park. And amongst his disciples there is usually an assortment of wandering deer. In more complex paintings, besides the disciples, there are also both celestial and worldly beings and structures.

Picture 286

The seventh picture from the Palsang-do set, “Enlightenment,” from Donghaksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do. Uniquely, these paintings have English explanations written under them.

8. Death:
Finally, at the age of 80, Seokgamoni-bul died between two Sala trees. As the Buddha lay down and died on his right side, a collection of earthly and celestial creatures gathered around his bier, such as dragons, tigers, and turtles, as well as his grieving disciples.

8. SeoknamsaThe eighth and final picture in the series, “Death,” is from Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeongsangnam-do. You can see the Buddha’s disciples around him, as well as a turtle to the left, and a dragon, white elephant, and tiger to his right.

Whether the Paintings of the Eight Scenes of the Life of Buddha (Palsang-do) are highly skilled or simplistic in their design, they tell a wonderful story about a life and a man who has inspired countless amount of people for two and a half millenniums: Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And whether you believe in Buddhism or not, these beautiful pieces of artwork are worth a first, or even a second, glance the next time you’re roaming around a temple’s main hall.