Sinbulsa Temple – 신불사 (Ulju-gun, Ulsan)

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The extremely rare image of Samshin Halmoni at Sinbulsa Temple in Ulsan.

Hello Again Everyone!!

After being told about this place from a friend, and seeing a couple pictures, I couldn’t help but visit Sinbulsa Temple (신불사) on the southwestern part of Ulsan. I’m not too sure how the friend found it, because it doesn’t show up on any map on the trusty GPS in my car, but Sinbulsa Temple was well worth the treasure hunt to find for a couple of unique features that it houses.

When you first arrive at the temple, after wandering around the outskirts of the Samsung factory, you’ll first see a stone sign that reads “신불사.” Down the elbowed road, the road splits to the right and the left. To the right is the temple compound and to the left are a row of buildings (more on that later).

Straight ahead, on the right road, is a newly built bell pavilion that houses a really large sized bell, especially for how small the temple is. Adorning the bell are beautifully large Biseon and Korean poetic writing. Walking past the bell pavilion, you’ll be greeted by the main hall to the left, and straight ahead is the monks’ dorm.

The exterior walls of the main hall are rather plain in their decoration. The four paintings that adorn the exterior walls seem rather childish in composition. However, inside the main hall, the hall is both colourful and beautiful. Sitting on the main altar is a set of six Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In the centre of the set is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). To the Buddha’s immediate right and left are statues of Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). And next to these statues are statues of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light). And next to Amita-bul is Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power and Wisdom of Amita-bul). Left of this set of altar statues is a statue of a traditional looking Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). And next to this statue is an even more unique statue of Jijang-bosal: this time, he’s seated on an elephant and backed by individual paintings of the 10 Kings of the Underworld. On the far right wall is another statue of Gwanseeum-bosal, as well as a beautifully large guardian painting.

Just past the main hall is the monks’ dorm. And next to that is a shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang (The Dragon King). Inside this shrine hall is a seated golden statue of Yongwang with a beautiful mural behind him. This mural has Yongwang to the left and a blue dragon to the right. Just in front of the golden statue of Yongwang is an open pit where the mountain water flows, and to the immediate left are rows upon rows of green jade statues of Buddhas. Next to this shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang is an open outdoor shrine dedicated to Dokseong (The Recluse). Again, this shrine is large and golden, much like Yongwang, and the mural that backs this statue is beautifully rendered.

Across the creek, and over the bridge, is a courtyard with a statue of Gwanseeum-bosal in the centre of the grounds. There are two beautiful flanking stone lanterns and a tiny stone statue of Gwanseeum-bosal to the right of the courtyard. It’s rather plain and cluttered, but the design of the stone sculptures and statues are beautiful.

Now, heading back through the temple grounds, and back to where you first began, you should now head left where the road originally forked. This part of the temple, and this row of shrine hall buildings, is definitely the highlight of Sinbulsa Temple. To the right of the shrine halls is an interesting little display case that opens. Inside is a painting of Samshin Halmoni. She is extremely rare to find at a Korean Buddhist temple, as she’s almost exclusively used in Korean shamanism. Inside the first shrine hall is the Sanshin-gak with a nice statue and painting of San shin (The Mountain Spirit). Uniquely, there’s a large stone boulder from the neighbouring mountain inside the hall. To the left of the Sanshin-gak shrine hall is yet another highly unique painting of Samshin Halmoni with Dangsan Cheonwang. Inside the final shrine hall are some older looking paintings of guardians I am unfamiliar with.

HOW TO GET THERE: To say that this temple isn’t the easiest one to find in Korea is to put it mildly. First, you will have to take a bus to Yangsan. From the Yangsan Health Centre, near the Intercity Bus Terminal, you can take either local city bus 63 or 67. The bus ride until your destination is about one hour. You will then have to get off at the SDI (Samsung Development Institute) factory. Take the first left that heads towards the main entrance gate at the factory. The road will fork to the left just before you arrive at the entrance gate. Follow this road, as it twists and turns for a good two to three kilometres. But don’t worry, there is good signage leading you towards the temple the entire way. On your way, you’ll pass by a forested area, as well as a few factories to the rear of the SDI facility.

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OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10. While the temple buildings themselves and temple statues are rather unimpressive, it’s the statues and halls dedicated to the shaman deities that make this temple so special. So if you have the time and the energy it takes to find this temple, it’s well worth the effort.

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The entrance to Sinbulsa Temple.
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The view of the temple complex as you approach down the winding road.
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The view of the newly built bell pavilion as you head right towards the temple complex.
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A better look at the rather large bell at Sinbulsa Temple.
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A vibrant look up at the main hall at the temple.
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A look at the shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang, as well as the outdoor shrine dedicated to Dokseong.
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Inside is this golden statue of Yongwang with an elaborate painting of Yongawang, as well.
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A closer look at a golden Dokseong.
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A statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) from the courtyard at the temple.
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Inside the beautiful and colourful main hall.
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A beautiful rendering of the guardian painting to the right of the main altar.
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A statue of Gwanseeum-bosal to the right of the main altar.
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A unique statue of Jijang-bosal riding an elephant with all ten of the Kings of the Underworld behind him.
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And next to one Jijang-bosal, is another statue of a more traditional statue of Jijang-bosal.
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The buildings to the left of the main courtyard. Inside these halls are some extremely unique paintings.
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Like this one inside the first shrine hall.
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As well as this one.
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The entrance to one of the most unique shrine halls I’ve ever seen at a Korean temple. This one is dedicated to Dangsan Cheonwang and Sam shin Halmoni.
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A better look at the two holding hands.
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Another shrine hall is the Sanshin-gak shrine hall dedicated to the shaman Mountain Spirit.
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Accompanying San shin are these two paintings to the side of the altar.
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Yet another interesting part of this temple was this altar dedicated to Samshin Halmoni.
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A picture of the painting of Samshin Halmoni inside the altar.

Sanshin – The Mountain Spirit (산신)

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A gorgeous representation of San shin from Songnimsa Temple in Daegu.

Hello Again Everyone!!

One of the most popular and well represented shaman deities at a Korean Buddhist temple is San shin, the Mountain Spirit. This article only acts as a mere introduction to San shin, if you want a more thorough introduction about San shin please check out either David Mason’s “Spirit of the Mountains,” (unfortunately out of print) or his personal website: san-shin.org. With all that being said, I still hope you’ll continue to read this article.

Mountain worship is found all throughout the North Asian people, which includes China, Japan, and Korea. According to these North Asian people, the reason that the mountain is such a venerated object is that it symbolizes a centre axis of the world; the place where Heaven and earth are believed to be connected. And with Korea’s landscape being occupied by over 70% of mountains, it’s no wonder that Koreans have historically worshipped mountains.

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A look up at Chiseosan Mountain that towers above the famous Tongdosa Temple.

The way in which Koreans have historically (and currently) worship these mountains is through the shaman deity, San shin, which literally translates as “mountain spirit.” Historically, the townspeople prayed for good weather, bountiful crops, health, and good fortune. However, because each mountain in Korea is shaped differently, has different weather, flora, and fauna, this relationship has developed into a complex interaction between people and the mountain. San shin, and the mountain that it occupies, has long been known to be the main protector of neighbouring villages and towns. As a result, Korean kings and queens have funded elaborate ceremonies to San shin as symbols of legitimacy, as well as to gain favour. Interestingly, in Korean history, Tangun, the founder of the Korean nation, was thought to have been transformed into a San shin upon his “retirement.”

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A healthy and virile looking San shin from Beopjusa Temple.

It is from this shaman origin and belief system, and the absorption and acceptance of everything religiously indigenous, that San shin soon became an indispensible part of Korean Buddhism. While shamanism has used him for protection against the elements and good fortune, Korean Buddhists have employed him more personally for good health and vitality. In fact, Buddhist monks regularly perform ceremonies called “San shin-je,” which is a kind of recognition for allowing the temple to take up residence on the mountain (which a large percentage of Buddhist temples do in Korea).

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San shin in the company of three tigers. This is extremely rare and it’s at Dongrimsa Temple.

So what exactly does San shin look like? In Korea, there are literally thousands of different images of San shin; however, there are certain characteristics that all San shin possess. In general, San shin is depicted as a seated figure. He’s an old man with long flowing white hair and an equally flowing white beard. Yet, even though he’s old, he’s still strong and healthy. He’s situated in a pastoral setting that is perfect for meditation. He’s joined by a few attendants called “dongja.” The clothes that he wears are dependent on the Buddhist, Confucian, or Daoist ideals San shin is meant to convey; however, his clothing does denote a royal rank. Almost always, he possesses something in one or both of his hands like a fan or a walking stick which symbolize health, longevity, virility, scholastics, or spiritual attainment. One of the easiest ways to identify San shin is that he’s always accompanied by at least one tiger. The reason that the tiger is there is that it’s the king of the mountain animals and the enforcer of San shin. Occasionally, San shin will be joined by a female figure. Generally, this is believed to be another female San shin like at Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do.

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A male San shin with a female San shin from Magoksa Temple.

Historically, San shins were female, but with the Confucian influence during the Joseon Dynasty, San shin’s gender changed to be that of a male. Still, there are mountains in Korea like Jirisan and Cheonseongsan, where San shin is still depicted as predominantly female.

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A female San shin from Nojeonam Hermitage.

So where can you find San shin at a Korean temple? Generally, the most common places you can find San shin is in one of three places. First, and much like other Korean shaman deities, you can find San shin in the shaman laden “Shinjung Daenghwa” guardian paintings inside the main hall of a temple or hermitage. These indigenous shaman deities inside this painting are protectors of the Buddha’s teachings. Usually, you can find the painted figure of San shin to the centre/right of the central Dongjin-bosal (The Bodhisattva that Protects the Buddha’s Teachings) figure.

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The guardian painting from Banyaam Hermitage. Below, and to the left of Dongjin-bosal, and across from Yongwang (The Dragon King) is San shin at the centre of the painting.

The two other common places that you can find San shin are in halls, usually to the rear of the main hall. Sometimes, San shin will be housed in a hall all by himself. If this is the case, the shrine will be called a “San shin-gak.” The “gak,” instead of a “jeon” hall that houses various Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, is a word that denotes a slightly lower ranking hall at a Korean temple. The exterior and interior of this hall will be adorned with various San shin figures as well as a fiercely painted tiger mural.

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A uniquely painted white tiger from the exterior of the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Gyemyeongam Hermitage.

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A haloed San shin fading on the exterior walls of the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Unmunsa Temple.

The second hall that San shin may be occupying is in a Samseong-gak shrine hall, which literally translates as “The Three Sages Shrine.” Accompanying San shin are the two other shaman deities that form the shaman “Holy Trinity”; namely, Dokseong (The Recluse) and Chilseong (The Seven Stars). Inside this hall San shin is situated on the far left upon the altar, while Chilseong is usually in the centre and Dokseong is on the far right. Both the interior and the exterior of this hall have various murals of these three shaman deities. Also, and of note, these two halls that house San shin are just as elaborate in design and decoration as any other hall that takes up residence at a Korean Buddhist temple.

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The Samseong-gak shrine hall at Chukseoam Hermitage.

So the next time you’re looking for a little better health at a Korean temple, look for the white haired and bearded older looking gentleman or lady with shaman roots and a fierce looking tiger. San shin is pretty easy to find, because if there are no other shaman deities represented at a Korean Buddhist temple, you’re at least sure to find San shin.

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One of the better known San shin paintings from Tongdosa Temple.

The Recluse – Dokseong (독성)

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A look at Dokseong, the Recluse, the Korean shaman deity of long life and good fortune.

Hello Again Everyone!!

One of the more common shaman deities you’ll find around a Korean Buddhist temple is Dokseong, The Recluse. He is sometimes situated alone in a shrine hall, or he is together with Chilseong (The Seven Stars) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) to form the shaman “Holy Trinity.” So who exactly is this shaman deity, and why is he so prominently featured at Korean temples?

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A look at one of the most vibrant murals of Dokseong found at Songnimsa Temple.

There seems to be a consensus amongst scholars that Dokseong was a Nahan (a disciple of the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul). One suggestion along these lines is that Dokseong was one of Seokgamoni-bul’s four original disciples known as the “Pindola.” These Pindola were ordered by Seokgamoni-bul to remain on earth until the future appearance of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) as a form of punishment for carelessly performing miracles. As a result, Dokseong will be on earth for the next 5,679,997,989 years.

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A mural of Dokseong found at Beopjusa Temple.

However, while a fair amount is known about Dokseong’s Buddhist origins, very little else is known about this deity, like how he became such a prominent figure in both Buddhism and in shamanism. In Buddhism, he is one of three deities that is a permanent fixture at temples. And in shamanism, like Buddhism, he’s one of the most important objects of worship.

Uniquely, and unlike Yongwang, Chilseong, and Sanshin, it would seem as though Dokseong was absorbed by the indigenous Korean shamanism, and not vice versa, as is the case with the three other shaman deities.

Alongside Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong is also considered a Heavenly deity. Heavenly deities are known to give long life and general good fortune if you pray to them.

So what does this better known shaman deity look like? Since Dokseong has Buddhist origins, he appears with a shaved head. Additionally, he wears monk clothing, and he sometimes appears with a halo around his head. Also, he will have a larger shaped head. In a painting, Dokseong will appear with a mountain at his back.

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You can see the halo and monk clothing on this Dokseong wood etching that’s found at Okryeonam Hermitage.

Dokseong almost always appears in the Samseong-gak (The Three Stars Hall) shrine hall alongside Chilseong (The Seven Stars) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) to form the shamanistic “Holy Trinity.” Customarily, the statue and mural depicting Dokseong will be situated on the far right of the altar with Chilseong taking up the central spot on the altar with Sanshin on the far left. The Samseong-gak shrine hall is usually situated to the left rear of the main hall. The positioning of this hall behind the main hall highlights its importance in modern day Korean Buddhism.

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A look at a Samseong-gak shrine hall that’s to be found at Dongrimsa Temple.

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A look inside the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Samyeongam Hermitage. You can see the Chilseong mural in the centre with Sanshin to the left and Dokseong to the right.

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The Samseong-gak shrine hall at Geumjeongam Hermitage. You can see the Korean writing that says 삼성각 above the entrance to the hall.

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And a look inside the hall at Geumjeongam Hermitage, and to the right, at Dokseong.

Occasionally, Dokseong will be housed in his own shrine hall, but this is the exception more than it is the rule like at Cheontaesa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. And just as rarely, Dokseong will appear alongside Chilseong if a temple has a hall solely dedicated to Sanshin.

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The shrine hall dedicated solely to Dokseong at Cheontaesa Temple.

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And a look inside the shrine hall at Cheontaesa Temple, where Dokseong sits all alone upon the altar.

Finally, Dokseong, The Recluse, can appear inside the main hall at a temple. Like Yongwang, Chilseong, and Sanshin, Dokseong appears in the popular “Shinjung Daenghwa” painting. This painting is known as the most Korean of Buddhist paintings because it depicts a wide variety of Korean shaman deities that protect the Dharma.

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A look at one of the more impressive Shinjung Daenghwa murals at Dongrimsa Temple. You can see Dokseong to the right and below the winged Dongjin-bosal (The Bodhisattva that Protects the Buddha’s Teachings).

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A better look at Dokseong.

So the next time you’re at a temple, and you enter into the shrine hall to the rear of the main hall, you’ll be able to see Dokseong, The Recluse, and know exactly what he looks like and why he’s there.

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A look at one of the larger and more beautiful paintings and statues of Dokseong, which can be found at Tongdosa Temple.

Yongwang – 용왕 (The Dragon King)

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A statue of Yongwang, the Dragon King, at Cheonbulsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

When you visit a Korean temple, you can see a wide array of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on display in various shrine halls spread throughout the temple grounds. You can also see various deities with shaman origins, like Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Recluse), and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) either housed in a shrine hall collectively or individually. Another of the deities with shaman origins that you can spot is Yongwang, the Dragon King. So who is he, and why is he at a Korean Buddhist temple?

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An outdoor shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang at Cheontaesa Temple.

The idea of Yongwang, the Dragon King, comes from the long held belief that there is a world beneath the sea. And in this world, Yongwang rules over it in his Dragon Palace. Interestingly, there’s a Sanskrit equivalent to Yongwang in ancient India, and this ancient god goes by the name Magaraj. These two deities have similar characteristics and traits.

Yongwang is an indispensable deity to Korean shamanism. Alongside Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, Yongwang is one of the Earthly deities. These Earthly deities are responsible for procuring descendants, national security, health, and rain.

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A look at Yongwang over a pool of water, which is symbolic of his Buddhist meaning.

And with the absorption of shamanism into Buddhism through the centuries in Korea, not only did Yongwang occupy a place of importance in the Buddhist pantheon, but his meaning was re-interpreted and re-defined. As a Buddhist deity, Yongwang is in charge of the rain, water, and he also controls storms. He’s also thought to protect the Dharma, as well.

So what exactly does this lesser known shaman/Buddhist deity look like? While not as prominently represented as the famous triad of Korean shaman deities (Chilseong, Dokseong, and Sanshin), Yongwang has unique features that allow him to stand-out. For one, he’s usually depicted as a regal figure with fierce looking eyes. He’s older in age with bushy white eyebrows, beard, and a moustache. Furthermore, he’s dressed in a royal robe with a crown on top of his head; and sometimes, he’s seated in a throne.

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The bushy browed and white haired Yongwang from Donghaksa Temple.

Another way that you can identify Yongwang, the Dragon King, is that he’s always in the presence of a dragon or dragons. Sometimes he’s situated next to them, and sometimes he’s riding one of them. If he’s riding one of them, this act symbolizes his dominance over them.

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One of the accompanying dragons behind Yongwang at Cheonbulsa Temple.

Sometimes, but rarely, you can also identify Yongwang with an unknown female figure. She too is depicted in traditional Korean clothes, with a small crown, riding (or alongside) a dragon. This figure can also be a Buddhist figure dressed in Chinese-Indian style clothing, and she is veiled. Whether it’s one female figure or another, it’s unknown whether she’s the queen of Yongwang or the Dragon King’s consort.

You can usually find Yongwang in one of two locations in a Korean Buddhist temple. One is in, or around, a shrine hall; while another is in paintings.

In the main hall, you can usually spot a painting with numerous figures in it. In Korea, this popular painting is known as the “Shinjung Daenghwa,” which roughly translates into English as the Guardian Painting. This painting depicts a variety of shaman deities that are believed to protect the Dharma. Alongside Yongwang in this painting is the centrally located, and sometimes multi-armed and faced, Dae Yejeok Geumgangshin. Below him is Dongjin-bosal, who is the wing helmeted Bodhisattva that protects the Buddha’s teachings from enemies. Surrounding these three can be  Sanshin, various spirit generals, and Cheseok Cheonwang and Daebeom Cheonwang at the top of the painting. In total, there can be either 24, 39, or 104 deities in this painting. The “Shinjung Daenghwa” painting is known as the most Korean of the Buddhist paintings at a temple because it depicts indigenous shaman deities that were common in Korea before the introduction of Buddhism to the Korean peninsula.

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Just below Dongjin-bosal (the one with the winged helmet) to the right is Yongwang from Banyaam Hermitage.

Another place you can find Yongwang, the Dragon King, is in a “gak,” or shrine hall, amongst the buildings at a Korean temple. He is usually housed with the other shaman deities (Chilseong, Dokseong, and Sanshin) inside the temple grounds to the rear of the main hall. However, he can also be found in a shrine hall called a “Yongwang-dang” next to the water supply at a temple or hermitage. Having him situated next to the water supply harkens back to his shamanistic origins of health, as well as the Buddhist symbol of water.

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 The shrine hall solely for the purpose of housing Yongwang at Baekunam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple.

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The open shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang at Cheontaesa Temple.

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And just outside the Yongwang shrine hall at Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, keep your eyes open for this lesser known, and lesser seen, Buddhist deity with shaman origins. You can find this bushy browed, regal looking figure almost anywhere, either in paintings or in shrine halls, all around the temple grounds.

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And finally, a look inside the shrine hall at Baekunam Hermitage with a pool of water under a plate of glass that’s overlooked by a statue of Yongwang.