The Guardian Mural – Shinjung Taenghwa (신중 탱화)


The elaborate Shinjung Taenghwa at Naejangsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

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.