Myeongbu-jeon: The Judgment Hall

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The amazingly elaborate altar inside the Judgment Hall at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

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At every major Korean temple there is a set of buildings that usually exist. One of these buildings is the Judgment Hall (Myeongbu-jeon, in Korean). The Judgment Hall is one of the more unique looking buildings at a temple because of its gruesome depictions of hell, the uplifting paintings of salvation, the ominous judges, and the serenely redemptive Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).

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The Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. It’s one of the most intricately decorated, both inside and out, in all of Korea.

The purpose of this hall, like in most other East Asian cultures, is for when someone dies. The family of the deceased holds memorial services, over forty-nine days, at seven day intervals. The purpose of this ceremony is for the family to help guide the spirit of the dead to the Buddhist Pure Land.

The word Bodhisattva is comprised of two words in Sanskrit. “Bodhi” means enlightenment, while “sattva” means sentient and conscious. So the word put together means an enlightened sentient being with consciousness. And in Korea the word Bodhisattva gets shortened to “bosal,” but in either language it contains the exact same meaning.

And it’s to this that the central figure, Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), is immersed in the Korean Buddhist tradition. Jijang-bosal is committed to remain on earth until no more people suffer in hell. In fact, Jijang-bosal was authorized by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) to enlighten all sentient beings by delivering them from the suffering caused during the vast time between the passing of Seokgamoni-bul and Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). Jijang-bosal will help alleviate the suffering of others even if this means he has to enter into the depths of hell.

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Jijang-bosal is the central altar piece inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall with shortly croped green hair at Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do. Unaccustomly, he has neither his staff or pearl in hand.

Jijang-bosal is perhaps one of the easier manifestations of a Buddha or Bodhisattva to identify. He is either depicted with short croped black or green hair. In his right hand he holds a monk staff (or sistrum) with six rings at the top of the staff. This monk’s staff is used for opening the doors of hell. And in his right hand he holds a pearl (or “wish-fulfilling gem”). This pearl does one of two things: it can either light up the darkness of hell, or it can grant the wishes of selfless individuals. On the altar, accompanying Jijang-bosal, can be one of two pairings. The two more common ones are Dokmyang-jonja and Mudok Kweiwang, who are the two guardians of hell. The other pairing can be Yama Daewang (the overlord of the judges of hell) and Jijang’s mother who he offered to take to the lowest depths of hell with him.

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Jijang-bosal is accompanied by his mother inside the Myeongbu-jeon at Songnimsa Temple in Daegu. Uniquely, a golden Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Mercy) sits in the centre of the altar instead of Jijang-bosal, who is to the left.

Flanking these three central altar pieces are the Ten Judges (Shiwang). These judges are usually in statue form and can be seated or standing. Five judges are usually on either side of the altar, respectively. And in more elaborate Judgment Halls, these judges can be accompanied by their servants or Biseon. These Ten Judges determine the fate of the dead according to the deeds they committed in their earthly lives. Behind each of the ten judges can be a painting of the territory each judge governs. These paintings can be extremely elaborate. The altar itself is usually decorated with beautiful floral patterns, while the canopy usually protrudes out from the hall walls slightly. Behind Jijang-bosal is usually a painting depicting him and the Ten Judges with any number of assisting individuals.

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 Five of the Ten Judges to the left of Jijang-bosal at the Myeongbu-jeon at Unmunsa Temple.

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The other five Judges to the right of Jijang-bosal at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan.

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Just one of the amazing paintings that stands over the heads of the Ten Judges in the Judgment Hall at Sinheungsa Temple.

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The yet to be painted main altar inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Haegwangsa Temple in Busan. However, you can still see the intricate beauty of this altar.

An interesting figure in the hall, other than Jijang-bosal, is Yama Daewang. Yama Daewang is the most powerful of the ten judges and he’s their overlord. He is a deity borrowed from Hinduism. In Hinduism, he is the Lord of Death. Various Hindu writings describe him as splendid, while others describe him as ugly and deformed. However, he is usually depicted as holding up a mirror to show us our reflection when the time for death comes. Some people believe Jijang-bosal to be an incarnation of Yama Daewang. Still others believe this to be false, as Jijang-bosal is committed to saving people and not judging them like Yama Daewang.

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A painting of Yama Daewang holding up a mirror to the judged from Unmunsa Temple.

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An up-close look at the mirror held up to the person being judged. In this picture, from Yongjusa Temple, the man is guilty of murder.

The exterior of the hall is just as elaborate and ornate as the interior of the Judgment Hall. As always, there’s a wooden name tablet written in Chinese characters above the main entrance to the hall. And architecturally the hall is minimally designed and understated. However, what makes this hall stand-out is the gruesome and grotesque paintings of people being judged and punished in hell. These paintings are amongst the finest on all of the temple grounds, so look for them!

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 One of the more graphic illustrations of hell from Songnimsa Temple in Daegu.

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And another from Songnimsa Temple. This temple has, perhaps, the greatest depictions of hell on a Myeongbu-jeon hall in all of Korea.

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One of the cruel and grotesque paintings that adorns the exterior walls of the Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Yongjusa Temple.

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And another example from Yongjusa Temple of perhaps some of the best paintings found on any Judgment Hall in all of Korea.

One of the best examples of the Myeongbu-jeon (Judgment Hall) is at Songnimsa Temple in Daegu. In fact, this temple may be the best Judgment Hall in all of Korea with its finely painted illustrations of retribution and suffering. Another great example of this hall is at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. The interior has several unique paintings of the ten territorial realms, as well as a beautifully rendered painting of Jijang-bosal lauding mercy down in the deepest depths of hell. This painting is directly above the statue of Jijang-bosal on the altar. Yet another beautiful Judgment Hall can be seen at Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do. The beautifully canopied altar is matched by the grotesquely painted depictions of hell along the exterior walls of the hall. And lastly, the two storied hall, with the Myeongbu-jeon Hall on the lower level at Yongjusa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do has equally amazing judgment paintings found at Songnimsa Temple. The paintings are realisticially and grotesquely rendered.

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Another graphically grotesque painting of hell from Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan.

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A painting of Jijang-bosal saving the soul of someone in hell. This painting can be found at the famous Songgwangsa Temple.

So the next time you’re at a Korean temple, keep your eyes open for this unique hall. But at the same time, be respectful if there’s a ceremony taking place for the dead. This hall is almost always decorated with paintings of hell as a reminder to the living to watch what they are doing. It truly is one of the most original and unique halls at a Korean temple.