Korea's Religious Places - 1.1 Characteristics: A Who's Who at a Buddhist Temple
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
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|1. Buddhism||1) Characteristics: A Who's Who at a Buddhist Temple||* Bulguksa Temple (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)|
Major Buddhist temples have multiple buildings, each dedicated to a specific Buddhist image. A larger temple complex will typically have a building for most, if not all, of the following: Shakyamuni (Seokgamoni), Amitabha (Amita), Vairocana (Birojana), Maitreya (Mireuk), Avalokiteshvara (Gwanseeum), and the mountain god (sansin, as san means mountain and sin means god). Sometimes there are halls dedicated to other Buddhist figures. At the entrance to the temple complex there is often a building that is also a gate that houses the Four Heavenly Kings, but they are in reality guardians of the four directions. There is also a structure, with only a roof but open on the sides, that houses the four percussion instruments that are rung or struck at dawn and at sunset, and in some places at midday.
These are the main features at most temple complexes. Let us examine each in a generic sense and propose a kind of template that will contain much of what is found at a Buddhist temple, and then when we look at the major Buddhist temples, we can plug each element of the temple into this template.
The hall dedicated to Shakyamuni is the main hall at most temples, although some temples will feature Amitabha or Vairocana as the figure in the main hall, and a few will have Maitreya. If the hall is dedicated to Shakyamuni, the hall is titled the “hall of the great hero” (daeungjeon). Sometimes there are three figures in the main hall, and sometimes there are five or seven. At times, the three major Buddhas will be flanked by two or four bodhisattvas.
If there is a hall for Amitabha, the hall will be titled the “hall of extreme bliss” (geungnakjeon). The hall for Vairocana is often simply called the “hall of Vairocana” (birojeon).
A Buddha can often be identified by the particular mudra, or hand sign, that he uses. For example, Shakyamuni will often be depicted touching his knee with his fingers extended so that they almost touch the ground, to symbolize that he is calling on the earth to witness that he is the enlightened one—indeed, that is the meaning of Buddha. In Korea, Vairocana is usually seen holding his right hand cupped around the extended finger of the left hand, or with his right hand covering the row of knuckles of his left hand. This is called either the wisdom fist or the union of male and female principles.
Bodhisattvas are usually standing, whereas Buddha images are seated. Avalokiteshvara (Gwaneum or Gwanseeum), perhaps the most-seen bodhisattva, is usually depicted standing and wearing an elaborate crown, and is often depicted with multiple additional heads, miniature heads on the crown of his head. The bodhisattva is often shown in an eleven-faced form or a thousand-handed form. He also has necklaces and lacey robes. Because of the dress and jewelry, and also the idea that this bodhisattva is known for being merciful and good for answering prayers, many assume that she is a woman—“Goddess of Mercy,” she is often called. Historically, this Bodhisattva was Avalokiteshvara, a man. But through the process of becoming a bodhisattva, and taking on the mission of alleviating suffering and answering prayers, he has become female in popular Buddhism because compassion and mercy were conceptualized as female traits in Asia. In an ideal doctrinal sense, Buddhas and bodhisattvas are gender neutral or, rather, have transcended gender distinctions.
Every large-scale temple in Korea has a building that serves as a kind of gatehouse, containing the Four Heavenly Kings. In most cases, they are free-standing statues, often larger than life, in the ten-foot-tall range. They are not exactly the same from temple to temple. Each temple has its own artisans who carve the statues according to their own interpretations, but there are major features for each of the four guardians that signify who they are and which direction—north, south, east, west—they represent.
The north is the Heavenly King Vaisravana (Damun), “he who hears everything,” who holds a spear in one hand and a small pagoda in the other. He tends to have dark skin, either black or blue. The south is Heavenly King Virudhaka (Jeungjang), “he who causes growth,” who holds a sword and is light-skinned. The east is Heavenly King Dhritarashtra (Jiguk), “he who upholds the realm,” who holds a lute and is light-skinned. And the west is Heavenly King Virupaksa (Gwangmok), “he who sees everything,” who holds a dragon in one hand and a jewel in the other. He tends to be dark-skinned.
Each of these deities has a history that not only goes deep in Buddhism, but also has connections with Hinduism, both of which developed simultaneously from Vedic beliefs and traditions in early India. In Hinduism, for example, the deity of the north, Vaisravana, is associated with Kubera, who in an early incarnation as a mortal was a wealthy mill-owner who was known for his wealth, but also for his generosity to the poor.
Inside a temple complex, there is a roofed building without walls that houses the four percussion instruments: the drum, the gong, the wooden fish clapper, and the bell. These are rung twice a day in some temples—morning and evening—and three times a day in others, with a short performance before lunch. First is the drum. The monks take turns beating on the drum and each performer has a slightly different rhythm or nuance. The drum skin is from two cattle, one on each side of the drum; one from a cow and one from a bull, and each had to have died naturally. The drum is beaten to call all living beings of the land to worship the Buddha. The wooden fish has a hollowed-out inside where the monks rattle their wooden sticks. This is to call all the creatures of the waters to worship. Then, the monks beat on the gong; its high-pitched clang calls the creatures of the air to worship. With land, water, and air taken care of, what is the bell for? When the bell sounds its deep mellow tone, the tormentors in hell have to pause and give relief to those they are assigned to torment—the residents of hell who are serving terms of punishment prior to being reborn to see if they can get it right this time.
The historic Buddha of our epoch (the word in Sanskrit is kalpa, roughly an immeasurable period of time during which a high mountain is worn down into a flat plain) is Shakyamuni. As a young man, he was raised in a palace and led a pampered life. Leaving the palace one day he was surprised to see the things his parents were keeping from him—poverty, illness, old age, and death. The reality of his discovery bothered him and he wanted to understand the meaning of these things, but his protective parents barred him from leaving the palace. Miraculously, to leave the palace and begin his search for enlightenment, he flew over the palace walls on his horse, with his servant riding horseback as well.
Out in the world, he tried to discover the way through fasting and asceticism, but that didn’t work. Finally, while meditating under a peepal tree (the Bodhi tree or sacred fig), he achieved enlightenment, and understood the Four Noble Truths, to wit: life is suffering, suffering is caused by desires (or attachment), it is possible to overcome suffering, and it is done by following the Noble Eightfold Path. These four truths became the foundational doctrine of Buddhism.
On his way to enlightenment, the historical Buddha encountered temptations and subjugated the god of illusion, Mara. One of the stories of his overcoming temptation has to do with the temptations of the flesh. Mara’s daughters, three beautiful women, one with a flute, one with a lute, and one singing try to lure him to tarry with them, but he rejects their temptations, and then their beautiful faces fall off, and they are revealed as demons who had only been masquerading as the pleasures of the flesh.
The Buddha was transformed. This transformation is marked in paintings at many temples showing Shakyamuni, now with a halo and the serene look of one who has attained enlightenment. He begins his teaching and attracts disciples. There are many narratives of this phase of his life involving miracles and other manifestations that the Shakyamuni was really a Buddha. When he was cremated, jewels cascaded from the funeral bier, and thus started the tradition of sifting through the ashes of a monk after he dies and is cremated to find jewels.
Such jewels have a special name and devotional practice associated with them. They are called sari, or relics of the body of the Buddha, and are kept in a sariham—in Korean, a case for the relics. The case is then enclosed in a capsule that is enclosed in the base of a pagoda, or a small stone tower. This is the Korean practice. It has its roots in the stupa of India, often a mere earthen mound; sometimes the earthen mound is covered in stone. In China, pagodas can be very tall—multistoried towers often made of brick. In Japan, the archetypal pagoda is made of wood, again often a multi-storied, tall building. Korea has had tall pagodas made of wood, and there are some made of brick, or stone cut to look like the brick of China, but the archetypal pagoda is made of stone and is typically only ten to fifteen feet tall.
Indeed, there is a pagoda in the main courtyard, of the several courtyards, at a temple complex. The main courtyard is in front of the dharma hall (beopdang), of which there is only one at each temple. The dharma hall is the center of the worship at the temple; it is there that the community of resident monks at the temple will meet all together for worship twice a day—at the beginning of the day, before sunrise, and at the end of the day. All the monks meet in the dharma hall to chant and bow, sometimes performing the ritual of the 108 bows, one for each of the foolish things or sins of mankind.